NL; Panino'teca 275
We emerged from the W. 4th St. station into a collegiate street party. Packs of upper-middle-class white kids wearing Mardi Gras beads were roving drunkenly through the fading daylight. One of a group of boys in baseball caps loudly slurred his appraisal of a female in our party. Half a block later, a herd of sorority sisters blocked the entire sidewalk and much of the street.
We ignored this inauspicious commencement of our evening out and gradually made our way to NL. The Dutch restaurant opened about a year ago and was enthusiastically reviewed. Supposedly it wasn't doing so well now?probably, I guessed, because so many of the people who read the raves never got around to actually visiting the Sullivan St. establishment, as I hadn't. Cravings for the cuisine of the Netherlands and its former colonies are rare. But my companions and I ate very well as tourists there, finding the sophisticated pragmatism of the Dutch satisfying, and in flavor much hipper than the wooden-shoes-and-windmills stereotype. My girlfriend's recent business trip to Amsterdam was our inspiration: her descriptions of mustardy greens and potato soups, bar snacks of excellent cheese or smoked fish on brown bread and desserts featuring caramel wafers and baked cinnamon apples in pastry led directly to consensus on finally trying NL.
At 7 p.m. we were the first customers. That's not so bad for a nightbird neighborhood like the Village, though by the time appetizers arrived we'd been joined only by one other party. Unfortunately, this other party had a major impact on our dining experience, and so, with a rubbernecker's sense of regret, I must describe it.
The female half was young and fat. She had a bowl haircut and spoke extraordinarily loud. The first thing she did upon arriving was accidentally knock a glass off a table. She was making her way into NL's sleek, orange-cushion-and-steel banquette, and swept the vessel from the table alongside hers with her shoulder bag. She reacted without remorse or apology. Very attention-grabbing, this was?especially given the silent docility of her tall, thin, older male companion. I figured the obnoxious young woman was his mildly retarded daughter. We soon learned, from her conversation with the waiter?which she continued even while he was busy on the other side of the empty, tiled room?that the man was her husband, and Dutch, and they'd met on the Internet.
I remember being in Holland and feeling like a barbarian as the only shopper in a grocery store who didn't bring my own canvas bag, and thus required the wasteful use of paper or plastic. Plus, I don't maintain windowboxes of colorful flowers, even though it's apparent to me that they make a city street look better. They must have them, but I've never known a Dutch person to confess to feelings of cultural superiority. Maybe I've only met the very nice ones. NL's waiter was no exception. The way he bantered with the appalling Internet bride was nothing if not civilized.
We started our dinner with mustard soup from the Zaan region, an order of imported maatjes herring and two salads with fish. Mine was a mille-feuille, piled high, with a potato cracker topping smoked eel, sliced portobellos, greens and a fennel-and-lemongrass-mayo dressing. The other was a special: Belgian endive and watercress with chunks of orange and smoked trout. This second was a winner, with the sweet citrus teasing out the power of the mild, flaky trout. My eel was more firm and smoky, as fatty as mackerel, yet also somewhat subtle. I liked it more than a little, but the accompaniment didn't add much, and would have been run-of-the-mill served alone. Given that, the eel salad cost too much at $14.
The creamy soup was billed as a blend of three Dutch mustards. Its taste, though, was singular, and compelling, if not enough so to overwhelm all distractions. Again, the portion was unnecessarily large, as if to justify its price ($7). Before my friend was half-finished, she'd begun to feel as if she were eating a sauce intended for baked halibut or something. The soup would have been great as that, or as a smaller starter, in a cup alongside some of NL's fries. Those are worth writing home about?plenty crisp with no sacrifice of earthy mash, similar to but not as oily as the addictive potato prisms from Manhattan's Belgian fry stands. As the pattern of our NL experience became apparent, so did the idea that this fine dining establishment has something much closer to those stands inside it, dying to get out.
The herring ($6) is NL's not-to-be-missed specialty. It's exactly what Amsterdamers snack on in their town's squares: a side of burgundy meat with glints of silver, consumed raw, soft bones and all, with some sweet pickle and chopped onion. The jarred versions you can get in New York's fancy groceries tend toward the overwhelming. At NL, the herring is rich and salty, with phantom notes of vinegar and wood smoke, and so fresh as to guarantee a natural balance. The true maatjes consistency is akin to a good cut of sashimi, which it pretty much is, though three times as thick. The pickle and onion harmonize to make a 3-D portrait in regional taste, like what capers and olives do with Italian anchovies.
