Winter is the cruelest season for the Mid-Atlantic locavore. By this time of year, the faithful have chomped their way through every type of gnarly root at the shrunken Greenmarket, and suffered crises of conscience in the grocery aisle over Chilean blueberries and Israeli tomatoes. The ramps of spring seem light-years away. But it’s possible, even now, to toe the local-and-seasonal line. In fact, after the excesses of the holiday season, it’s surprisingly restorative, especially at a small Greenpoint café called Eat, which is a block off Manhattan Avenue but worlds away from New York’s super-heated restaurant scene.
The white-walled, high-ceilinged space was born as a record store and morphed, over time, into a spartan room that feels like a cross between a Zen monastery and a college co-op, equipped with rough-hewn tables and long wooden benches. The daily, mostly meatless menu is written on a giant chalkboard, next to a list of ingredient sources that proudly covers a concise geographical territory, from Pennsylvania to Vermont. And at Eat, that’s not just window dressing. You get the sense that the chef-owner, Jordan Colón, who, with his horn-rimmed spectacles, springy hairdo, and bemused expression, looks like a young Al Franken, personally biked over to McCarren Park or Union Square to load up a Greenmarket rucksack, pedaled back, and commenced chopping kale in his open kitchen.
Other than the preparation and consumption of food, Eat shares few characteristics with modern New York restaurants. There’s no host and no waiters (order at the kitchen window), no printed menus, no small-plate business plan, no Pat La Frieda burgers, no cocktail program. The typical customer is young and locavore-slim and unfazed by the old-timey music playing on a turntable, plates delivered at random, often by the chef himself, and a beverage list limited to juice, water, tea, and Fair Trade coffee. (You can BYO from two nearby liquor shops.)
Although the place is not philosophically vegan or a health-food restaurant, it can come off that way. The menu, on three recent visits, was completely vegetarian, though we were told that’s not always the case. No matter, there is a refreshingly abstemious quality to the food that even an old omnivore like the Underground Gourmet can appreciate, and sometimes crave. Take, for instance, one night’s satisfying—if somewhat underseasoned—combo plate of steamed red chard (still firm, with a nice, vegetal bite), red beans, and pleasantly chewy green spelt. Or a bowl of butternut-squash soup, not cloyingly sweet, but spiced with habanero peppers and garnished with crème fraîche. A woeful-sounding “mashed potatoes and sautéed cabbage” plate exceeds expectations with its runny poached-egg topping. Cabbage, in fact, is inescapable (not that we mind—this is Polish Greenpoint, after all). Bread is either thoughtfully procured (the Orwasher’s multigrain is chewy and nutty, made in part with local whole-wheat flour) or baked in-house, like the tender wedge of cornbread, served warm with good butter and a bowl of fresh pink applesauce. And thus a common theme emerges: beans, greens, grains, and roots adorned with an egg here, a scoop of yogurt there, the politically correct output of contented free-range birds and grass-fed cows. You could argue that it’s barely cooking, but Colón might take that as a compliment. One quibble: We had such a hard time discerning any actual cheese, where advertised, as an ingredient, that we decided that the kitchen must approach its application the way some dry-martini drinkers approach vermouth—by waving a hunk over the plate and whispering “fromage.”
Granted, this type of low-impact cooking isn’t for everyone. “Gulag Cuisine” is how a friend of the U.G. with a prodigious appetite categorized it as he gloomily eyed his plate of beets. Still, it’s good, fresh, truly local food in a mellow, relaxing atmosphere, and the combination has an undeniably calming, salutary effect. You can undo it only slightly by ordering a barely sweetened slice of flourless chocolate cake for dessert, or thoroughly with a stop at the venerable Peter Pan doughnut shop—just a short, newly energized walk away.