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Low-Balling the Lowcountry at Williamsburg’s The Heyward

One of the best things I’ve eaten lately is the shrimp and grits at The Heyward. This $16 bowlful of sunshine features perfectly cooked crustaceans heaped on chunky yellow grits, around which a flavorful reddish-brown broth swishes. So far, it’s a pure evocation of a famous Southern dish. But The Heyward embroiders on the regular recipe by substituting chorizo for bacon, then nonchalantly tossing some shishito peppers on top. Though decidedly non-doctrinaire, this version is one of the finest the city has seen since Edna Lewis left. (Shrimp and grits was a cornerstone of her 1976 landmark, The Taste of Country Cooking.)

The Heyward is a year-old Williamsburg bistro in the old Zebulon space. The walls are somber dark green and dark gray. The seats are comfortable and adult-sized; some are even padded. "Is this place aimed at an older crowd?" A friend inquired as she scanned the laid-back space, where she saw four divided dining zones, one of which provides stools along a semicircular counter looking into a chef’s work area that is more theater than conventional kitchen. The white-clad cooks therein dabble in the Lowcountry cooking of coastal South Carolina, which is a dangerous enterprise. Many previous New York restaurants have foundered on the rocks of American regional cooking.

The Heyward mac 'n' cheese
The Heyward Hoppin' John
The Heyward french toast sandwich

Above: Butternut squash mac 'n' cheese; Below: Hoppin' John and the French toast sandwich

The restaurant is named after turn-of-the-century Charleston literary figure DuBose Heyward, who wrote the novel upon which Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess" was based. (Less auspiciously, he also penned The Country Bunny and the Good Little Shoes.) In tribute to him, and presumably to Charleston itself, which is currently considered one of the hottest food cities in the country, other South Carolina standards are faithfully reproduced, in recipes developed by original chef Derek Orrell, and partly carried on by his replacement, Kevin Bergh.

Hoppin’ John ($16) is a dish that traces its lineage back to West Africa, where renditions using black-eyed peas can still be found in Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana. At The Heyward, heirloom field peas and Carolina gold rice from Anson Mills are used, the way Sean Brock does it at his celebrated Charleston restaurants. Additionally, a piece of seared and browned pork belly is laid across the top, in a salute to Brooklyn’s favorite part of the pig. A contrasting dish substituting sunnyside-up eggs for pork belly appears on the brunch menu. Both are worth ordering, with the beans displaying assertive savor.

Reflecting the seafood-centricity of the Lowcountry, there’s a nice French-leaning oyster service (though a little expensive at $3 per) and a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp, which taste good but leave your fingers smelling funky. Paradoxically, most of the Lowcountry standards are found in the appetizer and side dish sections of the menu. That’s OK, because it’s easy enough to make a meal out of small plates. In addition to the shrimp and grits and hoppin’ John, one might include the sweet-corn-and-pimento succotash (which is not really succotash, because where are the lima beans?), the fried green tomatoes (they recently disappeared from the menu, but will hopefully reappear once summer returns, or the green-tomato truck rolls in from Florida), and the excellent cornbread, which might be mistaken for fine cake.

The Heyward counter Daniel Krieger

The kitchen at The Heyward

Yes, the Lowcountry stuff rocks, especially a delightful she-crab soup now gone from the menu, wherein the savory pink broth had been amplified with rich roe and ramified with fine shreds of fresh crab, with purple micro-greens scattered on top. What a picture it made in the bowl! But venture afterwards to the entrees and find yourself on less agreeable terrain far from the Carolina seaboard. The thick pork chop on a gravel of heirloom carrots is tasty enough, but the hanger steak ($27) hides its few sliced pieces in too much salad for the price, and the roasted cod entrée is just plain dull. Throw away the fish and eagerly suck down the sauce it comes in, a delicious sweet potato vichyssoise. The yams, at least, would be totally at home in South Carolina.

Really, if you’re after something in the belt-busting main course category, you can’t do better than The Heyward’s hamburger ($18), which comes capped with very old cheddar and sided with scraggly fries seasoned with Old Bay, fulfilling the divine imperative that every Brooklyn bistro must provide a burger on its menu. Though I don’t usually bother with brunch (broken Hollandaise provokes my gag reflex more certainly than any other substance), I did have a wonderful dish one Sunday morning at The Heyward. Called the French toast sandwich ($15) and recommended by my editor, it wrapped two thick, egg-drenched brioche slices slathered with fig jam around luxuriantly wadded country ham and moist scrambled eggs. It’s perfect already, but dump on the maple syrup and know Williamsburg’s sloppiest take on nirvana.

Cost: Dinner for two, including two apps, a side dish, and a shared entrée with two cocktails, plus tax but not tip, $120.

Sample dishes: Shrimp and grits, French toast sandwich (brunch only), butternut squash mac and cheese, hoppin’ John.

What to drink: Cocktails priced at $13 are strong and interesting, many featuring chile infusions and unusual bitters, such as Salers Gentiane. The short by-the-glass wine list includes a spectacular $12 Spanish albarino by Burgans that goes great with the shrimp and grits and other seafood.

Bonus tip: The succotash comes with cornbread on top, obviating the need to order it separately. You can do quite well ignoring the entrees and ordering from the other menu sections. Brunch is especially delicious.

The Heyward

258 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249
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