Kitchen Indifference at Gran Electrica, Late Night Redemption at Arthur on Smith
“Dana Cowin asked me to name the three warning signs that you should get up and leave a restaurant before it’s too late.”
That was Josh Wesson, the legendarily witty, charming, flirtatious, and knowledgeable wine authority, co-author with David Rosengarten of the classic book Red Wine with Fish, and founder of the retail chain Best Cellars.
Josh and I were sitting not twelve hours ago with Red Cat’s Jimmy Bradley. We were catching up for the first time in years in the spacious garden behind Gran Electrica, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO, when Josh recounted the question that Cowin, Food & Wine magazine’s editor, asked him onstage during the annual Food & Wine Classic at Aspen last weekend, where Josh is a longtime attraction (if you ever get the chance to hear him talk about wine, don’t miss it).
His answer: “A lousy reception at the door; a lag time of more than five minutes between being seated and either getting a drink order in or between the order and the arrival of said drink; and a bad bread basket.” On the last point, he elaborated that he’d never had bad bread followed by good food. Can’t say I could argue with that, or any of his criteria.
We didn’t have a lousy reception at the door at Gran Electrica, and there’s no bread basket, but the lag time between ordering a bottle of wine and its arrival was in considerable excess of five minutes. (Josh also caught an error that most wine mortals would have missed on the list: Channing Daughters Rosé was listed as being made from Refosco grapes on the by-the-glass list and Syrah on the bottle list. It also irked him that nobody could speak to the relative merits of the two bottles he was torn between on the relatively short wine card. .. make that a fourth warning sign.)
The menu consists of small plates and not-so-small plates, all suitable if not necessarily intended for sharing. We ordered tongue tacos, fish tacos, coctel (mixed seafood cocktail), carne cocida en limon (a sort-of beef ceviche), and a few others. As would be the case with many diners accustomed to the small-plate format, we intended this as a first strike, with plans to take stock and order more food and drink after devouring and imbibing what we’d so far committed to.
We detected an air of inflexibility bordering on the inhospitable when Josh asked to “supersize” an order of tacos, which come in sets of two, by ordering a third.
Our waitress was charming and quick-witted–when Josh asked if she’d had to personally stomp the grapes for our slow-to-arrive wine, she replied, with coquettish irony, “I prefer to keep my grape-stomping habits to myself, sir.”–but she didn’t have a snappy retort to the taco query: “Sorry,” she said, with the weariness of somebody who’d been in this awkward position more than a few times in the recent past. “They only come in orders of two. The chef is adamant about that.”
This didn’t go over too well with Josh or Jimmy, two old-school sorts who’d pretty much do anything to make a customer happy, certainly something as easy as letting them buy one measly taco à la carte. Warning sign number five?
The food was fine, no more or less than what you’d expect from the brief menu descriptions, and I likely wouldn’t have written about the experience at all except that when we tried to order more food, we were told that the kitchen had closed, but for desert. You would think that a restaurant like Gran Electrica, on a Thursday night, in a thriving Brooklyn neighborhood, with a pulsating bar scene, that takes your name at 8:30, doesn’t seat you until 9:30, and doesn’t get your first order in until close to 10pm, might keep the kitchen open until later than 10:45, or at least give you fair warning that a second round of small plates was out of the question. But there we were, feeling hip and hungry in the middle of an otherwise fully functioning restaurant.
The funny thing was that it was just a few hours earlier that I’d had a conversation with a restaurateur friend about the relative merits of dining when you’re known to the house, and when you’re not. “I’m starting to like it more incognito,” he said to me. “You get the real experience that way, really see what the place is about and how they’re doing.”
Not knowing anybody at Gran Electrica, we were surely getting the “real” experience, but Josh and Jimmy were sufficiently miffed by the refusal of more grub, that Jimmy felt the need to out himself, asking our waitress to: “Tell the chef Jimmy Bradley says thanks for nothing.”
I have to say, I felt the same way: Much as I love this borough I’ve called home for the past several years, and though I’m a fan of many of its restaurants (Char No 4, Seersucker, Prime Meats, Black Mountain, Franny’s, and the brilliant Brooklyn Fare, to name but a few that do it right), there are times when our eateries validate everything Brooklyn’s critics say: doing-you-a-favor attitude, poor table management (i.e., the providing and replenishment of silverware, water, and so on), and the notion tonight that it was perfectly acceptable to stop offering food at what amounted to mid-meal.
[Update 6/22/12, 7:10pm: Gran Electrica's chef de cuisine Sam Richman and I just had a nice email exchange. He says that he doesn't have a hard-and-fast two-taco policy and doesn't know why the kitchen was closed when we were still eating. He did all anyone could ask of a chef in his position: got in touch, explained as best he could, and didn't begrudge me my experience. Outreach like this makes all the difference; I'll try to give the place another chance before the summer's out.]
On the Other Hand …
Serving into the wee hours isn’t a problem for a new Cobble Hill restaurant that I like quite a bit, Arthur on Smith, where chef Joe Isidori just launched a late-night menu that will be offered from 11pm until 1am Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I first met Joe a few months ago when he opened the joint, and I’m an unabashed fan, both of his food and of his unassuming demeanor.
We might not have made it over to Arthur on Smith last night for the informal soiree they were throwing to kick off the menu, except that we were suffering from dinner interruptus, and were hungry.
Arthur on Smith was full of friends of the house and local business owners, there as Joe’s guests to sample the food which was brought out as it was prepared and arrayed on a long, banquet-style table at the back of the dining room where we all helped ourselves.
There were sandwiches of lamb, pork, and perhaps most memorably and originally thick-cut mortadella, the pistachios within whole and crunchy, slathered with mustard, the best, high-class bologna sandwich you could imagine. We also enjoyed pasta carbonara, gnocchi with (I think) short rib sauce, and salads of beets and tomatoes. We washed these snacks down with Lambrusco, about which Josh uttered one of his signature throwaway gems: “It’s delicious and doesn’t have too much alcohol; a surgeon could have it for lunch and not mess up in the afternoon.”
I’m not exactly sure in what sized portions this will all be offered on a (late) nightly basis, but in a neighborhood that shuts down surprisingly early, even on the weekends, this is a great new option to add to the itinerary.
Beyond all that, we had a fun time in the cool, relaxed, midnight-in-summer vibe, joined at one point by Don Pintabona, the original chef of Tribeca Grill and an old pal of the lot of us, including Joe. There was a touching moment when Don mentioned that he was part of the Hayden’s Heroes benefit being hosted this Sunday at Colicchio and Sons in honor of chef Gerry Hayden, a veteran of such kitchens as Aureole, who’s been in the throes of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past several years. (The event, as I understand it, is sold out, but you can donate here.) Jimmy, who’s not one of the headliner chefs at the event, immediately offered to help out in the back of the house, a spontaneous gesture of solidarity between him and Don, all in support of their fellow toque. After the indignities of our first stop on this night, the second couldn’t have been more reassuring.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.