After popular year-old Clinton Hill café Tilda All Day abruptly shuttered last September, its future appeared uncertain. But for Samantha Safer and chef Claire Welle — the two remaining principals following an ownership shakeup — the next steps were obvious. “Otway is what we always wanted Tilda to be,” co-owner Safer says of the devastatingly stylish seasonal New American bistro they opened at the start of 2017. In the same dreamy Fulton Street corner digs where Welle, a veteran of (Mas) Farmhouse and Per Se, drew acclaim for her offbeat pastries (olive-chocolate cookies, roast-chicken biscuits) and beastly breakfast sandwiches heaping velvety French-style scrambled eggs onto bulbous, homemade onion rolls, there’s a new game in town.
Now wine glasses of fizzy and fashionable pétillant-naturel and zesty Hungarian kékfrankos crowd the exquisite herringbone-patterned natural-wood bar’s stark white countertop. Instead of rows of baked goods, there are sub-$7 nibbles to munch, like marinated mushrooms, brittle chickpeas lent depth from being fried in beef tallow, and sturdy, nutty rye crackers spread with whipped pork fat that’s lusher than butter. The latter start out as giant sheets, which are broken into jagged lard canvases. They’re really kind of spectacular, redolent of caraway seed and the whey left over from making the yogurt that Welle sneaks underneath crimson curls of raw lamb leg ($13) — itself an impressive appetizer that puts the farm in farm-to-table, pastorally emboldened by hay and scattered with pickled ramps. Because whey has some fat, “we knew it would crisp up well,” Welle says. Tripe ($10), meanwhile, gets the “pub grub” treatment, the kitchen breading and frying the offal into craggy twists meant for dipping into homemade HP sauce, the ubiquitous British condiment that’s like a thickened Worcestershire. It makes for a soulful bar snack, exactly the kind of fatty and tangy mix that begs for a boulevardier or sour gose beer.
For a full meal, though, you’ll want to ease into one of the comfortable tan leather banquettes, bathed in the glow of golden wall sconces. Start with endive leaves and mushrooms dressed with salty anchovies ($12), or mussels ($13) in a forest-green sorrel-Pernod broth puréed with nori seaweed, which both softens the kick of the French anise liqueur and heightens the brininess of the shellfish. It’s a provocative, keep-dipping-your-spoon affair crowned with a casual toss of basil and fennel fronds — herbal nods to the Pernod. Then there’s the social-media-friendly sea urchin crêpe. So many chefs get loony with uni — an overused ingredient prone to miscalculated desecration — that it’s nice to see one take such a measured approach. The buttery rolled buckwheat pancake is light and gently crisp. On top, a row of sweet and vibrant lobes sit across its spine like “ants on a log” for oligarchs, though this indulgent small plate generously costs $14.
At Otway, which takes its name from an Australian coastal town and a traditionally male German moniker meaning “fortunate in battle,” Welle and her all-female kitchen crew are unencumbered, cooking with palpable vigor and creativity to generate dishes that are simply composed and yet still manage deceptively complex flavors. Their root vegetable tart ($24), with a side of creamy, porridge-like farro, is one of the most memorable meatless recipes I’ve tasted of late. Layered with smoked celery root purée and piquant cured Jerusalem artichokes, the narrow slab sits on a base of pungent fennel seed and coriander shortcrust pastry. It’s every bit as earthy and rich as you’d want, with a stegosaurus-like arrangement of sunchoke chips cresting overhead, adding a welcome crunch. Contrasting those vivid vegetables is a minimalist presentation of pan-roasted porgy ($25) with potatoes, the flaky skin-on fillet wearing a sash of lemon and chiffonaded herbs and surrounded by silky beurre blanc, each bite sweet and mild. And while you can get a steak decadently anointed with oysters, there’s furtive beefy pleasure in the ragoût de veau, which piles tender, fatty hunks of veal breast, mushrooms, pearl onions, and rice over a pool of concentrated mushroom broth that’s the color of mahogany with a dark, dense taste to match.
As befits any great bistro, you can finish with a carefully arranged cheese plate or opt for cakey, tarty things like blobs of buttermilk panna cotta interspersed with balled mango. Caramelized white chocolate complements the innate sweetness of slow-roasted sunchokes in a freeform sponge cake ($9), a winning experiment and further proof that vegetables belong in desserts. The sweetest ending of all, however, is undoubtedly Welle and pastry chef Allison Young’s Paris-Brest. The massive $14 confection shows up covered in slivered almonds dusted with powdered sugar, its choux pastry dough yielding inside like a yeast doughnut. In a small albeit weighty revelation, you’ll find the usual praline filling’s been switched for toasted chestnut cream — yet another in a long line of beneficial, exciting tweaks this team employs.
There’s renewed energy in the dining room, too, aided by the convivial and committed waitstaff and Safer’s wallet-friendly Eurocentric wine list. It’s a gesture indicating that despite the refined eats, this is a neighborhood spot at heart. To that effect, house-cultured butter and bread — stored on and divvied up from a handsome bar cart up front — come gratis and feel like true gifts, especially the malty miche loaf’s spongy crumb. During Sunday lunch, when eggy grain bowls and fish toasts reign, you can even pick up a loaf to take home. And if you’re lucky, that same cart might hold a plate of cookies (chewy macadamia, let’s say), which Safer will offer you as fortification for your commute.
930 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 29, 2017