It’s natural to be skeptical about eateries that open in public facilities like parks, gardens, and waterside marinas. With a captive audience of outdoors enthusiasts, they don’t need to be very good. But now we have an exception in Yellow Magnolia Café, newly opened in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
With design from The Rockwell Group, the restaurant features two lines of tables that follow a wall of circumflex windows. Along the opposite wall there’s a tapestry of cherry blossoms and yellow magnolias by Brooklyn artist Jill Malek.
Yellow Magnolia Café is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and if the prices seem restrained given the quality of the food (apps $6 to $15, entrees $15 to $16, special children’s meal $9 and under), perhaps it’s because one has to pay a garden admission fee ($15 adults) to even eat in the café. Two friends and I visited this weekend just as the weeping cherries burst into bloom, making the restaurant’s setting even more spectacular.
It’s operated by Patina Restaurant Group, with Rob Newton running the kitchen, the chef owner of Carroll Gardens restaurants Nightingale Nine and Wilma Jean; The chef de cuisine is Morgan Jarrett. She was chef at the former Seersucker, so both chefs have formidable experience in the cooking of the American South. This is demonstrated the minute that the biscuits arrive in a wooden box, dense and formidably delicious, topped with sea salt and accompanied by citrus preserves and molasses butter (which looks like peanut butter until you taste it).
The salads are spectacular, including a riff on a Caesar that features Castelfranco and Tardivo radicchio in miso vinaigrette, with boquerones swimming around these wildly colorful chicories. Beets take a backseat in the beet salad with mustard greens, pickled fennel, and pistachios, where they probably should have been more prominent.
Jewish cuisine forms a leitmotif of the menu, including a matzo ball soup in which three bouncy dumplings are shot through with lovage. This combination herb and salad green — tasting something like celery — is typical of the adventuresome botanical choices made by the chefs: It makes Yellow Magnolia Café a relentlessly interesting place to eat.
That’s also true in the entrees like a fava bean falafel platter, an “ancient grain bowl” showcasing spelt and wild rice in a mushroom broth, and a cheeseburger smeared with black-garlic aioli served with purple sweet potato chips. We went instead for a novel version of chicken and dumplings that, in addition to the usual gluey gravy, featured delicate ramp dumplings and fern fiddleheads.
The fish tacos were great, too, on rustic homemade tortillas, three to an order, utilizing battered and fried hake and a tart salsa with a little heat. The only thing that didn’t quite work was the restaurant’s take on a reuben sandwich, made with “Brooklyn cured pastrami.” The pastrami was just okay — and there wasn’t enough of it — on too-thick slices of marble rye. If you crave a pastrami sandwich, this isn’t it.
Of course all that could change as the menu evolves. But upon first look, a meal at Yellow Magnolia Café proves as exciting as the spring flowers blossoming outside — and as colorful, too.