New Brooklyn Cuisine, or NBC, as the Underground Gourmet has asserted before in these pages, is a very specific subgenre of the more familiar New American Cuisine. It flourishes in the bucolic hinterlands of Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights, the low country of Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg, and the great plains of Park Slope, and has as its common denominator a very New York culinary sophistication melded with a wistfully agrarian passion for the artisanal, the sustainably grown, and the homespun. Good examples of the genre are Applewood, iCi, and especially Franny’s, which is essentially a classic NBC restaurant masquerading as a pizzeria. Practitioners tend to be mom-and-pop shops, in fact or feeling, and they cater to a clientele of idealistic gastronomes who quote Michael Pollan and split shares in the local CSA.
There is often a whiff of the barnyard about these places, and in the case of the General Greene, a month-old addition to the burgeoning NBC category, the philosophy takes physical form. The stools lining the unfinished butcher-block bar, for instance, are fashioned from unforgiving vintage tractor seats, and the bustling waitstaff is clad in earthy brown T-shirts adorned with a tractor logo. There are no chickens clucking out back, nor is there an actual plot of dirt under cultivation, as far as we know, just a handful of alfresco tables. And the menu isn’t cluttered, as some of its ilk are, with references to local farms and boutique breeds of flora and fauna. But at its heart and on its plates, the General Greene is true to its type, and a terrific, if somewhat unlikely newcomer to the Brooklyn dining scene.
Why unlikely? Co-owner Nicholas Morgenstern, the tall, lanky guy who bounds gazellelike from one end of the restaurant to the other, running plates and monitoring the door, is a pastry chef with a long and varied background in some of New York’s fanciest fine-dining kitchens, from Daniel to Gilt. He’s not exactly the type you picture donning a tractor T-shirt and fetching your bowl of bacon-wrapped dates. But Morgenstern is abetted in this NBC venture by consulting chef Ryan Skeen, late of Resto and another veteran of French technique and suave Manhattan kitchens. Skeen has become known for his full-fat, Southeast Asian–inflected approach to food, and his porky presence can be detected throughout the menu of sharable small plates.
Eschewing the typical appetizer-entrée progression, the General Greene divides its dishes into “Cold” and “Hot” categories, regardless of size. “Bar Plates,” like those maple-syrup-lacquered, bacon-wrapped dates, make a fine snack alongside one of the house specialty cocktails or a refreshing glass of sangria. Order a few and you’ve got a meal. Mini mason jars come filled with chicken-liver mousse or an inspired, rilletteslike mixture of preserved lamb and fermented black beans to spread on oil-drizzled toast; a radish duo—razor-thin black-radish slices blanketing a few of the breakfast variety—is vividly dressed with sea salt and chopped anchovy. There are deviled eggs, too, and candied nuts that your affable bartender stashes on some rustic shelving behind the bar.
On each of the U.G.’s visits, the streamlined menu had changed slightly, subtly conveying the NBC notion of seasonality and market sensitivity. So one night’s wax-bean salad might be supplanted, at the next meal, by a superb tangle of julienned summer squash and piquillo peppers slicked with a rich pistachio pesto. An unusual watermelon salad mingles dabs of fresh goat cheese and delicious coins of spice-rubbed lamb, and a quartet of roasted pork ribs is aggressively seasoned with salt and pepper and painted with squiggles of sweet-and-sour tomato chutney. You expect a good burger at a joint like this, and what you get is a perfectly proportioned six-ouncer with English Cheddar and a side of potato chips.
As at many NBC restaurants, there are southern-inflected sides, like a dish of dirty rice fortified with nubbins of andouille sausage and chicken liver, and collard greens enriched with pig’s-feet meat. But Skeen’s palate is global, which accounts for the Indonesian red-palm sugar that sweetens a toothsome bowl of “bbq baked black beans,” and the sweetish Middle Eastern spicing that permeates the tiny pork meatballs (an acquired taste for anyone expecting traditional red-sauce gravy).
If you want a nice side of bacon with your supper—and who doesn’t these days?—you can get some thick, candied slices, served straight up like they do at Peter Luger. In the same steakhouse vein, there’s a twice-baked potato bedecked with bacon and sour cream. And then there is the steak itself, which, at $11, has got to be the best beefy value in the city. It’s simply grilled, drizzled with an invigorating chimichurri-like sauce of smoked garlic and chopped parsley, and fanned out in thin slices across the plate. But its appearance, as lovely as it is, doesn’t prepare you for how good it tastes. Although the menu, characteristically, doesn’t go into specifics, a little sleuthing revealed that this mysterious beefsteak goes by the ignominious name of flap meat or flap steak, or, as the Niman Ranch supplier calls it, a bavette d’aloyau (bib of the sirloin). It’s a lowly cut from the belly of the beast that yields a tender piece of meat with a remarkably rich flavor, and has already become something of a hot ticket among West Coast carnivores.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to skip dessert at a pastry chef’s restaurant. A confectionery perfectionist, Morgenstern has been tweaking nonstop, and what started as a superdense pot de crème has morphed into a lighter, looser (but equally delicious) chocolate-hazelnut pudding. There’s usually a fluffy vanilla-lemon cheesecake, more mousse than cake, with a tart tanginess derived from yogurt and a garnish of Greenmarket berries. The favorite dessert among the boisterous young crowd, though, might be the chocolate-chip cookies, judging by the steady parade of plates that stream out of the kitchen like ducks at a shooting gallery. They’re heavy on the chocolate, served warm from the oven, and like just about everything else at the General Greene, they handily exceed expectations.
The General Greene
Address: 229 Dekalb Ave., at Clermont Ave., Fort Greene; 718-222-1510
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; weekend brunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Small plates, $3 to $12.
Ideal Meal: Radishes with sea salt and anchovies, lamb-and-watermelon salad, grilled steak, bbq baked black beans, cookies.
Note: The wine and beer list is small, with a few local nods, and Nathan, the barkeep, takes his drinks very seriously.
Scratchpad: The epitome of NBC (New Brooklyn Cuisine), the General Greene fills the neighborhood-restaurant niche, with expectations-exceeding food and casual but crackerjack service. Four stars.