The sauerkraut risotto entree with wild mushrooms and house-dried tomatoes ($17) was yet another exhibit supporting our theory that NL should convert to a concentration on small plates. The flavors suffused the rice unobtrusively, so that even the pungent kraut came off as a high, chiming tone. Alternately woody and tangy support from the mushrooms and tomatoes gave the risotto a sense of being rooted in an old land. The lowland sting and comforting design of the dish made for a much-appreciated sample of what could either be NL's sense of invention or Dutch home cooking. The conflation seems appropriate, because a paradoxical tradition of innovation is the crux of Holland's style.
Sauteed cod with lime cauliflower sauce ($21) was inexplicably bad, as if the result of a grievous cooking error. I wouldn't be shocked to hear that the kitchen had run out of limes, but even that wouldn't explain why the cod tasted like defrosted tofu, or why the sauce came off like a Campbell's cream of cauliflower, devoid of spice or even salt. A side of spinach was more in line with reasonable expectations, and the fries, as I said, were stellar.
A grilled chicken curry dish was served with "Surinamese tortilla," which NL's menu explains is really a roti. Surinam is in northeastern South America, but due to Dutch colonial exploits many of its inhabitants are of Javanese or Hindustani descent. The combination of cornmeal and curry thickened with potato adorning spicy meat promised the kind of transglobally indigenous taste twofer that only a reformed imperial power can provide. Instead, the dish would have been par for the course at any South Asian satay joint (where it wouldn't bear even half the $19 price tag), save for the green beans and shiitake mushrooms. The roti was a fine corn tortilla, but too crumbly to work as a wrap. The chicken was pumped up like a young Schwarzenegger and proved about as refined?too much breast muscle, not enough taste. As for the yellow curry, it was comparable to dipping sauces I've enjoyed from outdoor satay carts out West (and when will New York be getting some of those?).
Happily, the tables turned again once the main course was over. A dessert of parfait with stroopwafels?those caramel wafers over which my girlfriend rhapsodized?found NL back at the level of its herring appetizer. Not coincidentally, the stroopwafels are one of the only other foodstuffs the restaurant imports from back home. The number of them you get in an order on Sullivan St. ($8) is paltry compared to one in Amsterdam, but it's enough. The parfait comes in a little pyramid atop slices of spiced pear, with the scrumptious wafers leaning along its sloped sides. The caramel inside is as light and effective as sunshine?the nectar actually trickles out of the cookie when you bite it. Bonus pieces of stroopwafel inside the parfait guarantee that the pyramid won't have time to melt out of shape before it's consumed.
NL isn't deserving of death, which is what it appears to be on its way to. Here's hoping it's someday repaired to form similar to that of the restaurant described below. It's perhaps arrogant for me to tell a worldly Dutch restaurateur how to run her business, but I take comfort in the knowledge that I'm nowhere near as rude as Americans get.
NL, 169 Sullivan St. (betw. Houston & Bleecker Sts.), 387-8801.
There are so many newish restaurants on Brooklyn's Smith St. that it's a little silly. Dozens of assistant chefs in early-90s Manhattan had dreams of their own restaurants come true?all at the same place and time. Brooklyn people spend hours discussing which ones they've tried and what they thought of them. Now I'm going to tell you about my current favorite.
Panino'teca 275 is an Italian sandwich place. It has a selection of tap beers, and unlike many Smith St. destinations it's open during the day. It's serene there in the afternoon, even on weekends. Cobble Hill has no near equivalent of Manhattan's W. 3rd St., but it does get crowded. One hot Saturday not long ago, I found all the coffee shops on Smith full to bursting, then joined a smattering of Panino'teca patrons reposing with beers and San Pellegrino sodas, shooting the breeze and nibbling on compact delicacies.
The place serves tramezzini, triangular sandwiches on fluffy, crustless white bread. Various cheeses and herbs, smoked salmon and cucumber, house-cured tuna?like that. Then there're the pannini, which are grilled so the cheese melts into the fresh vegetables, roasted garlic, fresh artichoke, imported prosciutto or what have you, and sealed in by golden ciabatta toast. Most sandwiches fall in the $5-$8 range. If you only want a snack, there's also a selection of bruschettas.
It makes for a cafe style that can't quite exist in Manhattan, but is close to ideal for a Euro-ethnic establishment specializing in expatriate camaraderie and imported treats. I don't live particularly close to Panino'teca, but I've made my way there several times since discovering it. Restaurants want to rope you into more than you bargained for, while bars ask you to make do with less. Then there's Panino'teca, offering cool refreshment and a great modest meal.
There are at least five Brooklyn main-drags besides Smith St. where a relaxed, inexpensive version of NL would fit in. Downtown may have been New Amsterdam, but it currently has more in common with tourist New Orleans. Cross the East River, NL. Who knows?maybe Bloomberg will even let you open a mannered back garden for cannabis.
Panino'teca 275, 275 Smith St. (betw. DeGraw and Sackett Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-237-2728.
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