Eater critic Robert Sietsema climbs down into the new Williamsburg restaurant for a pair of early visits.
Oleanders are shrubs in the dogbane family that grow almost 20 feet high. They flaunt pink blossoms with five triangular petals and range all over the world in subtropical climates; Galveston, Texas is known as the Oleander City. But the plants, flowers included, are deadly poisonous. Oleanders is also the seemingly random name given to the new restaurant in the McCarren Hotel, replacing Paul Liebrandt’s The Elm. The relation of restaurant to hotel is ungainly: The dining room is situated in a deep pit alongside, approached via a narrow stairway from an unmarked glass door. Seated in the dining room, patrons can see pedestrians passing high above on North 12th street, making you feel as though you’re sunk in a medieval bear pit. The hotel game room opens off the dining room, so your meal is likely to be punctuated by loud cheers and disappointed screams.
For publicity purposes, Oleanders describes itself as a fern bar, a throwback to the 70s and 80s when the term was used with derision. Then it designated a foliage-decorated pub, often in a strip mall, that mainly catered to yuppies and suburbanites who eschewed the grittiness of urban bars and preferred an atmosphere more like a country club. Can the concept be rehabilitated? Well, real ferns apparently require too much upkeep, because the plants at Oleanders are all plastic. Tiffany-style lamps hang like colorful torpedos from the ceiling, and there’s an open kitchen at the end of the room. True to modern restaurateuring (but not to fern bars), a marble counter runs along the open kitchen, providing the best seats in the house.
Oleanders is a project of the owner of Fette Sau and St. Anselm on one hand, and Antica Pesa on the other. The chef is Kevin Chojnowski, who has worked at Olives, the Palm, and Willow Road. While the original fern bars were mainly drinking establishments, offering an unremarkable menu of burgers, steaks, and chef’s salads, Oleanders mounts an ambitious menu featuring food that is mainly French, as interpreted by American chefs over the centuries. This is not a bad thing, but it definitely interferes with your sense of being in a real fern bar.
One area where Oleanders doesn’t fall down in faithfulness is in its drinks program. The cocktail menu contains all sorts of garish potions invented in the last half of the 20th century, many superficially rehabilitated with a modern ingredient or two. Thus the Harvey Wallbanger ($13) — supposedly named after a Venice Beach surfer — contains Dale Degroff’s pimento bitters in addition to the usual vodka, Galliano, and orange juice. With a revolting sugar-and-cinnamon rim, the bright yellow drink reeks of anise and is truly awful. Even worse is the grasshopper, a cocktail that arrives looking like a green snow cone. The cloying and intensely alcoholic combination of crème de menthe and chocolate nearly made me hurl.
Some of the food is great. The clams casino ($12) enjoyed at the bar one evening arrived hot, briny, and flecked with bacon and garlic, made with fresh bivalves and utterly delicious. The dish was invented in Narragansett, Rhode Island, in 1917, long before the advent of fern bars. The Waldorf salad, a staple of supermarket magazines like Women’s Day and Family Circle in the 70s, has been transformed with artfully carved celery in addition to green grapes and apples; instead of the usual thick mayo it arrives thinly dressed. The best or most disappointing part, depending on your perspective: no baby marshmallows, which were a feature of popular Waldorf salad recipes at the time. Another success was crab Louie ($16), invented in San Francisco circa 1910, featuring crab legs, lettuce, asparagus, baby plum tomatoes, and a boiled egg in a lemon-poppy dressing. Not enough crab, but good nonetheless.
But when the menu ventures into historic French fare, it finds itself on shakier ground. Lobster thermidor, a recipe created in 1894 to honor a play called Thermidor, is normally made with lobster meat dressed with egg yolks and brandy before being put back into the shell. Here, cheese is added to the other ingredients, violating all the seafood-cheese prohibitions that chefs have observed for centuries, and turning what might be fluffy and light lobster into a rubbery, nearly inedible mass. The old bistro chestnut coq au vin (once again, no fern bar connection whatsoever) proves a generous half-bird annealed with a coating that might be mistaken for jerk. The bird is flavorful, but without the copious brown gravy that normally characterizes the dish, much of the flesh seemed dry.
True to the fern bar genre — and the 80s in general — the hamburger is served on an English muffin. It sails in heaped with excellent fried onion rings, better-than-average Swiss cheese, bacon, and pickles. Unfortunately, the burger, ordered medium rare, arrived well done and crumbly gray. One thing about fern bars, they knew how to cook their burgers medium rare.
There are other bright spots at Oleanders. The wine list is a fine, well-chosen document, with bottles from France, Italy, California, Spain, and New York, and some bargains along the way. A glass of Dolcetto D’Alba from Roagna, a noted Piedmontese producer of Barolo and Barbaresco, has just the right lightness and mild tannins to be a summer favorite; it’s a steal at $11 per glass for a generous pour. The short dessert list is also exemplary, with a favorite being an apple brown betty ($8) that tasted like mincemeat pie — a dessert, now mainly forgotten, that was a bonafide fern bar favorite in the 1970s.
By all means pull a leisure suit out of the closet and give Oleanders a try. Stick with clams casino and a glass of wine and you can’t go wrong. But where’s the disco ball?