Food

Taste Soul Food’s History and Future at Butterfunk Kitchen

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Spaetzle, the Swabian egg noodles most commonly associated with German cuisine, aren’t confined to any one shape or size. They can be long and skinny like spaghetti, twisted into short and stubby spirals, or pinched into imperfect knots. At Butterfunk Kitchen in Windsor Terrace, chef Chris Scott fashions his spaetzle into bite-size pillows with a gnocchi-like pudginess and buttery savor. Streaked with chopped parsley and almost chewy like good nougat, they’re an ode to the Amish soup dumplings favored by his grandmother Pearl Browne.

For a while, he was tossing them in a hot pan with whiskey, mushrooms, browned onions, and sour cream. By the time I first tried them, he’d transitioned to a fantastic play on chicken and dumplings that brought together shredded light and dark meat, corn kernels, and chopped red pepper, all of it swimming in silken corn cream that tasted like biting into a late-summer cob. The latest version, though, might be my favorite. Butterfunk Kitchen is a self-styled “Amish soul-food” restaurant, and Scott’s cooking reflects seven generations of his family’s culinary history, stretching from slavery in Rappahannock, Virginia, to the city of Coatesville, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Now the yolk-rich German dumplings are joined by tender morsels of pork neck cooked down in a sweet-and-sour pepper sauce fortified with caramelized apples that’s reminiscent of the vinegary barbecue sauces of the Southeast.

Beyond being a clever twist on an heirloom recipe, the $9 appetizer exemplifies how Scott — like Mashama Bailey of the Grey in Savannah, and JuneBaby’s Edouardo Jordan in Seattle — is broadening the cultural conversation around Southern cooking and soul food. Fueled by the exploration of black identity and nurtured by formidable skill, these restaurants represent a rapturous new direction for modern American cooking. Scott’s voice was amplified in this regard as a finalist on the most recent season of Top Chef, and his vision of a new kind of Southern cooking clearly resonated with viewers. Two-hour waits are common at the two-year-old restaurant, so much so that the chef and his wife, Eugenie Woo, who live upstairs with their two children, have kept their adjoining daytime café Brooklyn Commune open late to handle the onslaught (they’ll soon turn the space into a retro diner called Sumner’s Luncheonette, an ode to his grandfather, Pearl’s husband). But despite the acclaim, Butterfunk Kitchen still feels like a friendly, casual neighborhood spot. Wednesdays there’s a chicken-wing special, and on Sundays, a local DJ spins gospel LPs.

Once inside the farmhouse-chic dining room, sitting beneath framed photographs of Woo’s and Scott’s ancestors, there are only good decisions to be made. Especially for lovers of pig. In addition to the neckbone dumplings, supple cornmeal hoe cakes ($10) are a sure bet, capped with pulled pork shoulder and corn chowchow, a sweet Amish relish. And grandma gets top billing in Nana Browne’s scrapple ($8), another Pennsylvania Dutch staple. Traditionally made from pork scraps bound together with cornmeal and buckwheat, Scott’s version melds shoulder, feet, and smoked hocks into something like griddled paté. It’s served in hearty slabs that are crisped in rendered salt pork and placed alongside toasty pumpkin bread, squash mostarda, molasses, and fried sage, the sugar and spice mellowing out the porcine heft. Salt pork also works its way into a welcomingly spicy rendition of shrimp and sausage gumbo ($21) over creamy grits that’s a notch less fiery than the pepper-pot shrimp it replaced on the menu, and several notches below the incendiary house hot sauce that appears on every table, which stings from scotch bonnet and smoked poblano peppers and is also available for purchase.

With no disrespect to my great-aunt Ruth’s famous chopped liver, I can’t stop thinking about what Scott does with his chicken livers ($10), deep-frying them whole until they’re crunchy but still blushing in the center before plunking the offal atop velvety corn-and-millet pudding, then smothering everything in caramelized onions and tart green tomato confit. Stacked in a silver cup, hushpuppies ($10) studded with crawfish were another comforting, crunchy starter, their briny sweetness coming into focus with each dunk in Old Bay rémoulade. But it’s the unassailable catfish and lemon-brined fried chicken dinners (both $18) that best show off the kitchen’s frying prowess. Topped with green tomatoes, the fish fillets lounge on more of those luscious grits surrounded by a moat of piquant melted Tabasco-lemon butter, while the sturdy white and dark meat chicken gets a side of memorably crisp-yet-fluffy brown sugar buttermilk biscuits. I’d suggest complementing either with a side of satiny collards steeped in their own porky pot liquor — imbued with unctuous split pigs’ feet and ham hocks — for at least four hours.

This broth left behind from cooking, or “likker,” as it’s sometimes known, also bolsters Butterfunk’s slow-cooked meats, from pork shank osso bucco to juniper-glazed ribs to the current standout of braised brisket ($23), cabbage, turnips, and tomato chowchow under a showering of dark rye breadcrumbs. “You’d be a fool not to incorporate it into a dish,” Scott says. So with a nod to Virginia, Scott serves the beef swimming in its own peanut likker, the legumes rendered almost juicy. The idea feels totally modern, but the chef is quick to school me. “Confederate soldiers used to use peanuts as a cheap coffee substitute with rye, wheat, corn, chicory, chestnuts, and cotton seed.” Its inclusion is almost reminiscent of the way Mexican cuisine employs salsa macha, though Scott’s version is far milder due to the absence of chiles.

Desserts ($6) are homey and uncomplicated, like layer layer cake or cheesecakes and goblets of banana pudding spiked with cinnamon. A recent addition that I hope sticks around are Scott’s blueberry spoon cakes, which are almost like cornbread cobblers. Below domes of cornbread that are golden-brown on top and soft in the center, their ramekins overflow with concentrated, jammy fruit compote (spiced with, among other things, ginger, cinnamon, and vanilla bean) in a way that’s irresistible and timeless. They might as well come with a hug from Nana Browne herself.

Butterfunk Kitchen
1295 Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn
917-909-0421
butterfunkkitchen.com

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