Roberta’s (Brooklyn) – Frontiers
The incongruity of Roberta’s begins somewhere in Manhattan for many, where the island’s sheer density assaults the senses. One does not fare much better on the subway, fighting for a seat, while the car jerks and screeches toward points unknown.1 Emerging from the Morgan Ave stop, on a cold eve before snowfall, the bustle is replaced by a calm grey stillness, desolate rows of shuttered warehouses, and empty streets. Random lights sparkle in make-shift lofts. There is a marked dearth of human activity. You could almost imagine, somewhere under the river, the bomb dropped – and this is the brave new world.
“The neighborhood [Bushwick] was lawless… We were launching giant fireworks out of my window literally for hours, and the cops never came” – Chris Parachini, founding partner and original spark behind Roberta’s.
As one turns the corner, looking at the restaurant, it is immediately clear that Roberta’s embraces a frontier mentality – its surrounding area qualifying as margins – a (permanent) temporary autonomous zone. An old garage, with a cinder block facade, houses everything in an ad-hoc aesthetic – make-do-with-what’s-available additions, like a garden out back that rests on shipping containers. It is function over form, organic and adapting to its needs, a statement of the DIY ideals ingrained into the restaurant.2
Roberta’s is known as a “pizza joint“, one that has been fortunate enough to ride a few simultaneous narrative waves – food media fascinations with both Brooklyn DIY culture and urban sustainability – a bit of the right place at the right time luck. The pizzas, made in an imported oven from Italy, are a high-quality Neapolitan pie. Opting for toppings (not my thing) might lead one into various meats & veggies – hints of the “other” Roberta’s. For there is a second kitchen serving smaller plates and pastas – Italian on the surface but with enough international influence to call it “American.” It is manned by Carlo Mirarchi, a self-taught chef and partner, with price points that thrust Roberta’s into a third narrative darling of post-recession America – the “democratization of good food.”
Together, a meal constructed out of a few beginning dishes and pizzas would be more exciting than most of what Manhattan has to offer. Carlo’s cooking has an exacting balance in each dish and near-perfect technical execution – in a restaurant known for its pizza.
And then there’s the meat – those glorious proteins.
Regular readers here have probably noticed my preference for less red meat in fine dining. Conventions of ingredients, forms, and flavor combinations have been challenged around the world; but most (Western) fine dining meals end with a hunk of protein, or two, as the final course(s). It is a tradition that neither chef, nor eater, seems to have much interest in over-turning.3 So how might a chef make red meat more interesting?
You control the rot, metaphorically speaking, and that is how Carlo elevates the same protein to new heights. Pizzas, subtle dishes perfectly executed, and aggressive aging of red meats – how could it all add up?
This was an early January meal, shortly after the great blizzard. It was arranged, in advance, as a tasting menu, but most of the non-meat items were available on the restaurant’s normal menu. It is not a typical Roberta’s meal but it is representative of one.
Roboppy, The Girl Who Ate Everything, joined in on the fun and took the wonderful pictures featured throughout this post.
The East Dennis Oyster, Yuzu Granita was a gentle introduction, the yuzu muted and complementary to the oyster’s brininess
Glass Shrimp, celery, finger lime, poppy seed was a well composed dish of texture and dynamic flavors. It served in many ways as an opening salvo for the meal – and I was surprised by the careful and deliberate balance of flavor. Biting down into the raw shrimp, the diminutive poppy seeds inflected just enough crunch to satisfy and counterbalance. The sharpness of the celery and finger lime brought the sweetness of the shrimp into focus. Exactness, restraint, and balance – repeating themes throughout the night.
Straciatella, wild Osetra caviar, pistachio, gooseberry
Texture and balance also underpinned the Cuttlefish, tomato, chili, breadcrumbs. The cuttle fish was grilled to the slightest of chews, no doubt aided by the precision cuts that traversed it, while the breadcrumbs acted as slight crunch counterpoint. The theme resembled the shrimp dish – just enough to notice. The char, as you can see, had a great range from black to barely, its smokiness pairing nicely with the tomato and chili.
Black Sea Bass, razor clam, chard, maiatake
The dynamic Foie, persimmon, toffee, black pepper was a sensational seared foie preparation. Always a fan of torchons and terrines, rarely of seared, the flavors in this dish bounced back and forth with each bite. One bit salty, one bite sweet, while the pepper just lingered softly in the background – impressive!
And then there was red meat.
Fantastical tales of aged birds and beef, approaching the limits of the craft, drew me to Roberta’s. There are things that can not be undone, and once you’ve had a heritage bird, or a musky ribeye, it is hard to return to a world of steakhouses and industrial breeds. With the current trends of DIY and mining history, it’s surprising that more restaurants do not put greater efforts into their meat programs, outside of charcuterie. Economics and taste4 are probably culprits but Carlo has made a commitment to procuring, aging, and cooking, the best meat. Four meat dishes – four meat references for me – demolish the suburbs, plant more fields, and let’s raise more animals.
