Hey where's the hamburger?" A friend exclaimed, running her finger down the menu of The Finch, a new bistro on the eastern edge of Clinton Hill. The place is the brainchild of chef and owner Gabe McMackin, whose checkered resume includes being a corporate chef for Martha Stewart and working as a roofer and a financial services software developer, as well as putting in time at such tony restaurants as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Gramercy Tavern, and Roberta's. He's seen standing most evenings in the open kitchen that hovers in a pool of light mid-restaurant. Inside, a mainly bearded and ponytailed crew scrupulously arranges the elaborate fare that is the kitchen's forte.
Located in a quiet neighborhood sandwiched between Fulton and Lafayette streets, the place used to be a tattoo parlor. There's a spare dining room in front, a bar with a white marble counter — which reflects light upward, making you feel like you're in a fashion shoot — and a darker dining room in the rear. Seating totals around 70, twice as big as your average bistro. Which brings us back to that hamburger, a standard feature of nearly every Brooklyn bistro menu, intended to attract slightly more frugal customers intent on a bargain meal at the bar. Eschewing it on the part of The Finch is a statement in itself.
For a bistro, the menu is vast and challenging. An initial section features snacks that tend to be on the large size. No wasabi peanuts or parmesan popcorn. Instead, there are separate platters of charcuterie and cheese, and ensembles of chicken-liver mousse and pork rillettes — though what you see on nearly every table is a bread course ($8) featuring warmed slices of Bien Cuit sourdough served with homemade butter and colorful radishes cut thin. Nothing feels quite so transgressive these days as knocking back gluten-intensive carbs. "I could make a whole meal of this bread," said my dining companion, while thickly buttering a slice.
Entitled simply Smaller, the second section might have once been called Appetizers, but really, the short dishes thereon could make elaborate miniature meals in themselves. This is the largest section of the menu, reflecting modern dining habits in which entrées are almost afterthoughts. Best is a warm salad of shaved lamb tongue ($12) — impossibly tender glottal organs wagging in a puddle of lemon puree. Who knew lamb tongues were so delicate and tasty?
Who knew lamb tongues were so delicate and tasty?
Other worthwhile Smallers include a quartet of tiny rice balls in a thick olive sauce; cured Arctic char with celery root and buttermilk, further clumped with orange trout roe; and rings of smoked squid in a carrot puree. But sometimes these dishes are way too elaborate, with platings in which the visual aspects outweigh the flavor. One such was a serving of tiny charred purple and white cauliflower florets pent inside swooshes of colorful sauces, now gone from the menu — the assemblage evoked a trash-strewn highway interchange. Another was a plate of beets, roasted treviso, and burrata planked with transparent pine nut brittle like so many discarded panes of glass.
On subsequent visits the entrées shrank in number from seven to four and then increased to eight as the small-plate list swelled further. The menu sometimes makes spectacular use of smoking, and one of its happiest inventions is something called smoked bread pudding. "It's really just bread soaked in smoked milk," the chef confided one evening, as a friend and I sat at the counter surrounding the open kitchen. At first this pudding came with an entree of pork loin and belly, one of many value-added pairings on the menu; later it was switched to Amish chicken ($27), as if having undergone a religious conversion. Whatever the smoked bread pudding is associated with when you visit, check it out.
Pairing sea scallops and snails in a blue-green vegetable puree didn't make a very compelling entree, but squid-ink spaghetti ($24) did, dark as doomsday and dotted with pink shrimp and brussels sprouts leaves. Or head instead for the seared flatiron steak and long-braised beef cheek, for a complete contrast in cooking methods featuring the same animal. The best entrée sampled was oddball in the extreme, reflecting a brainy curiosity behind the cooking: hake poached in oil to a lingerie-like translucence perched atop a gravel of smoky black-eyed peas and baby clams in a broth reminiscent of kimchi. It may not sound appetizing, but it was — and exceedingly so. Still the question remains: Is a sleepy neighborhood in Brooklyn the best place to locate a large and wildly inventive bistro with as many hits as misses?
Cost: Dinner for two with a bottle of wine and tax but not tip, $150
Sample dishes: Bread course, charcuterie platter, lamb tongue salad, chicken with smoked bread pudding, poached hake with Littleneck clams.
What to drink: Despite slightly elevated food prices for a Brooklyn bistro, the wine list is wonderfully selected and reasonably priced, with lots of action in the $35 to $50 range. Especially delightful is a Nebbiolo d'Alba from Bruna Grimaldi and an Aix rose.
Bonus tip: You can have a fine meal and economize by ordering a glass of wine and two apps from the Snacks and Smaller sections of the menu, perhaps a charcuterie platter followed by a frisee salad with guanciale, beet-dyed egg, and blue cheese.