Let’s have the pig’s head and the steamed buns tonight, Dad,” my 10-year-old daughter said merrily as we sat down for our second, or maybe third, meal at Zak Pelaccio’s inspired little fusion-barbecue joint, Fatty ’Cue, in Williamsburg. Restaurant critics don’t drag their families around on their gastronomic rounds, as a rule. Especially over crowded bridges, through miles of rush-hour traffic, in the dog days of July. But this wasn’t work, really. We were back by popular demand, sitting upstairs in the quirky warren of rooms that Pelaccio has converted into one of the great destinations of this year’s barbecue season. Next to us, just under the ceiling, was a gently twirling Styrofoam pig covered in sparkles. The mingled smells of wood smoke, sizzling pork fat, and burnt sugar wafted in from the smoker outside. My daughter put down her menu and waited, with a smile on her face, for our pig’s head to arrive. “I wish this restaurant was in our neighborhood,” she said.
Pig’s head is a regular special at Fatty ’Cue, but throughout the week, all sorts of strange, unexpected delicacies emerge from the smoker, which is manned by famed New York pit master Robbie Richter, from Rego Park. Richter made his reputation at Hill Country, where he produced an uncanny facsimile of barbecued beef brisket, that Texas specialty. But at Fatty ’Cue, he and Pelaccio (who is a proprietor of the popular Fatty Crab restaurants, in Manhattan) produce a different, more original kind of alchemy. The restaurant’s stated theme is Malaysian barbecue, which means its version of thick-cut, Peter Luger–style bacon ($11) comes to the table sizzled not in more bacon fat, but coriander. And if you ask about the addictive, faintly funky quality of the delicately fatty lamb ribs ($12), your waiter will tell you that the key is in the brine, a mix of white wine and a spicy fermented shrimp paste called cincalok.
Other cooks—David Chang, Anita Lo—have dabbled in traditional Asian barbecue. But with Richter’s help, Pelaccio is the first to combine the classic salty-sweet flavor profile of the East with the bulky, messy, down-home goodness of authentic American barbecue. His excellent Bobo chicken (named for the famed upstate chickens favored by Chinatown restaurants) is half a bird, smoked by Richter and his minions, cut in quarters, and served with a tangy Vietnamese-style dipping sauce made with chopped cucumber, red onion, and chiles. The lamb shoulder is wood-smoked, then pulled off the bone and served, the way they do it in Muslim restaurants in Kuala Lumpur and Xi’an, with wedges of toasted pita and a bowl of garlic-flavored goat yogurt garnished with sprigs of mint.
My daughter would like you to know that the pork ribs at Fatty ’Cue are nothing like the knobby, pre-lacquered ribs she’s used to at the Chinese restaurants in our neighborhood. They’re meaty and smoky-sweet (basted with smoked-fish palm syrup and Indonesian long pepper), and even if you’re a diminutive 10-year-old, it’s pretty much impossible to eat just one. If you don’t like pork, the duck isn’t bad either (it’s crisp-fried and flavored with smoked red curry). And if you don’t like duck, you can slurp bowls of the house noodles, which come in a vegetarian variety (with mushrooms and a poached egg) or sunk in a flavorful “meat juice” broth brimming with fresh-cut scallions and chiles. And what about that pig’s head? It’s cut in half and served on a platter, in the Chang style, with steamed buns. The cheeks are probably the best part of the experience, at least according to Jane Platt, although once you’ve had one barbecued pig’s head for dinner, she confided on the drive home, that’s probably enough.
Einat Admony, who serves what many consider to be the best falafel sandwich in town (at Taïm, in the West Village), calls her latest restaurant Balaboosta, which means “perfect housewife” in Yiddish. The white-brick walls of the storefront space, in Nolita, are lined with family photos and rows of cookbooks, all designed to convey the Israeli-born chef’s personal, even motherly, sense of comfort, practicality, and home. Admony’s idea of home-style cooking, however, is slightly different from yours and mine. It includes bowls of crispy fried cauliflower drizzled with pine nuts and currants, and toasty slabs of bruschetta heaped with smoked eggplant or wedges of fresh burrata cheese. Ask for shrimp and it comes wrapped in phyllo and dressed in a creamy sauce speckled with flying-fish roe. Ask for soup and you will get a cooling gazpacho sweetened by two kinds of melon (cantaloupe and honeydew) and bits of almond brittle.
Admony, who cooked in many highbrow kitchens around the city before opening Taïm, can do all sorts of imaginative things in her kitchen. The exceptionally tender house chicken is cooked under a brick, in the Mediterranean style, and served with couscous, apricots, and a pot of fresh-made gremolata on the side. Lamb loin is arranged elegantly on the plate just like at fancy restaurants uptown (only here it’s wrapped in Swiss chard), and the “spicy” skirt steak is one of the better new versions of the old-fashioned dish you’ll find in this steak-saturated town. Balaboosta is a popular restaurant, so the service can be brusque. But the desserts have a soothing effect, especially the Malabi milk custard, which is a kind of melting, Middle Eastern version of panna cotta flavored with orange blossoms.
Address: 91 S. 6th St., nr. Berry St., Williamsburg ;718-599-3090
Hours: Dinner, daily 5 p.m. to midnight. Late-night menu, Thursday through Saturday midnight to 2 a.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $3 to $12; entrées, $14 to $22.
Ideal Meal: Noodles with meat juices, Heritage pork ribs, Bobo chicken.
Note: On Monday nights, ask for the Legend, a mouthwatering, bone-in cut of pork rib, chop, and belly.
Scratchpad: One star for Pelaccio’s inspired fusion flair, and another for Richter’s first-class technique.
Address: 214 Mulberry St., at Spring St.; 212-966-7366
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday to Friday noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $15; entrées, $18 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Crispy cauliflower or shrimp Kataïf, house chicken, Malabi custard.
Note: Balaboosta is open for weekend brunch and serves an excellent lunchtime lamb burger.
Scratchpad: This is a classic one-star setting, but Admony, in our humble opinion, is a multiple-star chef.