Manhattan restaurateurs have been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to bottle that homespun, organic quality that the new generation of Brooklyn dive bars and neighborhood joints are famous for and make it their own. But what happens to that elusive outer-borough mystique when ambitious, bewhiskered Brooklyn restaurateurs decide to cross the river and set up shop in Manhattan? Earlier this year, the venerable Brooklyn pizza parlor Grimaldi’s opened a new branch on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea; the popular Mexican establishment Hecho en Dumbo moved a while back to a new location on the Bowery; and those industrious (and bewhiskered) culinary entrepreneurs Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli recently opened a boisterous West Village branch of their red-sauce bistro chain, Frankies Spuntino, which is as different in tone and scale from the Carroll Gardens original as the first Palm steakhouse is from the one in Vegas.
Now comes Fatty ’Cue Manhattan, Zak Pelaccio’s glitzy Manhattan reimagining of his great Asian-accented Brooklyn barbecue joint, Fatty ’Cue. Unlike the poky, closet-size flagship on the fringes of Williamsburg, the new Fatty ’Cue occupies a prime piece of storefront real estate on Carmine Street in the West Village. The façade of the new restaurant is sheathed in painted brown wood, the windows are covered with stylish blinds, and like that of a downtown nightclub, the heavy door is affixed with a silver handle molded from a real pig’s foot. The dark interior is lit like a nightclub, too, and features a black-tiled bar and rows of padded green leather banquettes. There is no pleasingly authentic, spark-belching smoker in the backyard (the meat is smoked at the Williamsburg restaurant and trucked across the river), and the walls are set with glowing displays of “table service” liquor bottles, which patrons can buy for the evening, like high rollers in a casino.
“I feel like I’m in a Steve Wynn interpretation of a Brooklyn restaurant,” said one of my guests as we eyed Pelaccio’s new menu, which is less profuse and Rabelaisian than the one in Williamsburg and seems to have been designed with a slightly more discerning palate in mind. There’s no Sunday pig’s-head special like there used to be in Brooklyn, and the fabled late-night sandwiches (pork-stuffed bánh mìs, the famous smoked brisket with chile jam) aren’t available for now. You can get fresh oysters, however, for $18 per half dozen, and little spoonfuls of caviar-topped corn salad that taste very nice but aren’t quite worthy of their $14 sticker price. There is also a variety of delicate new vegetable-centric appetizers available, including a medley of shaved raw vegetables (with a crème-frâiche-and-roasted-garlic dip), and a healthful kale salad tossed with a creamy peppercorn dressing spiked with the spicy, faintly fishy Malaysian garnish cincalok.
Pelaccio spent some of his formative cooking (and eating) years in Malaysia, of course, and his most inspired creations tend to have a similar tangy, spicy-sweet Southeast Asian kick to them. The great chile-and-ginger-infused dish “bacon and clams” isn’t unlike the one in Brooklyn (although it costs $2 more), but the Manhattan version of Fatty ’Cue’s signature ’Cue Coriander Bacon is cut like pork belly, in soft, lacquered squares, and brought to the table in regal style, on a wooden carving board with a bowl of gently sweetened salsa verde on the side. My friend the Offal Hound gave an enthusiastic two thumbs up to a new Pelaccio creation called Trippa Malaysiana (soft strips of tripe in a smoky tomato curry), and to the inventive varieties of sausage (served as specials), which include a loose, deliciously tangy Thai-style pork sausage, which the kitchen ferments in vinegar for several days and serves with wedges of crostini and a perfectly poached egg.
My barbecue-loving daughters were disappointed to hear that one of their favorite Fatty ’Cue dishes, smoked Bobo chicken, doesn’t make an appearance on the menu at the posh new Manhattan outlet. It’s been replaced, among the poultry offerings, by a properly fiery Northern Thai duck laab (ground duck from Fazio Farms, plenty of green chiles, and lettuce leaves for wrapping), and a helping of cool, subtly flavored poached boneless chicken mingled with shreds of smoked eggplant and tiny slices of pickled jalapeño. The ambitious new large-plate items on the Manhattan menu are less successful (bland knobs of chicken-fried rabbit, a bony whole turbot with a brackish uni-butter sauce), but Fatty ’Cue devotees can take refuge in old favorites, like slabs of glistening, deckle-cut brisket, and the sticky, truncheon-size heritage-pork ribs, which are smothered in Pelaccio’s familiar blend of fish sauce, Indonesian long peppers, and palm sugar.
These dishes don’t have quite the same raffish, messy charm that they do when they’re devoured among hordes of revelers at a cramped, smoky bar in their natural Williamsburg terroir (and if you’re not careful, the profusion of small plates can produce an oversize, big-city tab). But the Manhattanites at my table agreed that this was not necessarily such a bad thing. You can wash down your spicy dinner with a nice bottle of Grüner Veltliner (Steinhaus ’09) at the newest Fatty ’Cue, and although the wait staff dress in familiar hipster costume (plaid shirts, tweed jockey caps, etc.), many have trained at the finest gourmet restaurants in town. The dessert list is filled with strange, funky creations with names like Ginger and Buffalo Milk ice cream (pretty good) and Tamarind Black Sesame Smoke (less good). There’s even a “composed” cheese plate at this civilized, big-city barbecue joint, which, on the evening I enjoyed it, was made with toasted brioche, a drizzling of balsamic-flavored artisanal honey, and carefully crumbled chunks of Old Chatham Shaker Blue.