eater's digest: martha

There are few restaurants where I would advise diners to order both curry and creme brûlée. And yet, at Martha in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I enthusiastically recommend indulging in both dishes.

Having refined his culinary chops at Michelin-starred establishments and underground supper clubs alike, Chef Andres Valbuena serves up a multi-cultural menu that riffs on cuisine from all corners of the globe. What’s more, he pulls this mish-mash off without a whiff of pretension.

Let’s start with the cocktails. As a fan of heavy-on-the-bitters drinks, I was pleased to be steered towards the more subtle Double Trouble: a simple mix of dry vermouth, cocchi americano and orange bitters. It was a diner’s refreshment, perfect for pairing with a variety of plates (a cocktail virtue that is too often overlooked). The Apple Fizz was equally drinkable, with the mineral bite of a dry French cider.

Moving on to small plates, we opted to test out the fluke crudo. On first impression, the portion was doubly generous, paired with hijiki (an “al dente” seaweed with distinct umami flavor) and salmon roe. The dish’s salinity highlighted the fish’s exceptional quality, as well as the chef’s unassuming creativity—a trait similarly infused in the dishes that followed.

Next, a miniature cast iron pan of crispy brussel sprouts, so perfectly dressed that they fit every taste bud’s fancy. The plate-licking combination of sticky honey, funky fish sauce, pickled jalapeño and crunchy peanuts was nothing if not cravable. (In a city full of fresh takes on what used to be an abhorred vegetable, these are easily among the most addictive sprouts I’ve found.)

A steaming dish of congee might have seemed a bit of a curve ball, served alongside two remarkably juicy, skewered lamb meatballs. Yet this savory porridge could easily transfer to a hip Brooklyn brunch—indulgent enough to satisfy those who hit the drink a bit too hard, but subtle enough to please more wide-eyed, curious customers.

Three courses of shared plates deep, we had already encountered enough variety that our palates risked losing their footing. But then, a rock-solid dish of little neck clam green curry arrived—spiced, but not overly rich—to refresh and center our senses. The shellfish themselves were meaty and tender (an ode to local sourcing), while the curry offered heat and focused flavor.

Then arrived the fried chicken, a dish so beloved and contested in today’s restaurant culture that we couldn’t pass up a taste. Its crispy, intensely spiced batter was dressed with a honey-based spin on General Tsao. In fact, there are so many layers of flavor in this creative dish, it merits a culinary dissertation. Among them, my favorite detail, fermented black beans, offered an unexpected pop of earth and salt, hidden among the crevices of fried crust and sticky sauce.

Yet of all the rule-breaking that reigns in Martha’s kitchen, their creme brûlée was maybe Valbuena’s most daring move. Less a custard than an egg-rich spin on melted ice cream, this dessert was sloppy in all the best ways. The shatter of a substantially caramelized crust caused apple shards to fall into a pool of vanilla-laced cream, and we lapped up every bite like we hadn’t already eaten five courses.

In retrospect, it’s hard to make sense of such a shapeshifting restaurant. But the fact that Martha’s menu makes no claims to cultural authenticity is exactly what makes it exciting. Eliminating the boundaries of tested pairings and single region references, each dish becomes an expression of sheer creativity.

It’s a risky pretense—one that could lead as easily to clashes as coherence—but Martha never skidded off course. Just like the innovative residents that have fostered today’s Fort Greene scene, these zany dishes play together surprisingly well.

Martha
184 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn
718-596-4147

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

eater's digest: take root

 Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

There are many labels you could apply to the tasting menu at Brooklyn's Take Root: farm-to-table, sustainable, seasonal. But these increasingly popular, conscious-consumer terms still miss the mark. For while this intimate—verging on tiny—restaurant is all of those things, it is, most importantly, attentive. Attentive in the sense that Chef Elise Kornack has an uncanny awareness of her ingredients and, in turn, encourages diners to take note of her unusual culinary perspective.

Amuse bouche

If it sounds like I'm gearing up to make a bold claim, I am. My meal at Take Root was the most texturally perfect series of plates that I've ever tasted.

