Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
Pillar And Plough
160 North 12th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11249
Dine date: December 4, 2011
When a non-Brooklyner thinks of Williamsburg, several things come to mind. Expensive cab fare, or a hella wait for the L train. Rents that used to be cheaper than Manhattan, but not so much anymore. Upfront bands that can make your iPhone playlist before your sorry-ass friends. Beanie-wearing long-boarding hyphy’s. Grungy-cool bars where they spend their money made from undefined professions. Great galleries with art you understand (mostly). Brooklyn Bowl. Weed stank. Illegal afterhours warehouse techno parties. Meatpacking District-style boutique hotels [needle scratching vinyl]… wah wahhh.
Run by Graves Group and designed by Studio Gaia and architect Gene Kaufman, the Williamsburg Hotel sprung up in May 2011 and opened it’s restaurant Pillar And Plough on November 22, 2011. The kitchen at P&P is run by chef Andrés Julian Grundy (l’Atelier De Joel Robuchon, Bouley) who is using locally-sourced ingredients wherever possible, including produce from rooftop gardens in Greenpoint. His sous-chefs are the people actually bringing your dishes from the open kitchen to your table. He garnishes dishes with something called a crosne. Pretty freakin’ fancy schmancy for the BK, no? Or is it a preview of what’s to come in a neighborhood that is coming of age?
Or could this be a prototype destination designed not for locals, but for out-of-town trendoids looking to experience the Williamsburg story they’ve been reading about in the airline magazines over the past couple of years? Points to ponder, folks - points to ponder.
The façade of the Williamsburg Hotel is inauspicious and resembles the other new mid-rise residential buildings on the block. Walking into the lobby area, you are greeted by the lobby bar. The cocktail program, run by Toby Maloney of Alchemy Consulting, is present both in the lobby bar and in the restaurant bar downstairs. Respect to the cocktails, which are propah mixology-style, with giant rectangular ice cubes to ensure even chillage and a certain sense of “yuuup… I know what up”. The “Takes All Kinds” is a blend of Praise Vodka, Cocci Americano, honey, and a basil garnish. It’s perfectly balanced between herby and citrusy, and tastes like vodka lemonade with a little Thai lovin’ in the mix. The Negroni falls a bit flat with a noticeable lack of vermouth and no garnish.
Ok, it’s BBurg, throw on your shoegazer steez and get down the concrete stairwell into the main dining room, a two thousand square foot space with two-story ceilings and one hundred seats. The vibe is mod and “contempo cabin”, overall chic with a certain warmth and Spartan style, rife with browns and reds, although lacking in any sort of plants – could have been a nice organic perk? Edison lights cluster over the tables. Edison filaments light up a small lounge area with seven small cocktails tables and poufs. The nine draftsman stools at the central bar are gorgeous and welcoming, but tightly crowded in – not sure how that would work out if the place was slammed. The central tables have about eighteen inches clearance on either side.
Insider tip: the banquette tables against the far wall have nearly three feet between them, making them much more desirable when you reserve.
The kitchen is open and its busy cooking staff is all dressed in black – a well-conceived moving tableau visible from everywhere in the room, kind of like a giant hipsterquarium. A private dining room is set in the corner for larger parties seeking a little more privacy and bling-age. The ceiling is made of a plain gray soundproofing brick material – couldn’t it have been adorned a bit to complete the effect? Maybe like a giant golden plough, or pillar, or something. Dunno. Large windows on the upper-half of the high walls give outside views of the tree-lined street above. Overall it feels very good in here, it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the big picture and the flow.
At the table, a hearty and delicious loaf of warm, house-baked peasant bread appears – whole grain with black pepper baked in. A serrated knife would have been a propos, but hey, it’s good enough to not mind ripping it apart with your bare hands.
The menu appears and is looking good. Twelve appies and seven mains (beware: mains are 100% fish and meat), plus a five-course tasting menu ($75 pp) that contains some off-menu items.
Among the openers, the tater tots with smoked paprika cream ($5) look like fun on paper, but they end up being far too greasy and oily. The heavy cream dip just adds to the weight and subsequent cardiac arrest – and more importantly, palate saturation.
The tuna tartare (priced into $75 tasting menu) with purple shiso and extra virgin olive oil is extremely fresh, exquisitely prepared, and well portioned. Whaaaaaaat’s this… a fish scale made it into the serving. Not good. This could have been a perfect starter. Accidents do happen, but come on guys. Derp.
The potato-encrusted skate (priced into $75 tasting menu) is set on sliced layers of tete de cochon (braised roulade of pig face), leeks, and truffle vinaigrette. Again, it is far too fried and oily, and the tete de cochon is not for everyone, but the high-quality ingredients partially make up for the underwhelming composition, which seems too fanciful and experimental if not poorly realized.
The blistered shishito peppers ($6) are tip-top, simple, and salted just right. They are portioned well for a share, and every now and then you get a scorching zinger. Hurts so good.
