Full review below, pictures in blog:
I generally prefer to write my thoughts on restaurants in the order in which I experience them – it is a stylistic choice mostly, but I also think it also helps to put my trips into context for the people who take their time to read. With that said, sometimes there is an experience that I need to write about immediately in order to capture the feeling of the moment – these occurrences are rare and in the past couple of years there’ve only been a few – my first visit to Alinea, an extended tasting at The French Laundry, and RJ Cooper’s mind-blowing 24-course tasting at Vidalia to be precise. On March 30th I was lucky enough to have another of these experiences, and this time in the least likely of places – a gritty pizza parlor in Brooklyn.
Starting with a bit of back story, I’ll admit I would be lying if I claimed to have discovered Roberta’s on my own – the blog whispers had become a hum even prior to my February visit to the Big Apple and the moment I heard I would be returning to New York in March I made contact about the restaurant-within-a-restaurant experience from Chef Carlo Mirarchi. Pleasant and prompt my first e-mail was handled by Cherie Burnett and the “rules” were explained – 3-4 people, arrive by 5:30, and $140-$160 per person – simple enough, I’d say. With a date agreed upon I’d never hear from Cherie again – from this point forth it would instead be a back and forth string of e-mails between myself, my co-diners, and Chef Mirarchi himself discussing likes, dislikes, and so forth – an impressive display of customer service on par with past experiences with restaurants garnering three stars from Michelin.
With my conference finished at noon and lunch with an old friend at Peter Luger’s in the rearview I will note that for the unfamiliar Roberta’s is not easy to find - all the more testament to the praise it has been getting since it is not exactly the sort of place one stumbles upon. Thankfully with the use of my phone’s GPS and making my way via Subway from the Brooklyn bridge to Bushwick I entered the small restaurant only a minute late for the reservation and thankfully found that my companions had already arrived (though they would later admit they had originally walked right past the small and unassuming space.) Greeted promptly by our server and led to our table, a small four top with benches being replaced by chairs at our request, it would be a matter of moments before we were seated and greeted by Carlo – perhaps the most humble, pleasant, and conversant chef I’ve met to this day.
With Carlo returning to the kitchen (at least for the time being as he would act as his own server for the majority of our 16 courses while also answering myriad questions about his training, sourcing, inspiration, and upcoming changes throughout the evening) the three of us were left to chat and browse the scene – hipster to be sure, but not overly so – and kitschy décor. With a collection of music ranging from Led Zeppelin to The White Stripes coming from the back and the sounds of the growing crowd and pizza makers from the front I’d say the best way to describe Roberta’s was “energetic” and while my co-diners were certainly the oldest in the room (much as I was the youngest the night before at Café Boulud) it was the sort of place where everyone was treated well – a friendly vibe, excellent service, and a conversational tone that was both casual and professional in equal balance.
With wine poured for one and water remaining full for all throughout the nearly 270 minute tasting would begin with “a snack” delivered by Carlo – House Cured Red Wattle Prosciutto with Roberta’s signature crusty house bread. Supple and fatty with a musty and nutty essence the charcuterie itself was a fine example and although good on its own, it was even more impressive as a counterpoint to the crusty and smoky bread – the first bowl served as a sliced bread stick and the second a larger loaf that allowed the delicate crumb more surface area to shine.
Making quick work of the pork our second course would arrive quite quickly and although the least successful of the night, it was still an intriguing exploration of unexpected flavors. Described as Sea Urchin with Bloomsday and Pea Shoots the bite size uni tongue was appropriately briny but unfortunately a bit soft for my tastes. Paired with an aromatic and fruity puddle of melted cheese and a single pea shoot for texture it wasn’t so much that the flavors didn’t work but rather that the ingredients seemed largely independent – none really adding anything to the others…then again, when a dish featuring good quality urchin is the “worst” of the night it speaks volumes of the other 15 courses.