Starting with the amuse bouche. A play on carrots and circles, combining caviar-like spheres with crunchy disks and a delicate puree. It was a leitmotif of flavor in a tiny bowl, a question of what is a carrot, and yet, easy to enjoy without considering any of this. The lingering flavor of incredibly fresh mint made this dish doubly worth the while.

Egg

Then came a soft boiled egg with paprika mayonnaise, pickled onions and mustard seeds, rustic bread and home-whipped butter. I've never been a big fan of deviled eggs, but I appreciated the contrasting textures of this more challenging deconstruction, particularly the mustard seed. As for the aerated butter, that deserves its own rave review.

Squid

Next was an appetizer of tender rings of calamari, delicate peppery arugula and crisp lady apples with creamy cranberry beans. It was mild, but still dynamic—the type of dish that is best appreciated on a fresh palate.

French onion soup

Then came a surprise course, an evolved French onion soup. The deeply flavorful, strained broth and wafter-thin pain de mie toasts with a smear of midnight moon gouda was a revelation. Food this thought-out is typically outside of the realm of craving. But if you asked me what I'd like to eat every day for the next month, I'd choose this soup.

A pause to recognize one of the other truly impressive parts of dining at Take Root—their playlist. Curated by Elise's partner, Anna, the mix of Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux and Alexi Murdoch (to name a few) perfectly fit the mellow space and pace of the meal. In a city where so many restaurants prefer rock and hip-hop, it highlighted Take Root as the exception, a more subtle escape from New York's hectic pace.

Egg noodles

Back to the menu, hand-rolled egg noodles arrived in a delicate sauce of sweet corn milk. Dotted among the coils were briny salmon roe, adding a savory counter flavor to the sweetness of the dish. The following course was a striped bass with shatteringly crunchy skin, tender baby eggplants and meyer lemon hollandaise. Despite its mix of unexpected ingredients, the dish was perfectly balanced. Neither the aerated hollandaise or creamy eggplant overpowered the flavor of the wild bass.

Striped bass

As the evening slowly unfolded, we reached the chicken course, which featured multiple cuts from the same animal. Feather-light croquettes deflated beneath their remarkably crispy crust, while the surprisingly gamey breast proved surprisingly moist. The liver mousse was my favorite of all, creating a funky contrast with the essence-of-grape intensity of the halved concords scattered around the plate.

Fleisher's chicken

For dessert, Elise presented an almond semifreddo—a reminder of what almond should taste like, with a light, silky texture to boot. And I couldn't get over the beautiful hue of the elephant heart plums, dragging the ragged, ripped sponge cake through the intensely colored, sweet-tart plum coulis.

Almond semifreddo

Though some dishes were more experimental than others, the multi-course tasting fit together like a patchwork quilt. With no national or cultural cuisine to stitch them together, Elise's unique perspective on cooking tied together the disparate dishes. The experience is unusually personal, clearly revealing the chef's hyper-focused palate and culinary intentions.

In a day and age when "foodies" troll reality TV and read Food Network Magazine for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their favorite chef, it's refreshing to remember that much of what we want to know can be communicated on the plate. Like any great novelist or painter, true chefs need only provide the bearings inherent to their work. And while Elise and her partner Anna are happy to tell you more, the best part of the meal might be that they don't have to.

Take Root
187 Sackett St, Brooklyn
Thurs-Sat, 8pm seating

eater's digest: northern spy food co.

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

As a food writer, it's easy to to fall into a habit of extremes, toggling from insatiable to oversaturated. This is typically the curse of chasing trends, following the buzz or, worse yet, a desire to be the first to discover a new, unsung food locale. But then there are the restaurants we discover off-the-clock. The plates that satiate us, without leaving us feeling stuffed. The mouthfuls that remind us why we got excited by food in the first place—which, for me, has nothing to do with standing in line three hours for a cronut.

My food appreciation began with the ingredients at my disposal and the thrill of testing out a new flavor or texture—most especially, those with a specific taste of place. In short, I fell hard for cooking with local ingredients, and the chefs who thrill me most are the ones who revive that feeling of discovery.

