Food

Where There’s Smoke: Claro Brings Oaxacan Southern Comfort to Gowanus

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Just after opening at the end of the summer — when it was still nice enough to eat outside — Claro’s sprawling back patio provided a smoky refuge in the heart of Gowanus. Relaxed and neighborhood-y, this paean to Oaxaca the southern Mexican state where co-chef/owner TJ Steele has lived on-and-off for the past decade and a half — proved ideal for indulging in refreshing seafood tartares and ceviches, such as diced salmon ($17) perked up with pickled cherries and crushed peanuts, and a muddle of octopus, conch, and shrimp in spicy tomato called campechana ($18). You’d sit at one of the summery teal tables beneath a vine-choked pergola or perch next to the open wood-fire kitchen as wispy flecks of ash fluttered through the air. Campfire aromas hung heavy in the air, forecasting an impending small-plates storm showcasing supremely pungent masa creations made from heirloom corn nixtamalized in-house: lobster tostadas dappled with sweet corn and a briny aioli suffused with tomalley, or lobster giblets; tlayudas, broad tortillas scattered open-faced with roasted vegetables or folded over and stuffed with sliced skirt steak and “stinky” gorgonzola crema; and all manner of memelas ($9–$12), smaller masa discs that might arrive slightly crisped in intense Benton’s bacon fat or layered with bits of hearth-smoked pork ribs and fresh, ricotta-like cheese.

Brooklynites un-ironically cracking jokes about the area’s gentrification. Pottery and ceramic dishware from Oaxaca fill the foyer shelves, and the walls are splashed with distinctive murals from renowned Oaxacan artist Dr. Lakra, including a specter rising from a cup of mezcal and a trio of mischievous anthropomorphic goats cooking a nude pinup in a cauldron. Though the bones of the space haven’t changed much since this address was home to creative New American spot the Pines, there’s renewed warmth emanating from the kitchen via homey recipes and hearty consommés and stews. A bowl of porky pig-head pozole ($19), dense with soft hominy and large enough to share, is as restorative as it is intoxicating. Fans of egg drop soup will fall for higaditos Oaxaqueños ($11), a deeply flavored potage crammed with chicken, pork, duck, and thin, yolky ribbons. And while you’ll only encounter a few of the region’s many moles (there are hundreds) at any one time, you should seek out soupy mole amarillo ($21), mild and herby as a base for chicken legs stewed with potatoes; nutty, russet-hued mole rojo ($26) ladled over veal cheeks; or mole negro ($24) made with chilhuacle chiles, earthy and chocolatey but not too sweet. The latter soars as a foil for lone chile rellenos, the colossal poblanos encased in a thin, crispy egg-batter shell and hiding shredded turkey studded with raisins and toasted almonds that restores some dignity to the typically overlooked poultry. Chile-rubbed goat ($30–$42) frustratingly only makes sporadic appearances. If you see it, grab it. Steamed in avocado leaves on the hearth and further cooked in duck fat, it’s another rock-solid case for getting Americans eating more of the misunderstood, underappreciated (stateside, at least) meat.

Steele opened Claro at the beginning of September with fellow Union Square Café-alum Chad Shaner, chef of nearby oenophile’s den Freek’s Mill. In function, if not form, the food here is similar to that of its older sibling, with smallish, thoughtfully constructed dishes meant for sharing. It’s a years-long dream realized for the copiously tattooed New Jersey native, who also helped found mezcal brand El Buho. To that effect, beverage options lean heavy on agave spirits, a boon to those interested in learning the category’s nuances. Lower-proof alcohol meanwhile is marginally underrepresented, a shame since it would be fun to let Mill’s beverage director Alex Alan loose in this setting. Still, you’re liable to enjoy pairing the few selections with Steele and Shaner’s cooking. Sweet, floral Riesling from the Finger Lakes is aces with bay scallop and apple tostadas ($17), while another thin, crunchy tortilla gets buried under a pile of tender octopus and pork cheeks ($18) showered with pickled peppers and chicharrones. Devouring it with a hot sauce–doused michelada in tow is something like kismet.

“Frotole,” an apparently trademarked dessert (all $12), takes Mexico’s delightfully viscous, masa-thickened and cinnamon-infused hot chocolate and gives it the Serendipity 3 treatment, turning it into a frozen treat laced with goat’s milk caramel, whipped cream, and blackberries. Candied winter squash served in its syrup silences the table, sweeter than pumpkin pie by a zillion and simply, beautifully tempered by gobs of unsweetened whipped cream. On a menu that changes as often as Claro’s, it’s one thing I hope sticks around for a while, at least until the patio opens back up.

Claro
284 Third Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11215
347-721-3126
clarobk.com

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