If you’ve eaten in Brooklyn lately, you might have noticed a burgeoning trend: A new breed of borough-centric chefs have started listing the origins of their ingredients on the menu, celebrating local products and purveyors in a way that would make Alice Waters proud. Brooklyn, it seems, has a terroir, and its biggest culinary boosters are making the most of it. At 360, the French bistro in Red Hook, Sebastian Smits has created a salad showcasing “mozarelle de buffle de M. Caputo,” courtesy of Court Street’s own estimable Monsieur Caputo. At nearby Schnäck, Alan Harding proudly serves kielbasa and knockwurst from Jubilat, “artisanal Polish butchers, Bklyn.” But no one’s capitalized on Brooklyn’s bounty more than Williamsburg chef Zakary Pelaccio, who’s coined his own catchphrase for the local foodstuffs he scavenges and plates at Chickenbone Café: Brooklyn global cuisine.
At first glance, the young clientele and the cedar-and-steel design suggest a hipster watering hole. But Pelaccio’s serious about food—cooking it and sourcing it. He forages the Brooklyn wilds for exceptional ingredients the way Euell Gibbons once scoured the forest looking for hickory nuts. The smoked fish and pickled herring he serves as an occasional special are made by a local Hasidic gentleman, our waiter informs us, and are as delicately sweet, smoky, and rich as any you’d find at Russ & Daughters. Beautifully creamy mozzarella, simply smooshed by the sandwich press between two slices of pizza bianca (another special), is handmade by a neighborhood woman who’s been in the business for over 70 years.
The menu focuses on small plates with big, intense flavors, like tartiflette, a sizzling skillet of sliced fingerlings, pungent Reblochon, and smoky bacon, and kielbasa bruschetta with spicy mustard and pickles. Among the salads, the simplest is the best: a heap of “North Fork organic seasonal greens” packed with spicy mustard greens and scattered with tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes.
Soups and vegetables change daily. One night’s “Greenmarket ramp soup with smoked duck” is thin and murky, lacking balance, but the blah-sounding side of braised celery hearts is a tender, thyme-tinged surprise, and kang kong, the innocuous-looking Asian green, gets its pungent punch from Malaysian shrimp paste. The rich, delicious house “bone stew” features two hefty pieces of free-range chicken in a pool of coconut-based broth reminiscent of Thai curry—so reminiscent it left us longing for a bowl of rice to sop it up. Rice eventually came into play another night, as a sticky bed for a Japanese-inspired special of sweetly glazed broiled eel. But just when you think Chickenbone’s flavor scales are tipped to the Far East, Pelaccio rallies with a special of sauce-cloaked partridge—a slightly gamy confited leg and tender roasted breast—right out of a Scottish country mansion, or at least an episode of Masterpiece Theatre.
Even during these sandwich-saturated times, Chickenbone’s stand out for sheer inventiveness: A tangy sauce gribiche makes a clever foil for rich confit of pork pressed into a ciabatta roll. The faint sourness of a pumpernickel baguette combined with slightly shredded slow-cooked salmon, watercress, and wasabi aioli is a delicious contrast of flavors. And a Vietnamese-style sandwich made with crumbled pork sausage, pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro, and garlicky aioli on great French bread is a worthy tribute to Brooklyn’s banh mi shops.
There’s even a dessert sandwich of melted chocolate on pressed brioche, garnished with a dollop of whipped cream and candied “citrus slaw.” Chickenbone’s gelato comes from a distinguished Bensonhurst bakery, but despite the pedigree, it didn’t impress us half as much as the oozingly ripe tuma d’la paja, one night’s cheese-plate special and not exactly a local product. But that’s the beauty of Brooklyn global cuisine—you get to have it both ways.