With dish three our table would be treated to the first of many breathtaking courses of the evening – on the surface somewhat surf n’ turf, but far more subtle and complex. Centered by a perfectly seared (IE caramelized outside, raw within) Diver Scallop caught and shucked that very day, the sweet bivalve was balanced with a shaving of headcheese – gamey, unctuous, and fatty. With the duo tasty on its own, the true beauty of the dish was in the details – specifically a slice of red onion and fresh squeezed tangerine juice that lent an acidic and sweet levity to the whole plate and acted to meld the two proteins into a stellar bite.
Course four would be presented by Carlo as his favorite of the night – he even took time to show us a picture of the fish pre-filet on his Iphone. Presented as Sea Perch with Ramps, Yuzu, and Firefly Squid the fish itself was mild and buttery with intensely crispy scales that particularly thrilled my co-diner who’d noted just the night before that he loved crispy skin on his fishes. Paired with beautiful early season ramps, tiny squid with plenty of bounce, and sweet lemon tones the dish was fish done right – the sort of thing you’d expect to emerge from the kitchen of Le Bernardin, or given the crisp skin perhaps Guy Savoy.
After reading my friend’s palate regarding scales with course four, course five was Carlo’s chance to wow mine. Still wobbly and extremely creamy, Poached Duck Egg with Morels, Dill, and Bread Crumbs was all one could desire from an egg dish and given the accoutrements a perfect entry to spring. Served with the whites barely set and creamy yolk pouring forth with minimal pressure from the fork I loved earthy fiber of the morels, the crunch of the bread crumbs, and the faint accent of the dill – again, no special tricks, just an exemplary preparation of quality ingredients.
Taking a quick step back to winter after teasing us with a handful of spring flavors, Oxtail with Lovage and Miner’s Lettuce was a luxurious stew with ample notes of carrot, celery, and parsley not unlike the sort one would expect from the crock pot of their grandmother. Ample and hearty but small in portion the beauty of this dish and its successor were their placing – a reminder that although spring was in the air, we’d still worn our winter coats from Manhattan to Brooklyn that day.
For course seven, another bucolic preparation – this time Trofie pasta with a ragout of Squab Heart and Liver. A sizable portion with thick spindles of flour and water as its base, this was potentially the most “gamey” dish I’ve ever tasted with only a bit of tomato tossed with the pasta to mellow out the offal. Indulging in the toothsome dumplings bite after bite the only way I can think to describe this dish is intense – not in a bad way, but in a way that says you’re not eating some gussied up Michael White dish from a $20,000 pasta machine, you’re eating heart and liver over pasta rolled by hand.
Likely aware of the heft of the previous two dishes, Carlo’s “intermezzo” as he described it was another pasta, this time hand torn Maltagliate graced with citrus and dusting of pecorino – simple, sweet, and an excellent segue to the courses that would follow.
Arriving next to the delight of the lady of the table would be an unmistakable personal favorite of mine as well – Foie Gras. Nicely cleaned and seared just long enough to char the surface, the liver itself was a top quality specimen, but it was the simple accompaniments of cracked black pepper and coarse black garlic that truly allowed it to shine. Generally fancying cold preparations over warm I have to admit that this was perhaps the best Foie Gras I experienced on this trip to New York.
Our tenth course of the evening was an encore to the seventh – the rest of the Squab, feet and all – served with Mascarpone, Gooseberry and Sorrel. Crispy skin, rosy flesh, a thin ribbon of fat – the squab breast was perfect and the legs surprisingly meaty. To be fair I honestly don’t remember the rest of the dish all that well – probably because I was too busy eating the leg by hand, something I’m rather certain I’ve never done during a “tasting menu” before but felt entirely justified (and comfortable) doing at Roberta’s.
