There are days when I feel like the restaurant version of Dear Abby. Not that people are writing to me about their issues with their mothers or husbands. Emails flood my inbox from a different sort of advice seeker. This week alone, a random sampling looked something like this:
“I am looking for a place to celebrate a 40th birthday and I forgot to plan something. It’s this Saturday for 8 people! Looking for good food, but not too loud and not a scene. Help!”
“My husband’s birthday is this weekend and I have no idea where to take him. He’s the planner. I want something special but not pretentious and I haven’t reserved any place yet! Help!”
“My girlfriend and I are having a baby and we’re not getting married. We need a place to break the news to her parents. Elegant, quiet and not too expensive.”
“I am proposing to my girlfriend, and I want a cozy neighborhood spot for drinks before dinner that won’t give anything away.”
I am happy to help, and often times I get great reports back after the fact, which is always nice. Now that I think about it, it seems to me that that my advice seekers from this week might all consider dining at Braeburn. It fits the bill for almost every one of these requests.
The restaurant, which is located on a quiet, idyllic corner in the West Village (the space used to be Voyage), has that farm-in-the-city vibe made possible by rough farmhouse beams, sunflower colored walls, polished wood tables, hardwood floors and soft amber lighting coming through sconces fashioned from twigs. A spacious tavern area with light walnut wood floors and a concrete bar seats after-work couples and groups of friends stopping in for a drink and a bite from the stick-to-your-ribs bar menu: Pork Slap battered onion rings ($6), a burger with cheddar and fries ($14), a plate of braised St. Louis style ribs ($11) with pints of Abita and refreshing rhubarb margaritas ($10).
In the dining room, which is anchored by a pastoral mural of the countryside (it’s actually a painting of Bistrong’s apple orchard and family farm in East Haddam, Connecticut), bread plates are quickly filled with flaky cheddar chive biscuits, easily eaten by the dozen as they arrive fresh from the oven with a side of soft butter (as if you’d need more than the allotted pound per). If you notice your biscuit plate is empty (because you’ve wolfed yours down to quickly), do have another. To punctuate the country setting even more, waiters are dressed in cotton plaid button down shirts, like they might be coming from the farm or from a coffee shop in Williamsburg for that matter.
While there have been mixed reviews of Braeburn (and for some reason its artwork), I have no problem with what it is—a very good neighborhood restaurant. Is it a special occasion restaurant? Not in the traditional sense. It’s more casual and comfortable than pretentious and fussy. Is the food on par with the Gramercy Taverns of the world? No. But it doesn’t need to be. The chef and owner, Brian Bistrong (most recently of The Harrison), runs Braeburn with co-owner John-Paul O’Neil (the former General Manager at The Harrison who was previously the GM at Blue Hill) and the pair have envisioned a seasonal American bistro for the neighborhood and beyond. The food is solid and satisfying, more on the level of a Cookshop, an Irving Mill, a Savoy, Telepan. And in this economy, it’s probably a better group to be in.
I had dinner at Braeburn last week. I was meeting a couple of friends for dinner and finally made it after a crowded subway ride from Brooklyn in which not a single person offered me their seat. I don’t know what’s wrong with people, but it seems to me that when there’s a woman who’s about to give birth standing in front of you, you get off your kiester and offer her a seat. You don’t just pretend you don’t see her or her rotund belly.
Honestly, I used to think it was because I was wearing a heavy coat and people could not tell I was pregnant, but there’s no heavy coat anymore. I am 8 months pregnant, ready to pop in a month. It’s not that people can’t tell I am pregnant, it’s that people just don’t care. I am shocked. It’s really disgraceful and does not reflect what I thought of New Yorkers, which is that we really are a great group of people. But I am trying not to stereotype our entire society. Maybe it’s just people who ride the F train? Maybe not.
