For jaded, Brooklyn-weary Manhattanites, there are many things about the popular new Cobble Hill restaurant La Vara that appear, on first inspection, to be distressingly familiar. There’s the quaintly classic storefront location on a picturesque, tree-lined stretch of Clinton Street. There are the noise-enhancing exposed-brick walls (and in this case, duct work); the narrow, railroad-style dining space (decorated with the work of local artists); and the ancient, hastily repainted stamped-tin ceiling. There’s the still-evolving liquor situation (“Right now we only have wine, beer, rum, and gin,” our waiter cried merrily over the din), and the rows of intimately spaced tables (no doubt cluttered with baby strollers on weekends), which can make snooty visitors from across the river feel, on crowded evenings, like they’re dining in a neighborly commune instead of a first-class New York City restaurant.
But La Vara is not quite what it seems. The proprietors, Alex Raij and her husband, Eder Montero, come to Cobble Hill from Manhattan, where they run the excellent tapas establishments El Quinto Pino and Txikito. Like more and more top New York chefs these days (Taavo Somer opened Isa in Williamsburg last year, Hearth’s Marco Canora will be opening a Park Slope restaurant this summer), they see Brooklyn less as a refuge or escape than as a promising market for their particular brand of casually elegant (i.e., Brooklyn-style) gourmet cuisine. Which in this case means you can get piles of crunchy, paprika-infused garbanzos fritos (fried chickpeas) for $3 a plate, along with other classic Iberian delicacies like empanadillas de millo (moon-shaped empanadas) stuffed, the way they do in Galicia, with minced razor clams, and skewers of pincho de ceutas, which is what they call grilled chicken hearts in Gibraltar.
Raij and Montero are known in Manhattan food circles as serious scholars of traditional Basque cooking, but at La Vara they turn their attention to the intertwining influences of Moorish and Jewish recipes on classic Spanish cuisine. As they do at their Manhattan restaurants, Raij and Montero serve an array of finger-size pica pica and frito dishes, which include a variety of crisp croquettes (try the croquette of the day, whatever it happens to be), plates of grilled Spanish red shrimp splashed with lemon, and tiny frizzled artichokes garnished with anchovy aïoli in the Roman “alla giudia” style. The tiny little Gibraltar chicken hearts turned out to be peppery and pleasingly tender on the evening my fellow travelers and I sampled them, and went very nicely, we all agreed, with a plate of the classic Catalonian grilled-vegetable dish escalivada made here with peppers, charred leeks, and a crunchy, almond-rich romesco sauce.
In the grand tapas (and Brooklyn) tradition, you can make a feast at La Vara for what it costs to buy a round of cocktails at some of the swanker restaurants across the river. I paid $19 for a block of soft, perfectly sizzled lamb’s breast (topped with a dab of Moroccan-style date jam) and another $18 for an admirable version of the tricky Valencian noodle paella dish fideúa, which the kitchen mixes with a very un-kosher medley of clams, squid, and shrimp. The other great un-kosher Spanish classic, suckling pig, shows up on the menu as a special (it’s perfectly crisped, with a pot of chimichurri sauce on the side), and you can complement it (if you’re feeling guilty) with a wedge of classic torta Santiago Passover almond cake, or the sinfully delicious egipcio—a date-and-walnut-filled tart, served with lemon curd and topped with a dollop of sweet whipped cream.
Gwynnett Street, which opened recently in a homely, brick-walled space on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, is another deceptively scruffy Brooklyn establishment with outsize, Manhattan-style ambitions. Like lots of joints in the neighborhood, this one features a happy hour Mondays through Thursdays. Instead of fruity, antifreeze-colored margaritas, however, you can get 50 percent off cheekily named cocktails like Fool’s Gold (Herradura Silver, Luxardo maraschino, lime) and the lethally smooth Bitter Truth (Plymouth gin, Fernet Branca, grapefruit). A loaf of the densely delicious house whiskey bread isn’t free, but it’s well worth the $5, and if you order the pedestrian-sounding slow-poached-egg appetizer, it’s brought to the table by your chatty, tattooed waiter plated with garden peas, sprigs of celery lettuce, and little spiky antennae of what turn out to be crispy, flattened pork fat.
The architect of these unexpected treats is Justin Hilbert, who worked at famous kitchens around the globe (Mugaritz in Spain, wd-50 in Manhattan) before settling in this obscure Williamsburg corner. Like other high-minded cooks of his generation, he has a fondness for combining sous-vide-soft proteins (duck breast, strips of lamb, Amish chicken marinated with hay ash) with endless esoteric vegetable combinations (moth beans, gooseberries, etc.). Nothing my bedazzled tasters and I sampled was disappointing, and some dishes (the sea scallops with stinging nettles, the salmon smothered in an opulent oyster cream) are themselves worth the trip. Some of the desserts (coconut panna cotta with coconut “snow”; an un-spongy mint sponge cake with pickled strawberries; a deconstructed, bizarrely tasty chocolate ganache) seem overstudied by comparison, and may leave you pining for a more standard, old-school dessert from the neighborhood, like chocolate cake, or a simple bowl of vanilla ice cream.