Porgy with fava and yellow eyed beans in green garlic broth

Porgy with fava and yellow eyed beans in green garlic broth

In Manhattan, Northern Spy Food Co. is a singular example of this type of restaurant. Over the past year, I've eaten there four times—more any other restaurant, except maybe the more casual Co. Pane—yet I never got so far as to write a review. They were meals without ulterior motives, an opportunity to indulge in anonymity. In fact, I ate there the way critics would ideally eat at restaurants: often, and casually, without explicit intentions to review them. The true gems are the places that consistently satisfy and surprise you, steeping over time until they blossom into a story.

Let's start with Northern Spy's kale salad. Or don't, in fact. It's been raved about so often that it overshadows other dishes on the menu - plates like the equally irreplaceable Elysian Fields lamb or smoked bluefish rillettes. In that spirit, I decided on one rule for this review - if I've already eaten it, it's off the table.

And so it was that I started off with pickled eggs. Normally, this wouldn't be a dish that I'd choose, as all my favorite egg preparations include a runny yolk. Pink with beet juice, they were certainly acidic but also mildly sweet. The yolk maintained a certain creaminess, if the white was a bit more resistant than I'd usually prefer. But I approached them objectively, and they grew on me with each bite, providing yet again that N'Spy sense of discovery, the same that I'd found before.

Chilled watercress soup

Chilled watercress soup

The rest of the dishes were less challenging, but no less interesting. First up, the chilled watercress soup. The texture of this gorgeous pastel palette of food is nothing short of spectacular, coating your mouth with cool green flavor, without the cumbersome weight of cream.

Then came the strawberry salad with goat milk yogurt and fresh herbs. Tart and sweet, it featured both fresh red and pickled green berries, cut with the funkiness of goat cheese, the refreshing crunch of fennel, and the bright, lemony bite of sorrel. I'll go right ahead and call it the salad of the summer.

Speaking of summer, I highly recommend the refreshing celery tonic cocktail. I'd been eyeing it for months, and it met all my expectations, balancing refreshment with bitter and vegetal notes. For those who like ginger, the Spy Glass is the spicy, fruitier cousin of a Bloody Mary, and also shouldn't be missed.

northernspy_1

Back to the eats, the warm squid salad arrived all tender coils: squid, carrot and daikon radish, garnished with a streak of dark black ink. Accented with the rich flavor of pork belly, it reminded me of a pork and clam dish I once ate in a bistro in Lisbon, a remarkable marriage of land and sea.

For our first entree, we tried the Porgy special—mildly briny and flaky, but more oily than flimsier white fish. Served in a green garlic broth with favas and yellow eyed beans, it was fragrant and comforting, the tender beans yielding beautifully under the impeccably moist, pink-tinged fish.

Broccoli with cabbage, mustard, pretzel

Broccoli with cabbage, mustard, pretzel

But the real scene-stealer was the sleeper on the menu: the broccoli with "cabbage, mustard and pretzel." If it sounds like a vegetarian beer hall dish, you're not entirely off track. Tender stalks, breaded and fried in crisp pretzel crumbs, made me wonder if I ever needed to eat juicy sausage again. Negotiating over who would get to drag the last floret through the mustard and pesto sauces, I couldn't help but think that this was no mere vegetarian alternative. This was a definitive dish - the kind that can make a chef's career (kale salad be damned).

Ending on a sweet note, (and still entranced by the pretzel-breaded broccoli stalks) we opted for the pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel sauce. A flatter, compact, Scandinavian-style waffle, it brought al dente texture and salt, an excellent contrast to the sticky caramel and creamy, concentrated strawberry scoop. Yet again, we found ourselves bartering for the final bite.

Pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel

Pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel

If this sounds like a rave review, it is. I don't promise that each of your taste buds will explode with new ideas or ingredients, but—like a good tea–the dishes at Northern Spy develop as they steep. Rather than being at their best on the first bite, they evolve as you uncover each layer of complexity. It's the ultimate in "slow food," in fact. Not only is it local and sustainable, but you're best eating it at a leisurely pace, lest you let one of the subtler elements pass you by.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 E 12th St
(212) 228-5100