Onward to course eleven, none of us showing signs of reaching capacity or palate fatigue, our next plate would feature whole roasted Normandy Duck paired with Kumquat, Turnip, and Swiss Chard. Unfortunately served plated and without legs due to “an issue in the kitchen,” this substantial portion of fowl was quite tasty, though much more mild than I’d have expected – the flavor almost chicken more so than duck. With crackling skin aplenty and well prepared vegetables I cannot say it was on par with some of the better preparations I’ve experienced in Manhattan, but those are some pretty high standards and I’d certainly not hesitate to try Chef Mirarchi’s duck again on future visits.
For the twelfth and thirteenth courses I have to admit I was hesitant – in general I simply do not order beef – it is both a texture thing and a taste thing since it always seems to taste “beefy.” Having mentioned this to Carlo when discussing preferences via E-mail he assured me that this would be different – that this cow (which he knew the arrival date of nearly a month in advance) was worth it. He was right.
Presented first in its raw state at the beginning of the meal, then whole-cooked, and finally plated, the 80-Day Dry Aged Wagyu with Fingerling Potatoes, Sweetbreads, and Ramps was nothing short of a revelation. Ignoring the potatoes, sweetbreads, and ramps – all things I love and all prepared exquisitely – the Wagyu itself was hardly “beefy,” the flavor instead somewhere between butter, mushrooms, and nuts while the texture was literally melt-in-the-mouth – the sort of meat that could be cut as easily with the edge of a fork as with a knife, and a portion so generous that my dining partners took a good 6 ounces home. In a word, it was perfect – the sort of dish I will remember for a long time to come not only because it was delicious, but because it challenged and changed a long held belief.
Accompanying with the steak and not to be forgotten we were additionally served a large plate of fat brushed bone marrow, parmesan, and toasted country bread – another item I’d have not ordered for myself yet another sensational preparation of which I ate the nearly the entire plate.
With my friends now getting full perhaps it was foolhardy to opt for a pizza in place of the cheese course, but I guess I never claimed to be rational when it comes to great food. Served hot, charred and bubbly from the pizza oven up front our Neapolitan style pie would be an off-menu compellation of Ramps, Ricotta, Mozzarella, Lemon, and Pine Nuts – a lovely amalgam of flavors with an elastic spring to the crust and excellent balance. Having taken a trek through what many consider to be Brooklyn’s best Pizza only three days prior I can say that Roberta’s isn’t quite Lucali or Paulie Gee good, but I preferred it to the slice at DiFara and Motorinio.
Finishing half the pie on my own it was at this point that I started to feel *gasp* full – but certainly not too stuffed for dessert. For course 15 our palate cleanser would arrive as Grapefruit Sorbetto with Olive Oil – a clean, bitter/sweet, and smooth scoop that tasted the very essence of the fruit – a significant accomplishment since I generally find most sorbet overly sweet.
With palates cleansed our final flavor of the evening would be a slightly deconstructed version of one of the house desserts - Kumquat Gelato with Cream Soda, Candied Olive, and Blood Orange Cream. Typically served as a parfait but sized down according to Carlo because he thought we were getting full the gelato was again a perfect representation of its namesake fruit while the thin crisp of cream soda candy, candied olives, and sour blood orange cream lent plenty of nuance and textural variation with the overall flavor something like a mature creamsicle.
With an epic meal behind us and a full service coffee bar up front our last taste of the night was coffee; a bold pour over cup of Finca Juanita for me and an Espresso for my friend. Sitting and sipping our coffee while chatting with our server and later with Carlo I was perhaps at my happiest – full of great food and drinking coffee with friends while listening to Led Zeppelin in the presence of a gracious host – a moment, much like the meal, that I won’t soon forget. With the bill settled – a veritable bargain at $160 per person – and Carlo walking us to the door it was a quick trip via Subway back to Manhattan with much chatter about the wonderful experience just passed – an experience I can’t wait to revisit on my next trip to New York and an experience I would suggest anyone who values great food and great people check out for themselves before the “secret” that is Carlo Mirarchi and Roberta’s is out and reservations become unattainable.
261 Moore St, Brooklyn, NY 11206