Monday, February 21, 2011
Roberta's: Under the Radar
Roberta's has always been far more than a meager pizza joint (albeit a very good pizza joint). Those of us willing to brave the industrial wilderness that is Bushwick are rewarded with some of the freshest and most inspired food in all of the city. Having long been a fan, MW and I had always opted for the restaurant's relatively calm brunch or lunch scene instead of their busier dinner service. Dinner was long overdue, and we were excited to see what Chef Carlo Mirarchi could do when not limited to cooking eggs or frying up excellent chicken. But despite being nominated by Food and Wine as one of the country's "Best New Chefs," Chef Mirarchi still remains mostly obscure in the public's eye (most certainly attributable to Roberta's remote location).
After recently reading about ChuckEats epic meal at Roberta's (with some equally impressive pictures from Roboppy), I couldn't help but resist from immediately making a return visit myself. Chef Mirarchi guided us on a culinary tour de force, quite unlike anything in Manhattan, and considerably better.
One clear advantage of dining at Roberta's is that there's no shortage of street parking. Only a few blocks away from the Morgan Ave stop on the L-train, the lack of foot traffic, and lack of street lights actually does make its location seem isolated. Camouflaged by a mix of graffiti-decorated cinder block walls and industrial lofts, Roberta's was brimming with activity once we pushed past the red curtain emblazoned with the letter "R."
Quoted a half-hour wait, we meticulously made our way to the mob scene that was the bar, which spilled into the main dining room. Cautiously drinking our Hitachino Pale Ale's in a corner of the room, we gave our best efforts to avoid thirsty hipsters and bustling servers. Fortuitously, at least for us, two stools opened at the bar, which we descended upon them like a hungry owl on its prey. Happily seated, we ordered another round of beers and looked at the cocktail menu. Sitting at the bar also proved entertaining, as we overheard the man seated next to us make a deal with the kitchen for food in exchange for some black truffles, because everyone walks around with black truffles in their bags.
It wasn't long before the hostess led us to our table located in an annex of sorts to the actual restaurant. Whereas the main dining room was noisy and cramped with parties seated at communal tables, we were seated, in my opinion, at the best table in the house: an isolated two top located next to a heater.
Chef Mirarchi and his crew believe in using locally and seasonal products as often as possible, and their menu reflects that philosophy. Looking to cut a wide swath, we ordered a few of dishes from the garden/vegetable, kitchen and of course, pizza sections of the dinner menu. The first dish to arrive was the Bosc Pear with Smoked Ricotta, Hazelnut and Guancale. Way more than a simple salad, this dish was something to seek out, rather than order out of obligation. The crisp pear with the smokey ricotta and crunchy hazelnuts were an amazing study in contrasting flavors and textures, and the bits of salty guancale further emphasized the pear's natural sweetness.
Next, our server arrived with what turned out to be the first of many complimentary dishes sent out by Chef Mirarchi. Inside a bowl was a Poached Egg with Trout Roe and Breadcrumbs, which was as beautiful to look at as it was delicious to eat. The perfectly poached egg quivered just before we pierced it, causing a sea of golden yolk to fill the base of the bowl. The saltiness of the roe helped season the creamy egg, but the most surprising element of the dish were the smokey breadcrumbs, which added a depth of flavor and texture.
Next was a complimentary bowl of Purple Artichokes with Bottarga, Breadcrumbs and Lemon. The artichokes were quartered, then deep fried and tossed with lemon juice to help cut the fat. This was topped with some shaved bottarga. Like the roe from the previous dish which helped season the egg, here, the briny flavor of the bottarga was used in tandem with lemon juice to highlight, not hide, the main ingredient.
The final comped dish of the evening was the Duck Liver Mousse with Pickled Onions and Grilled Bread. Whipped until light, the duck mousse had a more complex flavor than your typical chicken liver and was very good when slathered over some toast and topped with some pickled onions which provided sweetness as well as some necessary acid to help cut through the rich liver.
