As Brooklyn spiritually inches closer to Manhattan’s gilded coastline, it has inevitably lost some of the eclectic charm and character that contributed to the borough’s branding. This summer, for instance, Williamsburg welcomed its first Starbucks, and a Top Chef winner now cooks in the penthouse of the neighborhood’s Urban Outfitters. Despite the ascent of high-rises and the descent of national chains that are encroaching on the area, there are still oases of genuine bonhomie in this neck of the woods — and that’s not hyperbole.
A fiddle twanged in the background as my dining partner and I looked over our menus at Delaware and Hudson, positing the merits of the evening’s three entrees. Other than choosing beverages, selecting a main course is the only invitation to exercise free will at Patti Jackson’s quaint, Mid-Atlantic restaurant. (“Baltimore to Buffalo,” the sign reads) She joins an exclusive, if brief, list of female chefs offering tasting menus, though her $48 prix fixe dinner eats more like an extended family meal at a countryside retreat than progressive, flavorful theatrics. Set to a soundtrack of our great nation’s favorite pluckable instruments, breaking bread here brought on visions of Adirondack summers past, as well as the gracious and heartwarming country restaurants that dot the region.
The multicourse meal begins, as multicourse meals often do, with a procession of diminutive nibbles amounting to five or so snacks, which rotate weekly. Oily smoked bluefish pâté is a standout, boasting an addictive, penetrating intensity that accentuates the local catch’s famously oceanic flavor. Smoked in-house, it also shows up in a sandwich at lunch. Jackson grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and her warm pretzel rolls arrive in a tin pail accompanied by a plate of radishes hiding under compound butter imbued with the funk of ramps or peppery wasabi cress — an ingeniously simple way to tame the forward greens. After running out of lamb meatballs on our first outing, the kitchen delivered a brilliant, off-the-cuff Korean ssam, wrapping knobby fried clam bellies in lettuce leaves slicked with tangy pepper sauce.
At other New American restaurants, this appetizer pageant might constitute the bulk of the entire meal, and in the city’s current dining climate, Jackson could probably get away with doing just that. But as nebulous a term as “New American cuisine” has become, the moniker is lent a sense of purpose here. Jackson exploits the links between her rustic Italian culinary training and rural Northeastern upbringing, borrowing from both cuisines’ uncomplicated approaches to manipulating raw materials. Instead of the usual batter-fried specimens, gently sautéed squash blossoms are stuffed with soft, creamy farmer’s cheese, and a pile of stewed cherry tomatoes adds crucial sweet-sour vibrancy.
Pasta arrives as a midcourse, though even if it wasn’t mandatory, I’d recommend making it so. With tomato season at its peak, a tangle of ragged, toothsome spaghetti mingling with fluffy ricotta, basil, and cherry tomatoes was bested only by springy, even scrappier handmade penne sauced with a ragout made from
tomatoes and Italian cucuzza squash.
The recessed dining room evokes the heartland, furnished with portrait photographs of produce and farm animals, only slightly less bare than Egg, the space’s previous tenant. Whereas Egg served comfort food in stark environs, Delaware and Hudson has all the warmth and homeyness of
a bed-and-breakfast to match its homey food. Halfway through dinner, my table audibly wished that there were vacancies upstairs, or, at least a cot for between-course naps.
But here come the modestly portioned entrees anyway: fish, meat, or vegetarian (which, during our visits, was a puck of corn pudding oddly, yet inoffensively, paired with ratatouille and goat cheese). In fact, nearly everything that we tried was successful, save for a plate of chewy, well-done hanger steak, which failed to live up to its inspired accoutrements of smoked eggplant puree and onion rings. Likewise, a loosely formed zucchini pancake could have used the hard sear inflicted upon the mild, firm-fleshed striped bass it lay beneath. But Jackson’s pork loin is a thing of beauty, with its rosy hue and carnal tenderness, which gets a major boost from jammy peach-tomato relish and sweet, silky grits that taste of fresh cobs and little else. Leaning in, our server confides, “The farmer only sells his cornmeal to Patti.”
Jackson’s fine dining pastry experience ultimately renders dessert anticlimactic. Split into two miniature tastes, we were treated to a tiny blueberry pie — doll-sized latticework and all — which was almost too cute to eat, but even speckled vanilla bean crème anglaise couldn’t salvage it from an underdone crust. A button of peach shortcake filled with whipped cream, however, was flawless.
Strumming banjos punctuated our conversation over petit fours, made and hand-delivered by Jackson at meal’s end. Finally, I asked about the music. “It’s Pandora. The ‘Americana’ station, I think,” our server confessed, adding, “we play ’90s grunge during lunch, though.” Under
different circumstances, I might have scowled into my glass of homegrown bubbly, a cider varietal from the Aaron Burr Cidery in Wurtsboro, New York. It uses wild and unsprayed apples (there’s a focus on unique, local hooch). But with its down-to-earth hospitality, earnest cooking, and gentle price point, Delaware and Hudson’s most grievous offense is the lack of a postprandial hammock.
Editor’s note: We’re now running our restaurant reviews right here on the Fork in the Road blog. Check back each Tuesday, when we post a new one.