Even modest restaurants need a thematic gimmick these days, and the trick at Char No. 4 is smoke. The smoke in question isn’t fiery or billowing; it’s smoke of a more subtle and ultimately satisfying kind. You smell it as soon as you walk into the clean, utilitarian space, which opened not long ago among the jumble of storefronts along Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. In accordance with the now-sacred David Chang template, the room consists of a long polished-wood bar up front, a series of utilitarian dining booths in the back, and not much else. Smoky bourbons are the house specialty (the restaurant’s name refers to a term for fire-treating whiskey casks), and there’s a wall of bottles behind the bar, culled from the restaurant’s impressive 300-plus bottle collection. But the centerpiece is the state-of-the-art smoker in the basement, which informs many of the recipes on the modest, artful menu and fills the joint with comforting traces of applewood and oak.
What kind of meat do the city’s growing legion of barbecue-mad chefs like to cook in their smokers? Pork, of course. The smoked-bacon appetizer at Char No. 4 is thick-cut, like the famous “sizzling bacon” at Peter Luger, but it has a deeper, porkier flavor and is laid over a bed of pleasantly tangy black-eyed peas. There are also warm ribbons of smoked Kentucky ham, served with pickles and fig jam, and a peppery, house-cured pastrami made with mounds of deliciously lean, candy-pink lamb, instead of the usual fatty beef. If it’s fat you want, try the Chiclet-size “fried pork nuggets” made with deboned pig trotters (with a spicy-sweet dipping sauce) or the crunchy fried oysters, sizzled in a crust of ground cornflakes, with a sidecar of bacon-flavored rémoulade. Then cap off these heart-clogging starters with the diabolical house BLT: a tea-sandwich-size construction made with a melting slab of braised-then-fried pork belly instead of bacon, pickled tomatoes, aïoli, and a layer of fresh romaine.
Char No. 4’s chef, Matt Greco, has worked at Café Gray, among other tony kitchens, and it shows. His lamb pastrami is brined for a week, boutique greens are employed liberally (there are two good salads on the menu), and most things are made from scratch. The sausages are ground in-house, and the smoked, spicy beef link (with creamy mustard potato salad and frizzled shallots) is itself worth a trip. My honey-glazed chicken was tough if pleasantly smoky, but the chopped-pork sandwich is a thing of beauty (it’s bombed with the tangy, Dr Pepper–rich “Char No. 4 barbecue sauce”), especially if you enjoy it, as I did one evening, with a side of cauliflower gratin sprinkled with crushed almonds.
Char No. 4 was conceived as a mecca for outer-borough whiskey connoisseurs (one of the proprietors has a large bourbon collection of his own), and if you spend time mingling with the scruffy bourbon loons at the bar, it’s possible to drop some serious cash fast. Of the 300-plus traditional mash bill bourbons, moonshine corn whiskeys, esoteric Japanese whiskeys, and Scottish single malts available at the bar, nine of them cost $100 a pop for a thin, one-ounce “taste.” I didn’t have the funds for a sip of the 24-year-old Martin Mills, or the legendary “Old Grommes 121 proof,” which is sold primarily to well-heeled bourbon addicts in Japan. But if you have six dollars in your pocket, I recommend a taste of the warming, almost Cognac-sweet Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage ’98. Another seven bucks buys the perfect nightcap to this boozy, southern-accented feast: three scoops of house-churned butter- pecan ice cream, splashed with a shot of bourbon, of course.
For those of you ghouls who’d like to trace the decline of New York’s latest gilded restaurant era, from its apex during the go-go nineties to the dimly lit recession-era bistros of today, David Bouley’s slapdash new venture, Secession, is a good place to start. Bouley’s “French Italian” brasserie occupies the angular jewel-box space in Tribeca that once housed his posh three-star Austrian restaurant, Danube. The glittering azure-blue frescoes still adorn the walls like washed-out artifacts in a Byzantine church, and if you look up at the ceiling in the entrance, you’ll see a lovely wrought-iron pattern of leaves, painted in gold. But now the new restaurant’s lounge area is filled with the sounds of a piped in Top-40 dance track. The tables in the dining room are decorated with elderly, withering flower arrangements, and the cheesy, pine-green napkins and dun-brown chairs look like they’ve been heisted from the barroom of a not-very-prosperous golf club in suburban New Jersey.
The menu at Secession is a similar jumble of tired brasserie conceits, and it’s too long by half. I didn’t get around to trying the chicken livers with Balinese peppercorn, or the profusion of bedraggled salads (avoid the one with overpriced lobster, however), or the shriveled-looking coconut shrimp, which, according to one food historian at the table, originated at Outback Steakhouse. The mushroom risotto had a nice, earthy bite to it, and some of the terrines (try the canard à l’orange) are satisfying in a familiar, old-fashioned way. But too many of the entrées (deflated schnitzel; chewy duck; the famous Bouley chicken, drowned here in a starchy gravy) tasted like they’d just emerged from a cafeteria steam tray. The chops (veal or lamb) aren’t bad, and if you feel like traveling back to the old go-go days, neither are the chocolate-soaked profiteroles for dessert. On the other hand, if you remember the great chef from those glory years, you might want to avoid this tired, connect-the-dots performance altogether.