In praise of the standby spot
I love the idea of being a regular. The truth is, there are few places and even fewer full-service restaurants where I could comfortably identify as so. I have a go-to in my neighborhood (more on that in another piece), and there are plenty of spots I'll hit every couple of months. But then there is another kind of relationship to a given establishment in which you're not a noted regular—i.e., dining there as often as once a week or once every other week—but more than a semi-recurring guest. It's when you're inclined to visit more than every so often, quick to suggest it if there's not a newer place you're wanting to check out, and drawn to it when choosing where to dine in the neighborhood it resides. I'm going to call this a standby spot.
Besides the obvious factors, which are very good food and service that's friendly and efficient, these are my qualifications:
It has to be consistent.
There must be a few crave-worthy dishes.
While it helps if offerings change regularly (you'd always have a reason to return), it's unnecessary as long as the menu has range.
The vibe has to be relaxed yet buzzy insofar as you want to take people there not only because the cooking is spot-on, but because it's a good time.
That brings me to a bare-bones restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where the walls are white, the tables and chairs are dark wood, and the kitchen is open. It's become known for its pancakes, but I'm partial to dinner—when one of my favorite dishes in the city is served: a grilled pork shoulder steak with a hefty dollop of fresh salsa verde and stewed, lard-laden lentils. A lot of the food leans rich, like chicken liver pâté and pig's head terrine, but there is lighter fare too, such as a refreshing kohlrabi and apple salad. The Caesar is easily the best Caesar I've had. The half chicken with romesco does not disappoint. I recently tried a brothy halibut dish with fingerlings, cabbage, and spring onions and would recommend that, too. The other night I was seated outside, the sun setting behind me, when I tried a new, seasonal dish—grilled asparagus topped with a rustic walnut pesto. It was delicious. Whether or not I go for it, I always consider dessert because there's a chocolate cake that's dense, rich, and fudgy (read: perfect) and a zingy lemon tart that hits the spot.
I'm treated like a familiar face, partially because I am, but mostly because that's how their service flows. For example, there's always someone on the floor who's eager to help you find a wine you'll like, and it won't take long for them to realize you're in need of assistance. From the four-top enjoying cocktails and oysters to the bartender talking up a solo diner waiting on a steak tartare, everyone seems to be living easy.
It's both a neighborhood joint and a destination restaurant. I could end up there on a weeknight, snack on a few things, and maybe have a glass of something—which I did last Tuesday. Or, I could do it up and order many plates, plus a bottle, and something sweet—which I did last Friday. Twice in a week had me feeling like a regular, but I'm not yet confident I have that mark. Still, returning so soon was an easy choice to make because, for me, it's a standby spot.
Chez Ma Tante
90 Calyer St, Brooklyn, NY 11222
Things I read this week (and liked):
I can't say I have much of a desire to eat at Koks, but this was a good read on the bizarre, fine dining mecca of the Faroe Islands. [New Yorker]
This fictional story about a somewhat unhappy couple's omakase dinner [New Yorker]
As the reckoning continues to play out, I think it's also on men to step up to the plate as allies and not just on women "to put in place a new set of rules," but I ultimately admire Naomi Pomeroy's effort to speak up. [Eater]
I want to see chef-driven wine bars take off in a big way stateside. [Eater]
I'd love to see the 50 Best Restaurants list just die. Its flaws are so blatant and obvious, nothing is being done to fix it, and it's boring—although, yes, necessary—to have to criticize it every damn year. [Grub Street]
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