The most remarkable fact about Black Tree, a rustic Orchard Street restaurant and bar that celebrates protein-centric local and seasonal food, is that co-owner and chef Sandy Dee Hall had just four months of culinary practice before throwing open his Lower East Side doors. Crazy, but true. Prior, Hall spent a handful of years moonlighting as a bartender, though it wasn't until he took a serving position at The Breslin four years ago that he started to consider food in a new light. And for the last year and a half, Hall has been commanding one of Orchard Street's most popular slivers of a neighborhood den, where regulars sidle up to the bar for shots of locally distilled Concord grape-infused tequila and wooden boards piled high with the animal centerpiece of the week.
Hall's foray into food began after his year-long stint at The Breslin, when he landed a bar manager position at Monument Lane in the West Village. At the time Robert Barry, a former chef from Cookshop, helmed the kitchen. Hall worked the bar at night, but during the day he cooked alongside Barry, his first time ever prepping plates in a restaurant kitchen. And despite his bar background, Hall says "I wasn't really into the drink scene so much." And food inspired a new ambition in him to "possibly create something unique in the food world." So, in collaboration with friend Matthew Roth of the Crown Inn in Crown Heights, the two launched a sandwich pop-up named Black Tree centered on local and seasonal ingredients from protein to produce.
Black Tree today isn't a far cry from the Back Tree pop-up at the Crown Inn. The main difference is that Black Tree the restaurant isn't dedicated entirely to the sandwiches game. Hall met his partner Macnair Sillick because the two lived in the same apartment building after college. Now, while Hall oversees the restaurant's 30-foot kitchen cube, Sillick helps out with front of house.
About four months into operating his restaurant, Hall ordered a whole pig and centered his menu for the week on that one protein, adding seasonal sides and garnishes to complement the meat. After that week, instead of switching back to his regular non-animal centered menu, Hall kept the whole animal thing going, changing up his bill of fare weekly based on proteins like venison, duck, or wild-caught fish. Sides and accoutrements change too based on market produce availability. The only dish on Hall's menu which doesn't doesn't get the seasonal treatment is his Di Palo burrata served with warm, thinly sliced Caputo Bakery ciabatta laced with olive oil and sea salt. That ciabatta is also used in Black Tree's sandwiches. There's always a soup and a dip to start, but those fluctuate based on the time of year and protein of the week. Recently, Hall devised a porcine menu which involved a leek/carrot soup and a "Loaded Potato 'Artichoke' Dip," which had some bacon mixed in for good measure.
Embracing seasonality and sourcing ingredients from small farms takes priority at Black Tree, and last week's heritage breed pig was raised at Violet Hill Farm upstate. Hall gets the whole hog and breaks it down himself into "face" terrine, house-cured bacon, and croquettes filled with trotter and head meat. There's pulled pork shoulder tacos, porchetta, and even a 30-ounce porterhouse served with a scallion chimichurri. For such high quality product, prices are utterly reasonable, with all plates under $19 (except for that porterhouse, which runs $38), and sandwiches like braised pork belly or certain vegetable concoctions run from $12 to $15. An extra farm egg or bacon costs $2 more. And if you want to "Make it Epic" a whole lobe of burrata can be yours for $7.
Hall sources every single last one of his ingredients from within 300 miles of the restaurant, from about Maine down to Virginia. He says most of his produce comes from a 100 mile radius, but he reaches out a bit further for animals. And that care in sourcing product applies not only to food but to drink as well. All alcohol, from spirits to beer to wine, is local, as are all cocktail ingredients. An integral component at any bar is citrus, but there is no citrus to be found at Black Tree, other than kumquats when they're in season. Instead Hall, who made Black Tree's bar program with help from Matt McGarry (Fatty 'Cue), balances his seasonal cocktails with raw cider vinegar. There's also a whole menu of seasonal picklebacks, paired with various local spirits. Hall just ran out of husk cherry, though he still has pickled pumpkin juice paired with Thomas Tew rum and pickled carrot juice paid with Comb vodka, among a slew of others.
Hall pushes a whimsical bar program. In addition to his handful of picklebacks on offer, there's tequila flavored with Concord grapes from the farmers market, house-made "fireball" shots, and even bacon-bourbon shots. Black Tree usually has about five or so cocktails on offer, though that menu varies with ingredient availability. Arranging an entirely locally spirited bar does come with obvious limitations, but Hall is happy with much of the booze he's procuring. He gets grappa from Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn, and pear brandy from Finger Lakes Distilling upstate, as well as Widow Jane Bourbon, Suffolk County Distillery rye, and Breuckelen Distilling gin. Considering the local constraints, Black Tree still has a pretty full bar, stockd with most of the usual suspects. Outside of spirits, more than 20 local craft beers in a variety of styles grace the menu by bottle, tap, and can, along with a small set of local wines on tap.
Continuing the the theme of local and sustainable, Black Tree's tiny 720-square feet is finished in reclaimed wood from a bowling alley in Virginia, along with steel embellishments from a 1920s factory in West Virginia. Tables are set with cups repurposed from wine bottles, and in place of plates Black Tree uses reclaimed wood boards.
"We use our space well, but it's not a lot of space," says Hall, which is why he's expanding in the next few months with a larger Black Tree in Williamsburg. The new restaurant at 261 Metropolitan Avenue will hopefully launch by April with twice as much indoor seating, and additional tables on a wraparound patio. In addition to Black Tree's whole animal farm-to-table menu, Hall is going to offer a 15 to 18 course chef's tasting menu from Wednesday through Friday priced at $131. Not bad for a guy who opened his first restaurant a year and a half ago and only learned to cook four months before that.