In any case, after an exhausting subway ride, I was ready to relax and enjoy an evening with my friends and that’s exactly what I did. (And I took a cab home.) To my surprise, instead of a ghost town (Mondays are not the busiest of nights for restaurants), I found Braeburn to be pleasantly crowded with a friendly buzz. There was a group of men at the bar, a few couples already seated having appetizers, and families of four perusing menus. If it’s this busy on a Monday night at 7pm, then Brian and John-Paul have succeeded in doing what any restaurant aims to: develop a good local following.
We were seated at a table along the banquette in the dining room and started with a rhubarb margarita (for Kiri) and a non-alcoholic sparkling cider for me, while we looked over our options for dinner. Brian’s concise menu is a roadmap of spring’s crops with every dish showered with peas, fava beans, and asparagus. Even if the weather outside has been frightful, on the menu at Braeuburn, it’s 65 and sunny.
To start, have the hand rolled pici pasta ($11) that’s tossed with peas, hunks of smoky bacon, and a dollop of ricotta that looks like a spoonful of whipped cream atop a sundae. While I would have liked a bit more bacon to punch up the flavor profile, the pasta is beautiful, and the portion is big enough to share as an app or to have as a light dinner with a salad—like the one with roasted beets, Braeburn apples, spicy walnuts and goat cheese fondue ($10). There’s also a perfectly poached egg, frothed in a Parmesan foam and breaded in panko that you should by all means puncture and let run over a warm salad of pencil asparagus ($12). Florida shrimp are simply grilled, juicy and sweet, but a little too charred, and served over a fresh, zippy salsa fresca with just enough kick to make sure you’re paying attention ($13).
Like those heavenly biscuits served when you’re seated, the menu at Braeburn stays true to food that’s more honest and simple than overdressed and ratcheted up with bling. What’s also very attractive about the restaurant is its value. Entrée prices are kept in the mid-twenties (some are even teens, like the buttermilk fried chicken served on Wednesdays with collards and black eyed peas for $18), and the portions are substantial. You won’t leave Braeburn feeling hungry or ripped off. And that’s a nice feeling.
Wild striped bass is remarkably moist and served in a vivid tomato broth bobbing with fat briny olives, preserved lemon and asparagus. With the side of spring vegetable ragout (served in an adorable little pewter crock), it was a perfect supper. On the heavier side, he serves wonderful veal chops ($28) with a rich Madeira jus, roasted shallot jam and a spring fricassee of fava beans and mushrooms. Sirloin of lamb ($26), though not as tender as I’d have liked, comes with a bold ragout of crushed peas, chickpeas, mint, and spicy Merguez sausage that would be a welcome side dish at any dinner table. We added a side of herbed spaetzle to this dish—crisped up and mustardy and completely worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the menu does have one clunker. Monday night’s plat du jour, the macaroni and cheese with Vermont cheddar and Serrano ham ($16), was a disappointment. It’s flat, flavorless and lacks that sharp cheesiness that I crave in a macaroni n’ cheese. Instead, it’s a bit runny and is more like pasta and roux than a hearty portion of hot, bubbly and cheesy mac n’ cheese. It was also served room temperature, which was an issue with some of our entrees as well. Rather than piping hot, they arrive warm enough, but cool down too quickly. Perhaps the plates need to be kept warm to keep the food at the right temperature longer.
If you end your meal on a sweet note, you’ll be rewarded by desserts (all $12) by pastry consultant and beverage director Katherine Beto (wd-50, Per Se). We loved her vanilla doughnut holes—hot and fluffy freshly fried dumplings of dough that are served with a lemon verbena syrup that forms a glaze over the warm dough, and the almond cake with a tart yogurt sorbet that’s tastes like Pinkberry might if served at Per Se.
So, let me put my Dear Abby hat back on. If you’re looking for a place to take your parents to let them know you and your girlfriend are having a baby, if you’re seeking a good choice for a friend’s 40th, or if you’re just in search of a place to meet someone special for a drink, you now know where to go. And if you’re pregnant, good luck on the subway.