October 19, 2019, 12:40

Red Hook Tavern’s Strangely Stiff Paean to Old-School New York

Red Hook Tavern’s Strangely Stiff Paean to Old-School New York

You could say that Billy Durney, the man behind Red Hook Tavern, stumbled into the restaurant business. Around 2008, while working as a celebrity bodyguard, the Brooklyn native began noodling around with a smoker at home in South Park Slope, cooking barbecue as a way to blow off steam. Before long, he was taking research trips to study under pit masters in Texas, Illinois, and South America, painstakingly honing his recipes and techniques. In 2013, he opened Hometown Bar-B-Que in a converted garage in Red Hook; it quickly became one of New York’s most exciting places to eat, in part because of how unassuming it is, in the grand tradition of American barbecue restaurants. Hometown’s ragged slices of brisket and hulking beef ribs, served on wax paper, are as delicious as they are brutish-looking.

Red Hook Tavern’s burger, made with aged beef and inspired by the burger at Peter Luger, is admirably simple, sandwiched with Land o’ Lakes American cheese and raw white onion on a sesame-seed roll.

Photograph by Eric Helgas for The New Yorker

In 2016, Durney announced plans to open another restaurant, down the street, this one focussed on fried chicken. That sounded like a perfect extension of his obsessive hobbyist cooking. But he was plagued by construction and permit problems, and, as time went by, his idea shifted—the new place would be a tavern, he said in 2018, something like Corner Bistro or McSorley’s Ale House, with a limited menu featuring fried chicken but also a burger.

The restaurant that Durney finally opened, this past July, is intended, according to its Web site, to “pay tribute to the classic old school taverns and legendary food establishments experienced in New York City,” including Peter Luger Steak House. That’s a tall order, and Red Hook Tavern seems to be sagging a bit under the weight of its concept: it’s not a comfortable neighborhood saloon so much as a strangely stiff paean to one, dripping with self-consciousness and forced nostalgia, evident from the moment you walk in the door, where a besuited host named Benny insists on shaking each customer’s hand and making a formal introduction.

The restaurant was originally conceived as an homage to laid-back New York institutions like Corner Bistro and McSorley’s Ale House, known, respectively, for burgers and beer.

Photograph by Eric Helgas for The New Yorker

The narrow dining room, in a former liquor store, is theatrically heavy on early-twentieth-century-style wood, exposed brick, and floral wallpaper, and feels uniquely suited to winter. The menu also seems designed for colder climes. In the end, the chicken is not fried but pan-roasted and served with a mountain of gravy-capped mashed potatoes. There is a burger, but there’s also a New York strip steak (with a side of creamed spinach), a chicken-liver pâté, and a European-cheese plate. On a steamy night in August, when produce was peaking, one of a handful of vegetable dishes was composed almost entirely of things that could have come from a root cellar at Christmastime: fennel roasted in brown butter, served atop white-bean purée, and finished with pink peppercorns, pine nuts, and torn Castelvetrano olives.

The wedge salad replaces the customary iceberg with leaves of romaine lettuce, strewn with mustard seeds, chives, dill, bread crumbs, and blue cheese, and serves as a pedestal for a strip of applewood-smoked bacon.

Photograph by Eric Helgas for The New Yorker

Much of the food is admirable, particularly the burger: dry-aged beef formed into a patty that’s somehow both precisely bevel-edged and loosely packed, furnishing optimal juiciness, then layered with orange American cheese and crunchy raw white onions in a sesame roll from the same bakery Peter Luger uses. Mine came without ketchup and, as a lover of the condiment, I am loath to admit that this burger really doesn’t need any; adding it would be akin to sullying the finest sushi by dunking it in soy sauce. It’s accompanied by exactly three wedges of deep-fried potato, which seems stingy at first and then like an act of tasteful restraint.

Littleneck clams are steamed in white wine and blanketed in garlic. The Hemingway Daiquiri, in tribute to Havana’s El Floridita, is made with rum, grapefruit and lime juices, and Luxardo maraschino-cherry syrup.

Photograph by Eric Helgas for The New Yorker

But part of the appeal of Corner Bistro and McSorley’s—not to mention Hometown Bar-B-Que—is how accessible and to the point they are. You may not get a table immediately, but you can count on high turnover. Red Hook Tavern hasn’t had time to earn the stature of a place like Peter Luger, yet you need a reservation weeks in advance, or to wait for someone at the bar to finish a leisurely meal that might involve tasting pours of caramel-colored macerated wine from Greece and Georgia. These aren’t bad things, necessarily—I got notes of Cracker Jack from the Georgian wine—but there’s something a little disingenuous about the place. I’ll take my simple pleasures in a simpler setting. (Entrées $22-$49.) ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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