Change Is Good

Roman'sPhoto: Brea Souders/New York Magazine

When Roman’s opened in Fort Greene last year, a lot of people took issue with the restaurant’s Italian-inspired menu. For starters, it was handwritten, some said illegibly, as if a small child had scribbled it off in a hurry. Second, it followed the three-course Italian model by including traditional primi-size portions of pasta—a practice some starchy-food fanatics take as a personal affront, as if it were part of a sinister Bloombergian nanny-state plot to curb bucatini eating. But the main problem with this seemingly harmless document, according to its detractors, was that it changed daily. The idea that a favorite dish, once identified, wouldn’t be readily available on a return visit seemed shocking to some and inscrutable to many. In this reckless approach to menu-making, however, Roman’s was in good company. No less a beacon of seasonal locavorism than Chez Panisse (inspiration to most New Brooklyn Cuisine restaurants, including this one) has been printing a daily menu for decades now, and, closer to home, Torrisi Italian Specialties effortlessly turned what some see as a deficit into a room-packing draw.

Despite the backlash, Roman’s has plugged merrily along, rightly believing that the best thing a neighborhood restaurant could do for its repeat clientele is provide variety, and the potential for a new discovery on each visit. The room buzzes at night, with low lights glinting off white subway tile, and local celebrities (a pie baker of some repute; a few Greenmarket farmers; the author Jonathan Ames in customary motoring cap) perch at the marble bar or one of the mismatched dining tables. If the Underground Gourmet lived in the neighborhood, we’d linger there, too, popping in for a bowl of pasta or the ingenious house cocktails—a daily “bitter” and “sour,” flexible categories that incorporate ingredients like amaro or quince syrup in whimsical combinations. The bartenders are that perfect blend of fastidious and friendly, and the esoteric wine list emphasizes the emerging subgenre known as “natural” wines, made with minimal intervention. It offers myriad opportunities to try something new, not unlike the ever-evolving Roman’s itself.

The common denominator behind chef Dave Gould’s nightly improvisations is his use of carefully sourced ingredients and sustainable meats, procured from small local farms. (It’s a philosophy inherited from the owners’ Williamsburg restaurants, Diner and Marlow & Sons, where Gould once worked.) Take, for instance, one recent night’s starter of caramelized pumpkin accessorized with balsamic vinegar, crunchy strips of puntarelle, and paper-thin crisps of fried pancetta—an autumnal ode of sweet, bitter, and salty flavors. In another antipasto, roasted broccoli stood in for romaine in an improvisatory Caesar, the florets coated in a creamy anchovy dressing and mingled with crunchy croutons and shaved Parmesan. These seasonal flourishes are worked into the pasta course as well, and it’s worth noting that in response to complaints, the kitchen has bumped up the portion sizes. Still, don’t come expecting Tony’s Di Napoli. One could reasonably eat a serving of Gorgonzola-sauced potato gnocchi, flecked with radicchio leaves, or a nice bowl of housemade pappardelle with white ragù—both preferable to a slightly oven-scalded baked paccheri—and still have room to share an entrée. (We were partial to the fish—a tender hunk of halibut one night, a striped-bass fillet another—in a buttery wine sauce with cardoons and briny green olives.) That’s the point of an Italian-style menu like this, but it’s not a mandate. However you choose to approach the menu, though, save room for Roman’s one constant: a dense, deeply flavored, sea-salted chocolate sorbet that never goes out of season.

Over in a different, less-traveled corner of Brooklyn, the Greenwood Heights crowd has wholeheartedly embraced Lot 2, an unassuming spot with bare beams and exposed brick that has changed chefs and, consequently, culinary direction in the sixteen months it’s been open. As it turns out, Lot 2 has more in common with Roman’s than a neighborly vibe and creative house cocktails. There’s the fervent locavore streak that permeates the small, often-changing menu, the reliance on local farms for fresh produce, the short but thoughtful beer and wine lists. (As at DBGB and Vandaag, the brews are listed with their alcohol percentage, a helpful and burgeoning practice.)

The menu, under chef Daniel Rojo, is less nose-to-tail and more comfort-foody than under his predecessor, as evidenced by dishes like a first-rate, perfectly proportioned grass-fed Cheddar burger, barbecued ribs (a bit sweet and too soft) with cole slaw and hush puppies, a grilled cheese sandwich accoutred with heirloom tomato in summer and apple in the off-season, and an amply garnished whole roasted chicken for two ($32). There are equally filling vegetarian options, too, like a rich, chile-and-cilantro-seasoned corn pudding or an eggy strata. But the defining feature of Lot 2 (other than the truly stellar duck-fat potatoes that accompany the burger) is the $25 four-course Sunday supper, already a neighborhood tradition. The weekly menu is posted online and scrawled on a horizontal chalkboard that runs along the wall, and the meal is served family style. So you might start, as we did one night, with a heap of arugula, rather aggressively seasoned, mixed with soft-roasted beets and speckled with freshly snipped herbs. Next might come an all-American arrangement of tender pork loin (Heritage, naturally) served with rich brown-butter applesauce and a crisp-edged pan-fried stuffing, flecked with leeks and greens and as soft as custard. Two warm chocolate-chip cookies is the kind of dessert your mom might make. This idealized version of homey Americana won’t convey you as far away as Roman’s Italy, but it’s equally transporting.

Address: 243 DeKalb Ave., nr. Vanderbilt Ave., Ft. Greene; 718-622-5300
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight. Weekend brunch 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and pasta, $8 to $12; entrées, $15 to $25.
Ideal Meal: Menu changes daily. You’ll have to wing it.
Note: The highlight of the new weekend brunch is a superb rotating dish listed as “boiled rice, poached egg, prosciutto, and parmigiano”—like the Chinese breakfast dish congee given a masterful Italian makeover.
Scratchpad: Not every dish excels, but the blank-slate approach to menu-making, the laudable focus on seasonality, and the lively but intimate atmosphere merit three stars.

Lot 2
Address: 687 Sixth Ave., nr. 20th St., Greenwood Heights; 718-499-5623
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $4 to $9; entrées, $14 to $22.
Ideal Meal: Cheddar burger with duck-fat fries; set menu on Sundays.
Note: The large communal table is perfect for packs of low-key, celebratory locavores.
Scratchpad: Any neighborhood would be lucky to have such a cozy canteen, with good, unfussy cooking and palpable generosity of spirit. Three stars.

Change Is Good