As any knowledgeable restaurant anthropologist will tell you, the seeds of the new Brooklyn style of dining were planted in Manhattan. That’s where locavore, seasonally driven menus originated. So did bewhiskered mixologists, trendy no-reservation policies (thank you, Mr. Chang), and ye olde dive-bar restaurants with carefully distressed décor (thank you, Freemans). But as the Brooklyn restaurant scene continues to mutate and evolve, the kind of raffish, casually inventive, modestly priced neighborhood cooking associated with such now iconic institutions as Marlow & Sons and the Frankies Spuntino empire in Carroll Gardens is starting to loop back across the river. And more and more restaurateurs in Manhattan are attempting to bottle the elusive, homespun alchemy that the best Brooklyn restaurants are known for, and make it their own.
At least those were my thoughts as I hunkered down at the bar amid the bearded, flannel-shirted, bourbon-swilling hordes who are already flooding into Gabriel Stulman’s latest restaurant, Fedora, which opened recently on 4th Street in the West Village. Over the past few years, the energetic (and, as it happens, bearded) Mr. Stulman has made a specialty of taking pokey spaces near Sheridan Square, where he lives, and turning them into the kind of hopping, corner-bar destinations that you’re more likely to find in Williamsburg or the newly gentrified borderlands of Fort Greene. Stulman’s restaurants are tiny, as a rule (Joseph Leonard, on Waverly, has seven tables, Fedora has eight), the menus are filled with hearty hipster staples like braised lamb shanks, brisket sandwiches, and oysters on the half-shell (Stulman’s a former partner in the Little Owl), and in the evenings, the crowded little rooms take on an intimate, almost private-party-like feel.
The original Fedora closed last year, after a long run serving chopped beefsteak and Italian red-sauce dishes to a devoted, though increasingly antique, neighborhood clientele. Stulman has extended the mahogany bar and given the narrow, subterranean space a fresh coat of white paint. The walls are covered in clubby photos of Muhammad Ali, Basquiat, and Mos Def, and the deceptively inventive bistro menu has been designed with an eye toward comfort and heft. On the evenings I visited, the bar was mobbed with scruffy revelers gobbling bluepoints and helpings of fat, golden cod fritters, arranged on wax paper, with pots of fresh whipped aïoli on the side. The surprisingly artful appetizers include sardines scattered with crushed peanuts, a generous portion of cured Spanish mackerel touched with avocado, and an excellent lumberjack version of egg-in-a-hole, which Fedora’s chef, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, constructs with a thick layer of toast, melted Cheddar, and a spicy tripe ragout.
Like the cooks at several fashionable outer-borough destinations (Mile End deli in Boerum Hill, M. Wells diner in Queens), Brunet-Benkritly comes from Montreal, where he was the chef de cuisine at the famous nose-to-tail restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. He has a fondness for classic offal dishes, like beef tongue (cut from Wagyu cattle, with shavings of green apple and a celeriac rémoulade) and crispy pig’s head, which was muffled here, on the night I ordered it, with too much gribiche sauce. Instead of a house cheeseburger, there’s a torpedo-size “warm beef sandwich” on the menu at Fedora, which the kitchen stuffs with ribbons of roast beef and dresses with Sriracha and horseradish aïoli. The delicate, fusion-style steak-tartare appetizer I sampled one evening was garnished with flying-fish roe and bits of puffed rice, and the excellent blood-sausage special was spiced with cinnamon and cloves and softened nicely with pork fat and spoonfuls of heavy cream.
Brunet-Benkritly is capable of cooking with a light, classical touch, but most of the earthy fusion recipes at Fedora are designed to be consumed in a happy lather, with flagons of ale. “Let the feasting commence,” said one of the merry hipsters at my table, as we pondered the impressively gigantic “big pork chop for two,” which was smothered in pork meatballs, no less, and served with a stack of fluffy scallion pancakes. An equally massive côte de boeuf special was buried, not entirely successfully, in drifts of bok choy and Cantonese fried rice, and if you order the fried chicken leg, it comes over a pile of fragrant, faintly sticky sushi rice, with its gnarled claw still attached. A well-cooked fillet of golden tilefish showed up as a special on another of my visits, but if you’re in the mood for a light dinner, the dish to get is the perfectly crisped arctic char, which is plated with a pile of gourmet-style whipped potatoes topped with crème fraîche.
With its nose-to-tail bistro fare and ancient speakeasy pedigree, Fedora can feel, on crowded evenings, like a woolly, cut-rate version of the Minetta Tavern. The bar pours curiously named $12 throwback cocktail creations made with esoteric bourbons and housemade bitters (try the “Black Squirrel” Old Fashioned, with Buffalo Trace and pecan bitters), and despite the odd $330 bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the wine list has been designed with the discerning mid-range drinker in mind. The modest desserts include a wedge of chalky, dried-out chocolate cake, pleasingly rich helpings of “cheesecake” panna cotta buried in cookie crumbs, and an elegantly messy apple crumble pie drenched in crème anglaise. Best of all are the fluffy, lemony, made-to-order madeleines, which just might be as fine an example of this antique pastry as you’ll find in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or anywhere else in this food-mad town.