We need to talk about dessert at Metta. Specifically, one dessert: a sweet potato. Only it won’t much look like a sweet potato when it lands on your table, having just been plucked from the embers by chef and co-owner Norberto “Negro” Piattoni. Sliced but still holding its shape, the result is pitch black speckled with auburn, not unlike a lump of glowing coal. Bringing your spoon down upon the shell you expect the crackly thud of crème brûlée. Instead, the barely-there crust disintegrates, giving way to sunset-orange insides as creamily sweet as custard. In every sense, it’s a vegetable transformed.
Rather than gilding the specimen with elaborate garnishes, Piattoni lays it next to a fluffy dollop of whipped cream flavored with elecampane, a type of sunflower also known as elfdock. The plant’s roots have slightly bitter and intensely floral notes, which lends a taste similar to the Choward’s violet hard candies my grandfather often carried on him — as if an old-fashioned milk truck collided with a bouquet display case. Together, the dish evokes a bizarro version of the marshmallow-topped yams so popular around the holidays: a comforting, familiar flavor that also manages to startle your palate with tugs of herbal sweetness and earthen char. Vegetables in desserts is nothing new. This, however, feels anything but old hat.
With wood-fired cooking trending hard, it seems like every chef with access to kindling has taken to setting things ablaze with Promethean vigor, ecstatically blackening every ingredient they can get their hands on. Few do so with such sprightly finesse as Piattoni, who spent four years running Garzon, famed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s asado barbecue restaurant in Uruguay. There, the farmer’s son from Federación, Argentina, learned to harness fire after years of simply enjoying its mouthwatering effects. That much is plainly evident by the custom-built hearth he’s installed opposite Metta’s lovely, plant-festooned entranceway, beyond the snug dining room’s natural wood furniture, tapered ceramic hanging lamps, marble tabletops, and eight-seat chef’s counter. The oven’s most mesmerizing feature is a rugged metal basket, which holds burning wood as hanging cuts of meat slow-roast around it. This lets coals drop to the bottom (thanks, gravity!) of the fire pit, where their heat fuels both a griddle and a slotted grill.
The sensible setup often yields astonishing outcomes, whether it’s slices of slightly warmed lamb leg layered into lettuce cups with pickles and chiles or the carrots the 37-year-old Piattoni smokes and pairs with creamy farmer cheese and a thick, vibrant green sauce made from chard, dandelion greens, lemon zest, and roasted garlic. Prices are kept reasonable for the neighborhood, with snacks like ramp mignonette–splashed oysters starting at $6 and the heftiest entrée — bone-in slabs of short rib steak with sharp greens (collards, the night I tried them) and a righteous chimichurri — fetching $28. At this picturesque Brooklyn intersection, which Metta’s windowed façade frames just so, it’s all too easy to swoon over the nuances of a $13 plate of charred brine-soaked green cabbage set over piquant preserved butternut squash purée and crowned with curls of broccoli rabe flowers — the whole dish set off by the fireworks of fruity dried habanero. Meaty beets with crimson, earthy-sweet interiors are plunged skin-side-up into cooling crème fraîche and topped with chewy rye berries. More delicate but no less punchy is gingerly singed beef heart, still rare on the inside, which mingles with mellow cooked-down cubanelle peppers and leeks for a courageous carpaccio. There’s little of the gamy flavor you might fear, only a mild and grassy beefiness.
Piattoni’s time at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, after Garzon and preceded by a brief stint in Kentucky, “changed my whole mind,” he says, and would become his “biggest influence and inspiration.” There he fell for sourdough bread, sustainability, and techniques like fermentation and dehydration. So Metta, which takes its name from the Buddhist concept of spreading benevolence, composts its food trash and aims to operate with a neutral carbon footprint. Even if you might roll your jaded New Yorker’s eyes at such honorable intentions, the chef’s penchant for preservation proves itself on the plate. Soured carrots provide a necessarily pungent backbone to crunchy strands of braised-then-roasted Elysian Fields lamb neck crisped in its own fat, which sits in a purée of the tangy root vegetables and glistens under a scattering of sunflower seeds. Pale-pink slivers of porgy crudo — which Piattoni also chars for a main course next to turnips and nettles — hog the plate in an abstract pattern that calls to mind a school of fish. The pristine cuts pop with red South American ají dulce peppers and bracing ramps that have been pickled then charred. Meanwhile, tender hunks of roasted-then-seared pork shoulder steak ($24) wear disks of celery root like wide-brimmed Kentucky Derby hats, all surrounded by a sauce made with cherry lees, a brewing byproduct from Brooklyn’s Enlightenment Wines.
Cheery servers navigate a cramped space that gets loud enough to drown out the restaurant’s high-energy soundtrack when tables fill up (a state it seems they’re in perpetually), though the natural European wines picked by co-owner Henry Rich, many of which cost under $60, do a fine job assuaging any waits you may endure. Same goes for Piattoni’s desserts ($8), which err on the savory side with vegetables like parsnip — roasted and turned into a cake and paired with ice cream infused with lovage, an herb that tastes like celery. He grills dehydrated apple slices to drape over unsweetened, citrusy sorrel frozen yogurt and cloaks dark chocolate custard in frozen buttermilk. Still, it’s that stunning sweet potato that best showcases the capabilities of this impressive kitchen and also represents one of its clearest triumphs: a simple, strong finish that smolders in the memory like the fire that created it.
197 Adelphi Street, Brooklyn
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 10, 2017