Sweetbreads are one of my favorite proteins, and Chef Mirarchi's preparation with Fresh Sheep's Cheese, Honey and Rosemary were incredibly addicting. Even MW, who is not usually a fan of sweetbreads, thought these were excellent. These trimmed versions were coated with a thin, crispy and golden batter and was vaguely reminiscent of fried chicken when paired with the honey.
Although neither of us would argue with foie gras, MW and I normally prefer torchons instead of seared versions. However, we both swooned over Roberta's Foie Gras with Toffee and Black Pepper. Seared hard, the slightly crisped exterior of the foie gave way to a melty center that was ingeniously paired with a sweet-buttery toffee.
After having examined the cocktail menu earlier, we each decided to try a drink. MW's Hoppin - Farmer's Gin, Campari, Antica Formula, Grapefruit - was light and refreshing whereas my American Nightmare - Rittenhouse Rye, Vergano Americano, Grand Marnier, Citrus, Clove - contained some nice spice notes from the clove.
The Tagliatelle with Razor Clam and Chili seemed like an obvious selection and it delivered. Bathed in a light tomato sauce, the house-made pasta came studded with razor clams. Each bite yielded a combination of various textures and flavors, with the al dente pasta and tender razor clams. The real star of the dish was the beautiful sauce, redolent of the sea and spiked with just the right amount of red chili that provided a nice finishing kick. This put the typical spaghetti vongole to shame.
Comparatively, the Orechiette with Trotter Ragu was a much heartier dish. The over sized orechiette had an incredible bite to them and picked up the ragu, interspersed with chunks of crisp and moist trotter, beautifully.
The lone pizza we ordered was the special of the night. The Portoballer with Portobello Mushrooms, Mozzarella Cheese, Garlic, Thyme and a drizzle of Balsamic was solid. The crust had a nice amount of leopard spotting and a glorious chew. But what set this pie apart from its Neopolitan-style cousins, was the fact that despite having the mushrooms, the center managed to stay dry, thereby allowing bite after bite with each ingredient together. Unfortunately, given the amount of extra courses, we packed up the majority of the pie for later.
Coming in as the menu's most expensive dish, at $21, was the Pork Chop with Swiss Chard, Fregola, and Pecorino. Presented with the meat sliced off the bone, it was cooked medium rare and contained an uncharacteristic sweetness I don't always associate with pork. As with the pizza, we managed only a taste before boxing it up, but made for an amazing lunch the following Monday.
After MW spotted a panna cotta on the dessert menu, it was a forgone conclusion that we'd be eating some dessert to conclude our meal. The Vanilla Panna Cotta with Quince Syrup, Kumquat and Breton Crumble was great. Not too rich, but plenty creamy, the vanilla panna cotta mixed with the quince and kumquat tag team proved more than capable of holding its own to any of the spectacular savory courses.
For a meal we anticipated as much as Roberta's, it would be easy to see how that dinner could fail to meet expectations and ultimately underwhelm us, becoming just the latest in a spate of over-hyped Brooklyn restaurants. That did not happen. From our first bite to our last, with the exception of a few minor flaws, our meal was exceptional. Not good, or really good, exceptional. Compared to all the elaborate tasting menus we've experienced, this meal was unique in the sense that no single course was a dud. So why all the effusive praise? Is this simply window dressing for one restaurant we admittedly want to succeed? Only you can decide, but we continue champion this restaurant because Chef Mirarchi and the rest of the food at Roberta's is just that good. It boggles my mind at how few people fail to notice this up-and-coming culinary giant. Of course, the one positive aspect about Roberta's being relatively unnoticed, is how comparatively easy it is to get a table, that is, at least for now...
UPDATE: We actually finally got to try the tasting menu in Spring 2011. Check out our post here.
261 Moore Street
Brooklyn, NY 11206
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.