I’ve enjoyed many performances at BAM, most recently Endgame with John Turturo, but a recent concert—a show called Ethel’s Truck Stop—left me perplexed and let down. Truck Stop was billed as a cross between music, theater and film. Not so much. Ethel is a band, made up of some very talented string and wind players. But there was no film and no theater involved. While they played a score of instrumental songs—some very beautiful and spiritually moving thanks to the resonant and haunting sounds of the native American wind instruments—a bit of random video of their rehearsals was flashed onto tall narrow panels littering the stage at odd angles. Rather than portray Americana as I imagined a show called Truck Stop might, and perhaps shoot video of the middle of the country or roadside stands, so as to bring someone or something from the outside in, this video was of the half dozen or so players tuning instruments and opening and closing guitar and violin cases. It added nothing to the story that I imagined the music was trying to tell, and in fact, detracted from its effect and beauty. Andrea Strong
The show was just plain bizarre. After an hour of it, and some enjoyable music (best accomplished with eyes closed so as not to be distracted by the mundane rehearsal video), we decided it was time to get some dinner.
And after such a perplexing evening with Ethel, we were craving something simple and straightforward. After about a 15-minute stroll from BAM into Prospect Heights, we found James, the perfect antidote to Ethel.
James is a restaurant that’s received high praise from the critics (including Bruni) for its satisfying seasonal American fare. You’ll find it on a quiet corner of St. Marks and Carlton, where the soft amber glow the bare bulbs and ornately carved Lucite chandelier filters through the windowed facade and lights up the dark cold sidewalk with the warmth of an evening sunset. It’s quite a magnetic vision, one that draws in crowds from the neighborhood and beyond like pilgrims to Thanksgiving.
Chef Bryan Calvert (Union Pacific, Bouley) and his wife Deborah Williamson (who were best known for their event company Williamson Calvert prior to opening James) are responsible for James, which has the snug and cozy vibe of a restaurant that’s been nestled in the sidewalks of Brooklyn for a decade. Set in a century-old brownstone, it’s a small room with a lovely low-lit bar outfitted with burnished mirrors, antique glassware and a list of carefully made fresh juice cocktails.
The dining room offers authentic tin ceilings, rough hewn raw brick walls, and bare wood floors, with black leather button-tufted banquettes and a row of tables for two assembled under the striking chandelier centerpiece. Servers are attentive and friendly. They’re dressed neatly in black and have a distinguished air of old school hospitality and style about them. I half expected to be called Madam. There’s no
“How ya doin’? Whadaya want?” here. The servers here are adults and take their role in your dining experience seriously. The effect is quite nice—you feel taken care of.
The kitchen also approaches its role as feeder of guests with an expected amount of integrity and earnestness. For a modest neighborhood establishment, James out does itself. There’s a small menu of seven apps and as many that’s new American in style: a Peeytoe crab cake with smoked mango puree ($16), crispy sweetbreads with Hubbard squash, truffled and a port wine reduction ($12), a plump pan-roasted chicken balanced atop of a mountain of chanterelles, spaghetti squash and spinach ($21), a shell steak with roasted marrow bone in a sauce au poivre with Swiss chard ($29).
With our drinks (the maple, rum and lime cocktail is a great one), we were served a bowl of sliced grilled bread and a tiny pot of butter, which was softened at room temperature, not ice cold. It’s a small point, but it’s one of my pet peeves to be served butter that’s ice cold. How are you supposed to use that? It should be room temperature.
We started with an heirloom tomato salad ($11), a surprise to see on the menu in October. I figured we’d take advantage of the last of the season’s fruit because I’d be surprised to see it still on the menu after this week. The yellow and red tomatoes (juicy and sweet) are sliced in circles, layered up on top of one another like a tomato Lego set, and crowned with basil. While the tomatoes did their job, the menu indicated that they would be served with a warm chevre fondue, but what this turns out to be is a tepid and watery cheese soup that’s neither warm nor fondue like, and that’s where the disappointment lies. How I was craving a nice warm cheese puddle, but instead just a cool cheese soup.
The Diver scallops ($12) however, were quite good—large and succulent and caramelized so they’re nice and brown on the edges, they are set up with a velvet smooth celery root puree, boar lardoons and bright watercress vinaigrette.
Fish is a strong point here as the Arctic char was among the most luscious and silken pieces of ocean meat I’ve ever eaten. Seared so its skin resembles a tortilla chip, this char is a melt-in-your mouth situation. Literally, it’s like buttah, baby. I loved the potato latke that comes along with the fish, which, like the skin, adds a nice salty crunchiness. Mustard greens and a miso butter round out the plate, lending soft shadows of sweet, salty, and sharp to the picture.
We’d heard a lot about the burger ($15) at James, and while several other menu items beckoned us (the chicken and a pine-nut and rosemary rack of lamb with spaetzle), we went for it. How happy we were. It’s a beautiful and tender grass fed pup (though it could use a tad more seasoning) that gets topped with a thin gloss of Cotswold cheese with pickles, red leaf lettuce and tomatoes. It’s rested on a grilled brioche bun that’s soft and warm and does an impressive job as a bread sponge for the burger’s considerable juices. Fries are hand-cut and skin on and served piled so high in a white bowl that you may doubt your ability to finish them. Yee of little faith; how quickly they disappear.
After demolishing the burger and fries, the idea of dessert was something we could not really embrace, though I wish we could have. The grilled lemon pound cake was just up my alley. I love lemon desserts. And anything made with a pound of butter.
But James had done its job, bringing the evening to a close on a bright note. Instead of feeling perplexed and underwhelmed, James left us feeling satisfied and happy and anxious to return for more. Ethel let us down, but James picked us up. Thanks.
605 Carlton Ave (St. Marks Ave)
Dinner: Tues-Sun 5:30pm-11pm
Bar: Tues-Sun 5pm-midnight