If the notion of New York bar food keeps changing, it’s because New York bars do, too. Take, for instance, Fort Defiance, the newly opened (and multihyphenated) café–bar–soda fountain–home away from home in Red Hook, currently firing on all cylinders except maybe their gas-line connection, a stumbling block that occasioned their temporary closing last week. It’s not that the place, named for a Revolutionary War fort, has an identity crisis. Modest and inviting, with a smattering of tables and front windows flung open to the street, it seems most of all to want to be a neighborhood social center, and it provides the food and drink to facilitate that role at any hour. At 8 a.m., that means Counter Culture coffee individually ground and brewed on a drip bar and pastries culled from local bakeries. At lunch, there’s a short sandwich and salad menu, plus homemade sodas starring a bracingly fizzy house-carbonated seltzer that the blackboard menu justifiably touts as “the best in Brooklyn.” At night, despite the presence of a substantial grazing menu, the place tends to be treated like a bar, thanks to the high quality of the drinks and the pedigree of the owner and bartender, St. John Frizell, who honed his craft at Pegu Club and the Good Fork.
Frizell has the comforting demeanor of an old-time barkeep, sturdy and efficient and entirely in his element, whether he’s vigorously clubbing a sack of ice to the proper crushed consistency for his superb Prescription Julep, muddling cucumber for a delicious Collins variation, or scrambling up a ladder to look up the recipe for an obscure off-the-menu request. About as refreshing as Fort Defiance’s drinks are their prices: $8 a pop, except for that Cognac-enhanced julep and a 24-ounce “Sumo Collins.” There’s also a choice assortment of wines and beers, and a waiter happy to make recommendations.
In most instances, this would be plenty: an off-the-beaten-path pit stop with no airs, great drinks (and Kold-Draft ice cubes), conversation-abetting sound levels, and a room that somehow conjures Havana, New Orleans, and the Brooklyn waterfront all at once. But there’s also food good enough to merit repeat visits, even for teetotalers. Incidentally, nondrinkers and the neighborhood’s booming toddler population make out quite well, thanks to a zingy gingerade, a sprightly pineapple soda, and a terrific egg cream served in a massive goblet.
The very best thing on the menu is the great New Orleans sandwich, the muffuletta—and there’s a story behind it. As first reported by our own Grub Street editor Daniel Maurer, Frizell, his taste refined by eight years spent living and eating in the Big Easy, was so obsessed with getting the iconic sandwich right, he had a few FedExed to Red Hook from the city’s legendary Central Grocery. Upon their arrival, he studied the muffulettas intensely, like a nasa scientist inspecting a moon rock. Then he commissioned the folks at Royal Crown Bakery to duplicate the all-important bread, and his chef Sam Filloramo to reproduce a version of the equally crucial olive-salad condiment. The result was worth the effort. The bread is perfect: focaccialike in its springy softness but with a denser crumb, and sturdy enough to stand up to the delectably oily dressing. The cured meats (soppressata, mortadella, coppa) and cheeses (sharp provolone and Swiss Emmenthaler) are meticulously proportioned. And it’s not too much to say that the whole succulent package could cause the crustiest muffuletta aficionado to shed a silent tear of joy for the good old days in the French Quarter.
Unlike the muffuletta, the lunchtime-only bánh mì goes its own interpretive way. It’s made with a thick slab of pork terrine (rather than the usual smear of pâté employed as a condiment) and it’s served on an untoasted baguette. But it’s pretty good nevertheless. The Sicilian tuna served on a soft roll with pickled onions and hard-boiled egg is better. So is the salad, an improvised assemblage (mizuna, dandelion, and sorrel, say, flavored with shavings of cheese and anchovies one night) based on whatever’s available at Red Hook’s resident Added Value farm. These are fresh, flavorful, pristine greens—all the more remarkable when you consider they sprouted forth from where an asphalt lot once stood.
For simple nibbles, there are addictive pimentón-powdered cashews and creamy deviled eggs. Cheese and meat plates are well sourced (La Quercia Iowa prosciutto, pungent Taleggio) and served with practically half a loaf of bread, as is a tasty hunk of housemade pork-and-duck-breast terrine. Of the seafood choices, a jar of smooth, flavorful bluefish rillettes, served with a sweet onion confit, made a delicious snack, and although a half-dozen cold poached shrimp might have tasted excessively shrimpy one night, the accompanying salsa verde and fennel salad almost made up for it.