Nightingale 9 recently closed up shop and clamored down the street into the old Seersucker space, a prime location on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. Its old corner digs became Wilma Jean, yet another hipster fried chicken joint, owned by the same restaurateurs. But more about that later.
In its year or so of existence, Nightingale 9 had become one of the neighborhood's most prized lunch spots. It offered a twisted take on Vietnamese food, with a canny mix of unreconstructed dishes and ones that had been invented out of whole cloth. One of the best things was the price: you could dine well, and even drink a beer, for $20 or less, including tax and tip. When a friend who lives on the Gowanus Canal raved about the place, I went with her for lunch one spring day. I was amazed to find a totally dope bowl of Hanoi-style pho, closer to the original version of the soup than anyplace in town, and a banh mi reconfigured as an egg-bearing breakfast sandwich — authentic or not, a brilliant idea.
So it was with some apprehension that I visited the new premises, dragging with me a friend from Vermont who grew up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The new location – a midblock space just across the street from Carroll Park — is finished in the blockhouse school of interior design: bare bricks, hanging metal lampshades like the police use for interrogations, and metal barstools that might have come from a high school chemistry lab. No matter, when the setting sun streams into the dining room, you'll find you couldn't be happier.
That mainly goes for the food, too. The savory menu divides into four sections: Small, Share, Broth, and Meat & Fish. The last two represent full-blown entrees, some large enough that you don't need to appetize. This is not a small plate place. In fact, the apps are expensive compared to the mains. And foiling the neighborhood's lunch plans, Nightingale 9 is open only for dinner.
First to hit the table was a watermelon salad ($11). Easily enough for two even though positioned in the Small section, it came laced with exotic herbs. The dish was reminiscent of Fatty Crab's watermelon and pork belly salad, only pigless. Across the top lay a crisp rice cracker of large circumference, which the waiter instructed us to break up with chopsticks. The instruction delighted my friend: "We break up these crackers in Hanoi," she said, "but our crackers aren't nearly as big." Next came a wonderful dish of battered and fried frogs legs ($10), four meaty specimens laved in curry oil, which glistened in the sunlight. They were delicious, and seemed like a Vietnamese answer to Buffalo wings.
Banh cuon ($12) are crepes made with translucent rice starch wrappers, in this case stuffed with ground pork and topped with thick coins of chicken pate. They were tasty, too, though my Vietnamese pal complained that the texture of the clear wrapper wasn't quite right. There was a flaw, too, in the dish called "shaved rare beef" ($12). Big rounds of stiff rice paper were delivered in a contraption that allowed you to dip them in water to soften them for use. Oak-leaf lettuce and a Vietnamese red perilla called tia to were also provided. These were to be folded into the rice paper along with the beef, and dipped in salty fish sauce. Unfortunately, the shaved beef itself was a fail — it tasted too much like it had been cut from a deli roast. Beef carpaccio would have been better.
[Pork hock banh canh]
[Basil seed mixed drink]
Priced at from $12 to $16, the main courses in the last two sections handily fulfill the promise of a full meal at a bargain price. We tried two: pork hock bahn canh was a bathtub-size bowl of soup with a slick of chile oil on top, filled with pulled pork tidbits and noodles that might have been udon, except for their clearness. The simply named skirt steak was a bit stranger, salty and slightly sweet beef nuggets with rolled and fried rice noodles. Still, a very satisfying bowl of food. My friend liked that dish best of the six we tasted.
Now, Nightingale 9, please open for lunch and bring back that Hanoi-style pho! 329 Smith St, Brooklyn, 347-689-4699.
A few days later two friends and I visited Wilma Jean, to see how the old Nightingale 9 space was faring. The layout is approximately the same as before, with a few six-person tables, perfect for the families which are just beginning to throng the establishment in the early evening hours. There is additional seating along the bar in the corner, which serves only beer and wine, the former at semi-bargain prices: $5 for draft pints that run from Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold to River Horse Belgian-style Tripel ale. Canned beers are even cheaper. Is this a place you'd want to hang and drink? Read on.
[Fried bologna sandwich]
[Pimento cheese and fried oysters.]
Wilma Jean is a casual fried chicken joint, one among many that dot the Brooklyn landscape — like Pies 'N' Thighs but without the pies. The menu swells with Southern vernacular food, some of it unique to Wilma Jean. For $5 you can get a superb fried bologna sandwich on a hamburger bun slathered with mustard, a working-class standard of a half-century ago that's now hard to find, even in the Deep South. Fried oysters thickly crusted with cornmeal are another classic, served with something called "Mississippi Comeback Sauce."
At this point we began to notice a service issue. All the six dishes we'd ordered arrived within two minutes of each other, making it not only hard to juggle them as we ate, but also virtually guaranteeing our meal would be over in 30 minutes or less. The function of the server as a meal expediter became instantly apparent. Clearly, Wilma Jean would rather that you carried out, and even the dishes ordered "to stay" come with sauces in lidded plastic cups, which is not a hospitable way to serve sauces.
Those other dishes, though, were all pretty good. There was a shish kebab of fried chicken tidbits, and a bacon cheeseburger that arrived perfectly cooked, juicy and medium rare as ordered. It was somewhat comical to see a down-and-dirty grease pit like Wilma Jean bending over backwards to provide a gluten-free take on pimento cheese, and going Paleo with a raw collard salad, but, hey, the Zeitgeist must be fed.
And what about the fried chicken? It was a brined bird, available by the piece (breast $6, thigh $4, drumstick $3) with buttermilk dressing, or in a bargain half-chicken dinner ($14) that includes a roll, a very small cup of cole slaw, and a more substantial side. The potato salad we chose was good, but it featured designer spuds in a runny sour cream dressing. Making us speculate: Why is it that fried chicken joints and barbecues in Brooklyn can never get the potato salad right?
Despite the broken-backed concept (trashy retro-food meets half-hearted healthfulness, eat and get the hell out vs. sit and drink another beer), I'd have to heartily recommend Wilma Jean after a first visit. Most of the food is terrific, with an ingenious range of quirky offerings guaranteed to keep you coming back for more. In other words, the Comeback sauce lives up to its name. 345 Smith St, Brooklyn, 718-422-0444.
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