There’s a great new steakhouse in town—no, make that an amazing, wonderful, game-changing new steakhouse—and the funny thing is that it doesn’t even know it. The place is called St. Anselm, and according to owner Joe Carroll, it’s not a steakhouse at all but an unassuming little spot that serves simply seasoned grilled meats and seafood. The Underground Gourmet, having eaten at a steakhouse before, would beg to differ. You don’t put a bunch of meat (not to mention iceberg wedges, spinach gratins, and thick slices of grilled bacon à la Peter Luger) on a menu and expect people not to notice. On the other hand, you don’t often encounter whole mackerels, head-on chickens, shishito peppers, and haloumi cheeses on most steakhouse menus, either. Nor do you typically find cooking this good and prices this reasonable (barring a couple large-format blockbuster items, easy enough for the U.G. to sidestep and stay on budget).
The beauty of this place, then, is not that it has everything a carnivore could ask for in a steakhouse—and more, including friendly service, tattooed cooks, and Led Zeppelin on the playlist. It’s that you can treat it like a casual neighborhood joint instead of a special-occasion expense-account extravaganza, and just drop in on a whim or whenever the craving for red meat strikes.
It’s also of a piece with Carroll’s equally charismatic neighboring ventures, Spuyten Duyvil and Fette Sau, which colonized a shabby Williamsburg intersection and breathed new life, respectively, into the craft-beer bar and the secular–New York–barbecue-joint genres. Carroll is something like the Danny Meyer of Williamsburg, or at least the corner of Havemeyer and Metropolitan. He first opened St. Anselm last year as an offal-obsessed snack shop, dishing up grub like bone-marrow poppers and Pennsylvania scrapple as well as delicacies like deep-fried Jersey-style hot dogs, but the lack of a liquor license and an unexpectedly cool reception to the variety meats did the place in. Recently revived as a more conventional restaurant, hard-won beer-and-wine license in hand, St. Anselm remains basically unchanged in appearance: rough and rustic, the ceiling clad in overlapping layers of wood shingles, the brick walls draped with obscure flags and banners like some kind of hipster Knights of Columbus hall. Stools line the long bar and the dining counter opposite the open kitchen, which houses a newly installed grill, utilized by the cooks for everything from clams to avocados in their skins (which become creamy vehicles for aïoli-dressed sweet Maine shrimp), and even veggies like cauliflower and long beans charred in mesh baskets over the flame.
In this age of immersion circulators and calcium-chloride baths, there is something refreshing about such a simple method of food preparation. But there’s technique, too, and deft seasoning, not to mention eclectic ingredients, all of which harmonize in compositions like a zingy pea-green salad with those salty, chewy slabs of grilled haloumi. A trio of eggplants (Thai, Japanese, and Italian) are oiled and charred and paired with a button of deep-fried goat cheese; even simple salads are thoughtfully embellished—iceberg with a hot bacon dressing, Bibb lettuce with fried shallots and a tangy vinaigrette.
But you go to a steakhouse (even an incidental one) for the meat and potatoes, and in this regard, St. Anselm does not disappoint. In proper New Brooklyn Cuisine fashion, a chalkboard by the door assures all who enter of the “natural,” hormone-and-antibiotic-free pedigree of its proteins. Of these, we recommend the butcher’s steak, a hunk of hanger so rich and tender it could convert a gang of vegan toughs. The cola-braised deviled bones—slow-cooked, panko-crusted beef back ribs—are delicious too, and for sandwich aficionados there is an excellent grilled patty melt, the classic burger subspecies that, oddly, hasn’t gotten its due in this great burger age of ours. (Indeed, when Katie Lee Joel threw her hat into the ring at the Wine & Food Burger Bash a few years ago with what was indisputably a patty melt, many experts in the crowd were unable to identify the thing, and dismissed it as a mere grilled cheese sandwich.)
Of the equally meaty but non-beef selections, the shoulder-blade lamb chop with mint gremolata is fatty but flavorful, the bourbon-brined center-cut pork chop conspicuously juicy and faintly pink in the middle. And in a refreshing departure from your classic steakhouse, at St. Anselm, there’s no shame in going poultry or pescatarian. In fact, beautifully cooked and simply sauced specimens of whole fish, like mackerel and trout, hold their own nicely. And that super-moist, sweet-tea-brined chicken that arrives at the table with head and feet intact might be the ballsiest thing on the menu. You will require a side or two, naturally. Of these, the pan-fried mashed potatoes boast a golden crust and a whiff of truffle oil, and the spinach gratin hews much closer to its original leafy-green state than your average creamed spinach.
As impressive as St. Anselm is on the food front, it’s even more so on the wine. If Spuyten Duyvil demonstrates Joe Carroll’s exceptional beer geekery and Fette Sau his fluency with American whiskeys, then St. Anselm proves that he’s also a major oenophile with ecstatically offbeat taste and the guts to veer away from big-ticket Bordeaux and Napa Cab convention. His list itself is worthy of multiple trips, if only to sample rare by-the-glass selections of “yellow” wines from the Jura (vinified like fino sherry), “orange” wine from Friuli-Venezia (tinted by exposure to white-grape skins), and draft picks from two of the region’s most experimental producers (Red Hook Winery and Channing Daughters). Visionary winemakers both present and past populate the list, from Abe Schoener to Dr. Konstantin Frank, but what really sets it apart is the array of half-bottles, nearly five dozen opportunities to match each course, be it fish or fowl or succulent red meat, to its perfect pairing. St. Anselm’s one weakness is its desserts, which seem more hastily assembled than ingeniously conceived (though there’s something very appealing about the Reese’s effect of spreading peanut-hazelnut butter on chunks of dark chocolate). But you don’t go to a steakhouse for dessert, do you? Well, not yet, at least. Give Carroll and crew some time.