A few Saturdays ago at Black Tree sandwich shop and bar, a guy asked the bartender to squeeze a lemon into his glass of local Sixpoint Brewery seasonal Apollo beer. She said she would be happy put a slice of lemon in the wheat beer if she had any, but Black Tree keeps things as local as possible—to within 300 miles of the Lower East Side storefront—and since the closest lemon tree is probably in Florida, the request couldn’t be honored. There isn’t a slice of citrus behind that bar.
While life does not give lemons to Black Tree owners Sandy Dee Hall and Macnair Sillick, living in cold-wintered New York does provide a bounty of local farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, brewers, and so many more food producers, which the pair works to their advantage, most notably by putting together some of the most inspired, inventive, and ingenious sandwiches to be had in New York City, and making killer cocktails with local booze, too.
The philosophy behind Black Tree harnesses the modern food zeitgeist: Keep it local and sustainable, while also making it beautiful, accessible, and most important, delicious. But there is also a haunting, ephemeral quality to the sandwiches at Black Tree—they are not long for this world, and every time you have one could be the last.
The menu changes with the seasons. People fall in love with a sandwich only to walk in one day and see that it’s gone, Sillick says. But the beauty is that it makes them try something new. Case in point: the Squash Blossom ($11), a play on a caprese with pan-fried slices of summer squash. With the transition from summer to fall, the sandwich metamorphosed into the Pumpkin Blossom. Chef Hall’s heirloom watermelon sandwich ($11), a revelatory combination of the summertime fruit and smoked ricotta, with fresh mint springs, balsamic vinegar, and fried, pickled watermelon rind, will also likely be gone by the time you read this.
Black Tree got its start as a pop-up run by a pair of friends who, having eaten their way through the best sandwiches in New York City, thought they could do better. The Crown Inn pub in Brooklyn rented them a sliver of counter space to work from. It was a success, and the guys were able to gather the funding and support to expand their concept into a permanent location in May of this year.
The storefront is appointed by upcycled, repurposed, and reclaimed materials. Drink glasses are made from wine bottles that have been cut down and sanded. The wood of the tabletops comes from a late 1930s bowling lane; the stained glass window is from an old Clinton Hill mansion.
Farm to table and nose to tail are mantras behind the food menu, but for drinks it’s more like borough to bar. Brooklyn distilleries and breweries are well represented, and expanding beyond the city limits stocks the bar with enough booze to send locavore drinkers into a state of euphoria. A deep selection of beer in large-format corked bottles includes unheard-of wonders like Voodoo Wynona’s Big Brown ($16, from Pennsylvania), plus special batches from familiar labels such as Dogfish Head (Maryland) and a host of New York brewers including Kuka and Ommegang.
Fig, a warming seasonal cocktail ($13), blends apple cider and sparkling wine with autumn spices and fig-infused vodka from Triple Eight distillery in Nantucket, while the Maple, with its apple brandy, cherry tree bitters, smoked maple syrup, and grappa from Van Brunt Stillhouse in Red Hook, is a classy craft cocktail with a kick.
A recent Sunday food special was Hall’s homage to fried chicken and waffles, which involved a golden slab of fried chicken drizzled in maple syrup and butter on top of a crisp hunk of ciabatta French toast ($14), which, thankfully, has the potential to stick around for a while. Come winter, Hall says to expect sandwiches featuring root vegetables, a lot of pickled and fermented goods, sausages and, perhaps, something based around a shepherd’s pie.
But like the seasons, even those are sure to change.