On the sort of dark winter’s night tailor-made for a pulp paperback, I came to a crossroads in central Greenpoint. The sky melted with swirling clouds, a meteorological metaphor, perhaps, for the neighborhood’s old-school Polish residents adapting to their changing environment.
Until recently this corner had been home to Antek, a humble joint forking up hearty Eastern European fare. (Think chubby pierogi, and massive potato pancakes smothered in beef goulash.) Facing a bout of severe gastronomic ennui, owner Stanislawa Prenkiewicz sought a cure on Craigslist, advertising for a chef with a vision. Provided she could find the right match, she pledged to cede creative control and stay on as an investor.
Jake Eberle, too, was feeling culinarily restless. A veteran of French-leaning kitchens — most notably a stint as chef de cuisine at the Lambs Club, one of Food Network personality Geoffrey Zakarian’s restaurants — he’d found himself bouncing around of late. Clicking around online, he landed on Prenkiewicz’s ad. Call it fate: The two hit it off. Eberle took charge of the space, transforming it into a contemporary French restaurant. With its walls painted periwinkle and set against natural wood tables and hanging lamps, Le Fond (105 Norman Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-389-6859) could never again be mistaken for a Polish diner.
Brooklyn bistros are an invasive species. Yet the plan here — to excavate and update French classics — comes naturally to Eberle. The lozenge-cut carrots and celery in a plate of daube de boeuf betrayed the chef’s Cordon Bleu training. So, for that matter, does the name of the restaurant. Fond is the French colloquialism for stock — stocks being the base from which sauces are made — as well as the term for the caramelized bits that stick to the bottom of a roasting pan, waiting to be extracted like precious gems in the deglazing process. Here the boneless short ribs bathed in an earthy red-wine sauce that glazed the beef like lacquer. The dish has since been replaced by hanger steak plated with equally meaty hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and potatoes boulangère, a simple presentation of layered, thinly sliced tubers baked until the top crisps up golden brown. Its deep flavors hint at its history as a dish of necessity, when rural French families — possessing no ovens of their own — would drop off their roasting pots at the local bakery before Sunday church services. After a long, hard pray, thy potatoes be done.
It’s this anthropological approach that sets Le Fond apart from its neighborhood peers. Eberle turns out sumptuous foie gras terrine, rillettes made from rabbit and pork, and a bonkers cassoulet that calls for cannellini beans cooked in a broth fattened with gelatinous chicken feet. The ambitious legumes support three bulky diamonds of seared animal meat: pressed Rohan duck legs, Berkshire pork belly, and house-made pork sausage. Finished with lemon juice and sherry vinegar, it’s a riveting modification that comforts on par with more traditional preparations. That same pork sausage shows up poached and stuffed inside a boned bird for poule au pot, a one-pot chicken dish that ran as a special for a respectable $16. (Aside from a $36 strip steak, the main courses hover around $20 or below.) Served with braised carrots, onions, potatoes, and celery, the poached chicken possesses a gentle heartiness, the broth bath having rendered the meat soft and supple. Eberle gave diners a cup of the poaching liquid on the side. Another poaching broth perks up local Long Island fluke, this one flavored with caramelized onions and sharing the plate with roasted fennel and sweet, briny mussels.
It’s not exactly a French specialty, but a bistro ought to make a good burger, and the nostalgic care with which Eberle constructs his ground-meat sandwiches winks at fast food while elevating it. The square (take that, Wendy’s!) LaFrieda patty exhibits ample beefiness and comes topped with tangy dill pickle relish. On its thick, toasted slices of brioche, it’s easy to love. But take a look at the cheese selection. Most diners levy the same $2 surcharge for Swiss and American as Le Fond requires to smother its burgers in farmstead and artisanal cheeses from the nearby Bedford Cheese Shop. Melted American may forever reign supreme as the burger cheese of choice, but bold slices of gamy Chandoka cheddar (made from a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk) and Toma, a grassy Californian cow’s-milk cheese, make a strong case for branching out. Their barnyard flavors suit the cheffy burger and its pile of greaseless fries.
On those noirish winter nights, I’d take a seat at the small bar up a small step from the dining room and sip something potent from the drinks list — which, while brief, features local Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. suds on tap and bottles of wine starting in the mid $30s ($9 by the glass).
And I’d order a glass of organic Spanish vermouth to round out my meal. It costs the same as the desserts ($8) and goes surprisingly well with aromatic maple beignets. Only three desserts are offered at a time. In the past they’ve included dense chocolate pudding, once topped with candied orange, another time with confited banana; and gingerbread cake paired with sweet winter-squash custard.
Thanks to smart choices like these from Eberle, Le Fond has a strong foundation. If its first few months of business are any indication, the restaurant and its chef deserve our repeat attention, like a long-simmering stew.