If you’ve walked down Bedford Avenue anytime in the past few months, there’s no doubt you’ve seen the vintage-style marquee in front of Salt + Charcoal (171 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-782-2087). Now you can actually go inside: After a year of renovations, the Japanese eatery is open for business.
With a focus on small plates (some large plates are also available), many of which are grilled on a robata, the eatery aims to expand diners’ frame of knowledge on Japanese fare. The idea stems from chef/partner Jiro Iida, who previously worked as executive chef at Aburiya Kinnosuke in midtown. After seeing the success of the robata-style offerings there, he teamed up with a childhood friend from Japan, Teruyuki Takayama, and his current business partner, Kei Sugimoto. (Takayama and Sugimoto also own a film production company, TK Digital.) “Teru and I always wanted to do a restaurant,” says Sugimoto. “So when he and Jiro reconnected in New York, we thought, why not?”
Given the owners’ background in visual arts, it’s no surprise the restaurant places a large emphasis on presentation and decor. The fare is presented on handpicked Japanese rustic-style plates, and Salt + Charcoal boasts a comfortable ambiance, with exposed-brick walls, vintage pendant lamps, and museum-quality photographs behind the bar — they were shot by Sugimoto’s famous father, Hiroshi Sugimoto; other pieces from the series are currently on display at the Met, Guggenheim, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The menu includes a section of sashimi and a few sushi roll options, like the $14.50 salmon trio (three pairs of nigiri topped with salmon roe, shiso leaf, sliced wasabi, and kombu seaweed), but the raw fish is just a backdrop. Iida has four generations of sushi chefs in his family, so he prefers to prepare different fare from his forebears. “It’s partly because of that, and being in America, he wanted to show people that Japanese is not just sushi,” says Sugimoto.
Robata, obviously, is the real draw. Iida uses a traditional white Japanese charcoal called binchōtan. Made from oak and a few other species of wood, it gives off a very specific flavor profile. (It’s also used in a multitude of applications in Japan, from deodorizing fridges to removing the chlorinated-water taste from rice while cooking.) A selection of skewers ($4 to $15) best showcases the technique. The aigamo-shimeji ($5) combines tender duck with earthy shimeji mushroom salt. Kurobata kal bi ($5) comes with crisp hunks of fatty pork belly and a spicy miso sauce. Higher-end options include foie gras ($12) with taro sauce and balsamic vinegar and wagyu roll ($15) with the same sauce and wWagyu ribeye.
To use robata, the team had to go through a stringent permitting process with the city. “As far as I know, we’re the only place allowed to use charcoal grills,” says Sugimoto.
The multi-page menu also incorporates a wide array of vegetarian and seafood dishes. The veggie and tofu hot dip ($15) is a standout; tofu, soy milk, cream, and a hint of cheese is served over a flame in a bowl similar to fondue. Kale, celery, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and other assorted veggies are served on the side; the crisp produce is a nice contrast to the complex dip. The steamed mussels ($10) were less exciting. A substitute for the clams (they were out on this occasion), the shellfish was piled high in a tall vessel. Although the mussels were fine themselves, it’s not until the end that you can actually taste the spicy sake broth, which is light and intricate.
While the group is still awaiting a liquor license (they’re hoping to get it in the next week or so), they have put together an interesting beverage program. In addition to beer, wine, and extensive sake and shochu selections, the list will offer creative cocktails, like its namesake Salt + Charcoal ($12), with Excellia blanco tequila, lime juice, agave, Combier, and jalapeño. The Old Brooklyn ($12) combines WhistlePig rye, chai syrup, maraschino cherry juice, and angostura bitters.
Salt + Charcoal is open Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.