One thing the Underground Gourmet has noticed in this frightful new restaurant terrain is experimental modes of operation. The once-a-week restaurant is one such tactic. In Williamsburg, for instance, two concepts (the Vietnamese Bep, operating Mondays out of the Simple Café, and the pop-up ramen shop Bonjin, serving noodle soups after midnight Fridays at the Korean Dokebi) are borrowing others’ kitchens one night a week, minimizing risk and testing the culinary waters. But this approach also appeals to established restaurateurs and chefs—either as a recession-era tactic to wring extra revenue from private dining space (like Damon: Frugal Friday), or a chance to branch out from everyday routine (like Beer Table’s Tuesday-night dinner). These places tend to share something besides a restricted schedule: a sense of free-spirited spontaneity, and an off-the-cuff dining-club allure.
The scruffy, ephemeral nature strikes you as soon as you enter Damon: Frugal Friday, the name given to the restaurant Craft’s adjacent private dining room one night a week. (Every other Tuesday, it morphs into Tom: Tuesday Dinner, the luxe $150 prix fixe feast Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio instituted four months ago.) A makeshift Sharpie-scrawled sign announcing the room’s Friday-night identity is masking-taped to the door; on the back, as you leave, it reads, “Thanks for coming!” Equally casual are the butcher-paper-topped tables, the $10-and-under small plates, and the tiny $4 glasses of invigorating punch called the 19th Street Headache. But Damon Wise, Colicchio’s executive chef, is a serious cook (and an Alton Brown look-alike), and his menu is playful, global in inspiration, and peppered with haute touches like savory jams, marmalades, and gelées embellishing dishes that seem to embody all of today’s culinary buzzwords, from tapas to offal, crudo to pork belly. These miniature compositions materialize from the kitchen so quickly you might wonder if they’ve been swiped off a conveyor belt. You know that now-familiar warning dispensed by dutiful small-plates waiters citywide, that dishes will be served as they’re ready? Well, at Damon: Frugal Friday, they really mean it. In fact, our food (the waiter recommends four to five plates per person) was dispatched in such a rapid-fire vaudevillian blur one night, we half-expected to hear the Benny Hill Show theme song playing in the background.
Since pacing is nonexistent, it’s better to order as you go (the friendly, attentive staff will happily accommodate, even if they’re a bit too eager to clear). The menu is divided into nine categories—snacks, salads, pizzas, food in a jar, meat on a stick, small plates, offal, cheese, and dessert (sometimes dessert is somehow shoved into a jar, too)—all of them of roughly the same smallish portion size and designed to share. And with the exception of the pizza, which is hobbled by a lackluster griddled crust, it’s hard to go far wrong with any one of them.
On subsequent nights of methodical grazing (keep in mind, the menu changes frequently), we reached these conclusions: The fennel salad’s vinegary tang and juxtaposition of textures trumped the comparatively wan chickpeas and soppressata. Lamb on a stick beat the steak on a stick. The salt-cod fritters packed a bit more punch than the equally crispy creamy pork croquettes, and benefited from their tangy piquillo marmalade. Raw slivers of Spanish mackerel with Meyer-lemon gelée were silky and perfectly fresh, boasting a touch of acidity that went missing from the otherwise lovely oil-cured yellowfin tuna. Moist and meaty chicken wings were not only conveniently boneless but well served by a Cabrales-cheese sauce and slivers of celery—a better-than-Buffalo brainstorm. Among the couple dozen concoctions that populated our table like some kind of small-plates Roman orgy over the course of two visits, the most impressive might have been the southern-inflected pork belly with braised peanuts, and the remarkably tender beef tongue in vinaigrette, its smooth texture and rich flavor set off by a garnish of crisp sunchoke chips.
The reverse side of the Day Glo copy-paper menu lists the beverages, also economically priced at $10 and under, which include a well-crafted lime-and-Tabasco-inflected rye cocktail called Old Man River, an array of wines by the glass, and a decent selection of beers that go well with Wise’s eclectic food.
Of course, any beer selection would pale in comparison to the array of assiduously sourced bottles at Beer Table, Park Slope’s incomparable temple of hops and malts. Rare and obscure brews might be the focus of this intimate little spot, but there’s always a selection of tasty vittles to accompany them, from beer cheese and bread to dehydrated lotus chips sprinkled with Sichuan peppercorns. Tuesday nights, though, are devoted to a proper prix fixe dinner, when chef Julie Farias whips up three courses that, at $25, represent one of the best values in town on any night of the week. The meals are subtly thematic, never the same, and matched with optional (but highly recommended) $15 beer pairings by owner Justin Philips. One recent Tuesday, the theme was loosely diner food, which Farias interpreted as a thick mushroom soup garnished with mustardy bread crumbs and piquant pickled shiitakes (nicely paired with a tangy BFM Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien) and accompanied by an herb-dappled side salad. Then came some seriously satisfying “hash”: boldly seasoned chunks of pork sausage and veal, plated in a savory mound over duchess potatoes broiled onto the plate in golden swaths—a sort of shepherd’s pie in reverse, served with a can of Dale’s Pale Ale. Dessert was two small cinnamon-ice-cream sandwiches and a small cup of hot chocolate (and if you chose the pairing, a glass of Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes cask-conditioned ale). That the food is so good comes as no surprise—Farias is an alum of kitchens like Café Boulud, and seems to be relishing the casual environs, the freedom to improvise, and the local following for whom Tuesday-night dinner has become not just a night out, but a cherished ritual.