Roberta's: On The Privilege of Eating Delicious Things
Roberta's opened four years ago near the ugly, post-industrial border of Williamsburg and Bushwick. It was a warehouse, more or less. People sat communally at picnic tables and ate the products of a massive red wood-burning pizza oven that dominated the open kitchen near the front of the dining room. When the New York Times first visited the place, Roberta's was BYOB and hadn't yet turned on the gas: all non-pizza items were cooked on hot plates. By the time I arrived, the cooking had undergone a considerable evolution. As the front kitchen pumped out pies and calzones, a kitchen in back produced foie gras with caramel and black pepper; lamb cooked sous vide with transparent mint gelatin; sweetbreads with some kind of sweet and toothsome white sauce; agnolotti with black truffle and cheese; angel hair pasta with cockles; sea urchins with pairings undreamt of in Japan or anyplace at all beyond this once-desolate patch of Brooklyn.
But the place was still funky, and the funk was no affectation. It was as organic as the herbs grown atop the aluminum dining room out back. The restaurant isn't owned by entrepreneurs or pedigreed French chefs, but by young guys who like making food, drinking craft beer, and not being stuffy -- Chef Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini, and Gabe Rosner. A young chef friend of mine who briefly shadowed some of Roberta's cooks told me a secret: Roberta's management seeks out dissatisfied and under-appreciated sous chefs and line cooks from New York City's finer restaurants and recruits them with promises of creative freedom and fun. Although Roberta's turns out some of New York City's best haute cuisine, the kitchen is aggressively informal. There is often drinking on the job, and when standing by the gate to the "Employees Only" garden in the restaurant's rear, one occasionally gets a whiff of sweet indica wafting over the posts.
... It was early evening on a deep-summer Sunday in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the dining room of Roberta's, one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States.... here is some delicate little purslane from a woman down the street who grows it in her yard, dressed in light goat's-milk yogurt cut through with a wisp of lemon zest, with a few curls of shaved aged gouda and precisely five blueberries. Here is a small plate of Japanese cuttlefish heads rolled tight and sliced thin, then seared, served with nectarine nectar and tiny leaves of purple basil, with thin-sliced jalapeño for zip. Here is a carpaccio of Wagyu served with gooseberries, peppery watercress and small dabs of caviar, an outrageous and impeccable combination.These are extremely beautiful plates of food, artfully designed. The cuttlefish, in particular, would not look out of place on a starched tablecloth at Per Se. They are delicate of flavor, free of excess fats or salts, as pure an expression of new American cuisine as you are likely to find anywhere. It is shocking, and wonderful, to eat them in this cinder-block garage space six stops into Brooklyn on the L, a ratty old ski lodge built for bums interested in food rather than powder.There are no cloth napkins or tablecloths at Roberta's, no comfortable seats. Christmas lights provide mood lighting, and urban detritus and flea-market finds the art on the walls. The service is excellent, however, far more polished than the setting would suggest. Roberta's may appear an unlikely cathedral to such culinary excellence. It is no less a cathedral for that.
The restaurant critic at the Times is the most powerful voice in all of foodiedom. Last summer that critic was Sam Sifton, a reserved man who seldom comes so unglued in print. And after he wrote about Roberta's, Roberta's changed.
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