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One cool and breezy October evening beneath the crabapple tree that dominates Faun’s back garden, the wind blew so forcefully that leaves shook free from their branches, threatening diners’ plates below. Hair flapping, a man resolutely thrust his flat cap over his spaccatelli to protect it from the elements. Another gust swept a woman’s scarf across her salad, knocking large bibb lettuce leaves around with button mushrooms, apples, scallions, and buttermilk dressing.
Despite Mother Nature’s persistent meddling, no one headed inside. New Yorkers have a special persistence when savoring the last gasps of warm-ish autumn temperatures — especially in a backyard as enchanting as Faun’s. The cozy, wood-paneled Prospect Heights spot comes from partners David Stockwell and Carla Swickerath, who met while enrolled at the University of Michigan and worked together as architects for over a decade. Fans of Brian Leth’s New American cooking from his days at DUMBO’s stalwart Vinegar Hill House, they brought the strapping, auburn-haired chef on in August to run their compact but impressive open kitchen.
Leth’s refreshingly unfussy and confident food is a welcome addition to Vanderbilt Avenue’s evolving restaurant row, offering Brooklyn brunchers the opportunity to quell their hangovers with unflinching recipes like poached eggs over stewed tripe. And if prices seem high for the neighborhood, keep in mind that gratuity is included. The dozen or so dishes on his à la carte dinner menu are organized in Italianate fashion (antipasto, primo, secondo) and simply grouped by course number.
Kick things off with shared small plates, like a $17 fryer pepper stuffed with blue crab, or velvety chicken liver mousse bearing a zigzag of glossy concord grape reduction. The latter ($18) arrives with pickled fennel and rounds of toasted, crumpet-like piadine; there’s also a flat sheet of crunchy chicken skin on the side, which you can dismantle into cracklings for a DIY garnish. Seafood presents some of the cleanest flavors in deceptively austere compositions. ‘Nduja, southern Italy’s potent and peppery sausage spread, is used sparingly to prop up crisp octopus tentacles, while slab bacon imbues a fatty hunk of mackerel with welcome smokiness, a dollop of orange jam punctuating the plate like an exclamation point. Salads, which change daily, switch up ingredients according to what’s available and improvise, jam-band style, zapping arugula and strawberries with briny salt cod vinaigrette one night, tossing tart grapefruit with savoy cabbage and pecorino toscano cheese the next.
Another major draw: Leth’s pastas, especially plump tortellini in a broth of veal stock, red wine, and beef shin that’s been simmered overnight and tastes like it. The fragile pockets hold molten bone marrow and burst like savory Gushers candy. Leth works herbs into the dough used for thin, laminated squares of brown-butter-kissed quadrucci, folding the blanketlike pasta sheets over a comforting swamp of porcini mushrooms, parsnips, and a runny egg. And his meat ragùs — from the ground pork coating squat, tubular mezzemaniche to the Tuscan classic of flat pappardelle coated in a ruddy, deeply flavored sauce made from wild hare — exude soul-warming, slow-cooked comfort.
Despite the menu’s multicourse construction, mains are consistently rib-sticking: Even snowy striped bass, juicy over celeriac purée, gets a porky boost from pancetta. Squab is exceedingly tender and rosy under golden-brown skin. On the plate, earthy lentils, kabocha squash, and gently sweet cooked husk cherries offset the bird’s understated gaminess. There’s no understating the intense flavor of wild boar shank, however. The massive bone-in cut is cured with salt, sugar, fennel seed, and chiles before taking a nice sixteen-hour sous-vide bath in clarified butter. The result is wonderfully rustic, the hearty fare set atop buttery polenta strewn with brussels sprout leaves.
Stockwell and Swickerath also recruited another Vinegar Hill House alum, sommelier and longtime natural-wine champion Bill Fitch. He’s populated Faun’s Eurocentric list with a wide range of Greek wines, as well as fun outliers from Switzerland and the Czech Republic. That means plenty of bottles available in the $40-to-$50 range and a beverage pairing for Leth’s five-course, $85 tasting that clocks in at $45. Whatever your course of action, consider ending the night with a nip — homegrown amaro from Washington, D.C., maybe, or a glass of port to go with wobbly vanilla panna cotta, which peeks out from under a pile of pistachios and sultana raisins. Nothing about this streamlined dining experience will prepare you for the restaurant’s tongue-in-cheek cheese course, though, which features pears and candied walnuts next to a brick of fudgy gorgonzola piccante plastered bizarrely but successfully with festive rainbow sprinkles — proving that you can’t judge a neighborhood restaurant by its cover.
606 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-576-6120