Constantly on the hunt, wild animals are lean and tough. Dry-aging the meat, where the meat’s enzymes break down collagen in the muscles, helps both tenderize and intensify flavor – a great one-two punch. But the practice does not have to be relegated to creatures of the wild. The meat at Roberta’s is intense and aggressive – it has obviously been aged close to its limits. It is probably not for everyone, but it is quite special.
Curious about the dark arts of aging birds, I asked Daniel Klein, of the excellent Perennial Plate blog / documentary series, as well as a veteran of Fat Duck and Mugaritz, a few questions on the subject. He’s a hunter and I was curious how much experimentation he had done with this aspect of his bounty.
There is not a limit to aging a bird, although in my limited experience, two weeks for game birds adds to the flavor without making them overly strong and a week is good for farm raised poultry. You can really hang a bird until it starts to have a slight smell of funk, and then cook it, but I am wary of that – and have yet to try. Apparently it will have quite a strong flavor. Birds have more unsaturated fat as compared to Saturated fat with Beef, that is why they go bad faster – its less stable. In conclusion, a good time frame for birds is 1-2 weeks, preferably with the innards left inside and if it is game the feathers should be left on. This may have something to do with oxidization causing more rapid decay.
The meats began with Trofie, squab heart and liver, a rich and complex dish that managed to maintain its balance. The texture of the pasta provided a complementary resistance and offset to the richness of the ground organ meats. Those remarkable tales, if this dish were any indication, were probably true.
The Squab, kohlrabi, black garlic not only had an intensity, but a depth, that was remarkable. It is hard to imagine how much more flavor could be extracted from the meat but the skin, charred liberally (see leg), crackled and imparted additional smoky notes. The squab was a revelation by itself but the black garlic, fermented, used sparingly, added a slight dimension of sweet and tangy.
Normandy Duck, treviso, with its crackling skin, oozing fat, the incredible richness – who needs pork?
I knew in advance the Cote de Beouf, fingerlings, spigarello, sweetbreads , if it were served, could be the true masterpiece of the meal. Over the past two years, my preferences towards beef have shifted to an extreme of six plus weeks of dry-aging. There are exceptions, of course, but it is of the main reasons wagyu does not excite me as much as the next person.5 There is a funkiness to the taste, certainly not for everyone, particularly in the outer fat, the reason some call it “controlled rotting.” And this massive steak delivered on every expectation – marvelously ‘cooked’ – one of the best steaks I’ve ever had, including the mature cows of Spain.
After four courses of red, intense meat, expectations exceeded, without the possibility of coming back on this trip, a pizza was in order. And, of course, some desserts.
Celery Root, mascarpone, gouda, scallion
Olive Oil Cake, chestnut gelato, confit olives
Pannacotta, sunflower, sunchoke
When you catalogue important restaurants in the US, what they do, and how influential they might become; Roberta’s should be in the discussion. It has its own vision, one of intuit and function over marketing and form. Its many dimensions of discrepancy does not overshadow its purpose, though it does add fun, interesting color. The body of work, from space to dish to philosophy, is inspirational – perhaps the truest measure of a DIY project – a commitment to re-writing the terms of the future.6
And, yes, the food is exceptional!
1 – It is quick, short ride from Manhattan to Roberta’s on the L line but ask any Manhattanite for directions to Bushwick and they will act as if it’s new unmapped territory. If they were discussing Roberta’s in particular, they might be right!
2 – Those DIY ideals include, but are probably not limited to, Brooklyn Grange – the largest rooftop farm project in New York City; planting rooftop greenhouses; and housing the Heritage Radio Network in a shipping container.
3 – There are exceptions – one the subject of my next blog post – Saison in San Francisco.
4 – Economic because a hanging bird is not a selling bird, and it’s occupying precious square footage in expensive temperature/humidity-controlled rooms. Taste because most people are accustomed to bland industrial breeds where flavor is but one market factor.
5 – I like it very much but, if given a choice, I’d take grass-fed aged 6+ weeks any day. My butcher has been consistently dry-aging rib-eyes for eight to ten weeks. I’ve found that ten is just on the wrong side of “assertiveness”, as the fat definitely gets funky. I wonder if one got a working cow, one that has plowed fields for untold years, without much fat, what its dry-aging limits might be?
6 – For my last zany idea, as I wrote this post and titled it, Roberta’s kept reminding me of something. And then it dawned on me – the community feel, building something from nothing, trying to create something that will live on – the story has many of the same themes as the excellent Robert Altman movie, “McCabe and Mrs Miller.”