The strozzapreti pasta ($13) is earthy and al dente, served with braised veal breast, anchovy butter, and garlic crumbs. It’s plated at the perfect temperature and is full of intricate and evolved textures. The flavors, despite being very different, are clean and striated - and somehow avoid mangling into a clusterf**k. The veal acts like a bacon-y crisp to counterbalance the chewy pasta. Excellent and refined while retaining a rustic composition. If this is peasant food, make me a peasant.
The chantenay carrots ($12) are original and inventive. You will challenge yourself to think of when you’ve had such an interesting and crazy carrot dish. They are served in three formats: whole and roasted, cut into fine ribbons like a pasta, and as dehydrated gelatin chips. Bewildering and unidentifiable spices are pleasantly happening here. The accompanying couscous is dry and fried, which provides crunchy morsels here and there. The argan oil ties everything together like a tasty shoelace of love. Bravo.
Despite not being vegetarian-friendly, the entrees deliver from a varied arsenal of lokes-sourced raw materials.
The hangar steak (priced into $75 tasting menu) is of top quality – perfectly seared and scorched, juicy and well marinated, seasoned to perfection, and portioned appropriately. The accompanying bone marrow sabayon is salty and delicious, integrating well with the beef and giving it a more ‘expensive’ flavor profile. The shishito peppers add some green veggie chewiness, and the wilted spinach is perfection – buttery without overpowering the mouth, and transmitting their evident freshness straight to your palate.
The venison saddle and roasted foie gras ($29) is an unexpected clash between the gamey deer and the tart autumn berries mixed in with it. The venison itself is bedwettingly sublime – lean, tender, and supple – and cooked to perfection. An occasional bite of the foie gras makes for the perfect indulgence. The warm apple sauce bed is pureed so finely it tastes like high-end Gerber’s. Check out the cool garnish: a tuber vegetable called a crosne (pronounced ‘crone’). Looks like a cross between the Michelin Man, a larva, and a seashell. Different and tasty, sort of like a little green apple-y potato monster. Cool and weird! Get on this venison main, definitely the highlight.
The wine list, curated by wine director Gina Goyette (formerly from The Mark), is clearly organized and easily navigable. The prices are fair across the board, so order with confidence. Gina is a forgiving and attentive sommelier, and her recommendation of the 2006 Aglianico del Taburno Fidelis ($48) was a solid one considering the breadth of the food pairings involved. Speaking of which, when the skate arrived at the table, she magically appeared and poured two complimentary glasses of 2009 Macon-Village Bret Brothers ($14 glass) to bridge the gap on that particular course – awesome and attentive service.
Overall, the room is great, the service is outstanding, the menu is intuitive and locally focused, and the booze is right on point. The menu is strong, albeit sprinkled with a few semi-questionable appetizers. There are a few kinks to work out, like with any new spot, but Pillar And Plough is definitely worth a few meals – could work for business, date, friends, large group, etc… pretty Swiss Army knife. Rumor has it that change is already coming, in terms of ownership - and even concept. We hope not.
Break It Down…
Excellent quality of ingredients and the preparation was world-class; slight lack of cogency in the tasting menu - everything stood alone well, but could have been more perfectly sequenced; some dishes fell short, especially in the appetizer category.
Flawless from start to finish; perfect timing on plating; attention to detail; focused on overall experience.
Felt warm and fuzzy, but with a cool and hip energy; great design and flow overall, and nice to see – and somehow, not hear – the open kitchen.
$75 is way too much for the tasting menu; a la carte options correct on appetizers and slightly high on entrees; wine prices are correct, standard markup.
Accommodation On Walk-In
Gracious, no problem.
Bathroom: Sanctuary Or Minefield?
Nobody pushing wares on you, off the beaten path of the dining room; could have been cozier.
Ability To Have Sex In The Bathroom
There is space to get busy, but not if the dining room is crowded and traffic is high; off beaten path and not observable by dining room; stalls are standard metal dividers with space above and below.
Seat Height Equilibrium
Tables are fine, banquettes are as well.
Affect Of Staff
Gracious and friendly; didn't flinch at purposely mispronounced "aglianico"; was genuinely informative in explaining the mysterious and fascinating crosne.
Humor Of Staff
Funny and unpretentious without being overly familiar.
Wine Recommendation Honesty
As a ruse, asked for recommendation between $48 aglianico and $80+ Turley Atlas Peak zinfandel; they could have been more adamant that the zin was clearly the wrong choice, however they were operating under pressure of pairing with many disparate courses.
Quality Of Music
Could be a lot less dated and generic; not well thought out, but thankfully not overly noticeable either.
Big ceilings provide good insulation from reverberation; not offensive.
Laaaadies! Purse Hanging Options At The Table
Square seat backs and plenty of room behind for a dangling purse to not be continuously jostled.