The pork jowl at Freek’s Mill in Gowanus is free of bells and whistles, but it leaves a lasting impression. Each cheek, marinated in white wine overnight and slow-roasted, is fork-tender on the inside and covered in a gnarled and inflated crust. The $19 dish exemplifies the sensible and resourceful cooking of chef Chad Shaner, a Navy vet and Union Square Café alum, who serves it with just a few pickled ramps and radishes and a dollop of sharp Dijon mustard.
Freek’s Mill feels primed for its rapidly changing neighborhood. Service is polished and genial, gratuity is included, and bread with bright-green ramp butter comes gratis. Not long after it opened in April at a hushed, industrial intersection, a massive luxury apartment complex (with waterfront esplanade and impending boat launch) welcomed its first renters across the beleaguered Gowanus Canal. Soon they’ll cross the sludgy surf to feast on roasted oysters that thankfully aren’t too local.
But long before the canal became a hospice for sickly cetaceans (R.I.P. Sludgie the Whale and nameless, doomed dolphin), the creek from whence it came boasted wildlife that kept eighteenth-century farmers’ bellies full. Freek’s Mill, which takes its name from a post–Revolutionary War structure that once stood in the area, connects with that older Gowanus, too, through its wood-fired oven. Quails are stuffed with cheesy brioche filling, browned in Shaner’s domed furnace, and sauced with a jus made from their wings. Duck, its flavor intensified through dry-aging, has crisp skin to match surprisingly tasty refried cranberry beans. And in one of his most inspired moments, Shaner embeds medallions of smoked kohlrabi confit in buttery grits; it’s the vegetarian counterpoint to that jowl, and just as powerful.
Partners J.T. Stewart and Maxime Giordani met while working at Andy Nusser’s downtown tapas stalwart Casa Mono. From his open kitchen, Shaner executes seasonal small plates with impressive forethought, building dishes around single ingredients, like spindly charred carrots (to which he adds tart yogurt and chunky peanut dukkah, a savory Egyptian condiment). Sour green strawberries and lime add zest to a red-snapper ceviche, and expertly fried chicken livers are paired simply with dandelion greens.
Shaner’s menu, divided into quadrants for vegetables, seafood, meat, and a hodgepodge of snacks, is cohesive only in its ambition. Working this way allows for some flexibility. There are global flourishes, including burnt spring onions to dip in peppery romesco sauce and sambal-slicked soft-shell crabs, deep-fried and served with bok choy. An arrangement of swiss chard agnolotti and pickled chanterelle mushrooms contains just enough lobster to qualify as a seafood dish. Shaner also has a propensity for throwback recipes: One gives asparagus the Steak Oscar treatment, minus the steak; instead, a raft of stalks is topped with blue-crab meat coated in hollandaise and sprinkled with Old Bay. Slices of medium-rare New York strip get an assist from aligot potatoes brightened with a seasonal touch: pea leaves.
Desserts fall to Aleksander Kubicki, who collaborates with Shaner. Rhubarb bread pudding is just sweet enough, and I wish more clafoutis were as burned on top and custardy underneath as the one at Freek’s Mill. Even chocolate chip–peanut cookies are notable for their density; they’re great for dunking into an ice cream float fizzing with Brooklyn Brewery coffee porter.
Although sommelier Alex Alan (also a partner) hasn’t yet stocked any Gowanus-brewed beers, his wine list has some surprises. Freek’s Mill is one of the few non–Eastern European restaurants where you can sample the exceedingly funky kvevri wines of Georgia, which are aged in clay vessels. There are also quirky bottles from Hungary and Slovenia. After a man who’d introduced himself as a local had enjoyed several glasses, I asked him what he thought of the variety of varietals at this neighborhood newcomer. Leaning in, he smirked, “It sure beats drinking from the canal.”
285 Nevins Street, Brooklyn