Most restaurant-owners don’t break into song midway through an interview, but then, most restaurants don’t have a guitar stashed in the corner. Most restaurants also lack an owner who’s played with most of the Wailers, or whose grandfather schooled the Skatelites in Ska before Ska was a thing. But Dekalb Restaurant (564 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-857-7097, dekalbrestaurant.com) is not most restaurants.
Opened in late January by a rag-tag team of artists, musicians, and long-established New York food people, Dekalb sits on the ground floor of an old linen factory/laundry on its namesake street, just off Bedford Avenue in Bed-Stuy. Co-owners Ras Levi and Stefan Fahrer, among many others, spent the last nine months painstakingly reassembling discarded bits of Gotham into a lush, beautiful space that warms as it welcomes you.
The parquet floors came from a 77th Street mansion; the dining room walls and ceiling, from Pilgrim mental hospital in Long Island; and the seats are upcycled pews from some unnamed church, still numbered with tarnished brass plaques. There are iron bars from nineteenth-century fire escapes and below-bar coat hooks from an old butcher shop.
And though each piece has its own story, it all came from Evan Blum, an old Fahrer family friend, who happens to run Demolition Depot (216 E 125th Street, 212-860-1138, demolitiondepot.com), a reclaimed materials warehouse uptown. When he walked into the space, Fahrer says, “I just thought, I want to do something [here]. I didn’t care — I was just going to take whatever was around me that could make sense and find a way to make it work, and just make it work.”
“That’s that spirit,” Levi says. “That’s like OK…This guy, we can do anything!” Laughter all around.
Stefan Fahrer grew up in the loose Manhattan of the 1980s and 1990s working parties for his dad’s catering company (which employed folks like Anthony Bourdain and catered parties for Danny Meyer and the Village Voice) so food is in his blood, though he dabbled in business administration, real estate, and software development before finding his way back to food service.
Last year, team Dekalb built out a garden in an adjacent empty lot and held farmer’s markets to meet the neighborhood: “We weren’t making money [off last summer’s markets],” says chef Alexander Skarlinski. “It was really about speaking to people and getting used to the farm, and it was a good way for me to know where to go.” This summer, they plan to continue that and add live music (Levi’s in charge of that), workshops and activities, and outdoor dining.
But what about the food, you ask? Read all about it on the next page.
At first glance, Skarlinski’s menu yields February’s usual snowy suspects: lots of root vegetables, hearty winter greens, and squash. But as you eat it — as I did, before I chatted with the team — dishes are surprising.
For starters, there’s a gorgeous salt-roasted beet salad ($7), crumbled with dry, hard-cooked egg that reads like Latin-American farmer cheese (I had no idea what I was eating; I had to ask and was shocked to learn it was egg), which Skarlinski later told me he thinks of as an omelette. Then, crispy fried brussels sprouts ($5) seem standard enough, but dip them in the toasted mushroom tarragon vin they share a plate with, and they’re not so normal after all.
Other dishes, like nutty parsnip gnocchi ($8), soft dumplings scattered with toasted seeds, taste both rich and healthful at once. This rich/healthy flavor also worked in a dish of parsnip and butternut squash ($5) fried into “tots” (as in tater) atop a pureed pear sauce.
As a fairly new arrival, Skarlinski still learning New York’s Byzantine food-sourcing system, but he wants to use the best ingredients available from as local a radius as possible. “I’m trying to limit my inventory to these basic ingredients so I can focus on getting a better quality of the initial ingredient,” he says. “But really what I’m trying to do is make responsible food. I’m not trying to do this outlandish, over-the-top, nonsense food.”
Skarlinski comes from a fine-dining background, having worked his way through art school at one of Baltimore’s fancier eateries, where he started mopping floors on a dare and had worked his way up to sous chef within four years. “I’ve worked for a lot of chefs in the past who would just let me get away with wrapping things in bacon because it tasted good, or ordering foie gras when we were doing well, or using fine ingredients, and that’s a problem for me. We can make a better dish using humble ingredients, make a better fine dining.”
But Skarlinski’s not trying to preach: “Look,” he says. “We’re not going to change the world, or even New York fine dining, but I think, for myself, I can start to simplify things, and refine things to a point that the food is approachable to a lot of people, but I’m still serving something that’s considerate of what went into it.”
So the lamb on the menu is lamb neck ($20), slow-braised and served over a winter vegetable ragout with just a touch of salsify creme and crispy fried kale leaf. There’s also a brittle strip of green banana, assembled like particleboard; use it like a cracker and scoop up the rest.
Levi is a vegetarian (and a builder by trade, the space is his handiwork, and he met Skarlinski on a job site), so he wanted to keep the menu flexible enough to accommodate herbivores and others with restricted diets. Much of the menu is (or can be made to be) vegan or gluten-free, including the ravioli ($20), stuffed with mushrooms and served over greens and a smoky eggplant butter with skordalia. Until Skarlinski mentioned it, I had no idea the pasta wasn’t semolina.
By the time we finish everything, we’re too stuffed to consider dessert, but parsnip and yogurt, with “caramel glass” ($6) and beer-soaked figs ($5) with walnuts and ice cream seem worth returning for. And we’re looking forward to music in the garden, come summer.
Click through for more delicious shots of dishes.