If there’s an air of Nordic pretension to The Four Horsemen (295 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-599-4900), former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy’s new Williamsburg wine bar, you’d never know it peeking through the storefront windows at midday, when the keen-eyed virtuoso credited with everything from sourcing the steak knives (a leftover from his wedding reception) to calibrating the whitewashed dining room’s permeating acoustics can be found leading an informed discussion on grease traps, or readily mounting a ladder in sagging yellow jeans, climbing to the cedar-slatted rafters to investigate a nagging eighth-inch gap above the front door.
Contrary to what’s been reported, Murphy did not dictate chef Nick Curtola’s menu. “It’s definitely a collaborative effort,” insists Curtola, who first cooked for Murphy immediately after departing Crown Heights sandwich shop Glady’s in February of last year. “The week I left Glady’s, a friend of my wife put me in touch with James and Christina [Topsoe], who were looking for a chef for this restaurant; so I went and cooked a dinner for them and the other two partners at their apartment. It was five courses, pretty similar to what I was cooking at Glady’s toward the end. A few weeks later they had me do a ten-course dinner for ten people at their friend’s house in Manhattan, and the next day they offered me the job.”
While waiting for the bar’s construction to be completed, Curtola spent six months working under his friend Max Sussman at The Cleveland. “He was cool being flexible with me during the buildout, designing the kitchen. I was there until December of last year, then I started planning menus, holding test dinners.”
While the menu’s vegetable dishes are as spontaneous as perusing the farmers’ market and probing the walk-in, turnips paired with cured egg yolks, for example, the meatier aspects of the Four Horsemen’s menu were a given from the start. “We knew we wanted a tartare — that’s a dish I worked on for a month,” Curtola recalls, aspiring to craft a dish as sublime as his favorite variation, served at chef Ignacio Mattos’s similarly minded Estela in Soho. Here the dish is composed of funky, dry-aged, grass-fed sirloin from Happy Valley, thickened with crunchy acid bites of pickled cabbage, heated with sambal chile, and enriched with buttermilk, a lighter alternative to raw egg. “The rice cracker on top is something nice to scoop, but the hope is that diners break it up so it becomes part of the dish,” says Curtola.
Charcuterie, meanwhile, anchors the menu. “A lot of wine bars we respect in Europe and Japan do charcuterie and cheese, so we try to do a lot of it in-house,” Curtola says. While there’s no space for large-format curing, the kitchen produces terrines and sausages while also sourcing from La Quercia and Mosefund Farms.
Vegetable plates possess their own kind of richness. What could be one-note dishes are instead amplified by texture and preparation, like carrots slow-roasted to a sweet, fudgy density then garnished with pickled carrots, all soaking in a vinaigrette made with their own juices. “I like dishes where there’s one focus and you can see the main ingredient in a couple different ways,” Curtola says. While such a creation might take a few days to evolve to its final iteration on the menu, don’t think experiencing dishes in transition means the menu changes daily. “I feel like there can be inconsistency with places that do that every day. We want to be a consistent neighborhood restaurant — we want to have craveable dishes people come back for, then when they come in a few times, they’ll say, ‘We want to try that.’?”
Desserts, like an anise hyssop granita, are a lighter affair. “When it’s hot out this time of year, and with our porky menu, my cooks personally want to finish with something cleaner, lighter,” Curtola says. And while the granita pairs well with wine, sous-chef Jeremiah Del Sol offers a non-alcoholic alternative, having volunteered to develop the bar’s soda program, which was part of the menu strategy from the start. Current flavors include a lavender-lime, rhubarb-orange, and ginger sweetened with demerara sugar. “We were trying to keep three basic flavors,” Del Sol says, though they’re anything but simple. The lavender alone is infused with celery, pink peppercorns, and green coriander.
“I like to collaborate with the sous-chefs, and a lot of items have come about at the end of service, discussing what’s coming in tomorrow, what we’re going to do,” Curtola says. But to dine at the Four Horsemen, you don’t need to start making plans the night before. An online reservations-only policy is one more piece of misinformation that leaked out among the early press, one more way the bar’s been pre-judged like an unfinished demo. Walk-ins are welcome.
Adam Robb is a food and travel writer and photographer based in Jersey City.