For a few weeks at the end of last summer, there was no better place to be in Brooklyn than Claro. In the shadow of vine-covered trellises, with a light breeze blowing off the Gowanus and cicadas humming in the trees, tables and a blue-tiled bar beckoned in the sunken backyard of what was formerly The Pines. Hunkered next to the restaurant was a wood-fired oven, where meats were grilled and flatbreads cooked on a griddle, everything emerging infused with the heady odor of smoke. To sit and enjoy a cocktail as your dinner was prepared in plain view was to experience the highest form of culinary expectation.
And so a table of friends and I relaxed in the early evening just as the sun was setting and enjoyed a soupy shrimp ceviche known as an aguachile, a vinegary rabbit salpicon, and a mole amarillo of chicken with green romano beans in a lovely orange sauce. One of the virtues of Claro, run by chef TJ Steele, is its concentration on the food of Oaxaca, a brilliant cuisine from southern Mexico rarely seen in New York City.
The highlight of my first meal at Claro, and one enjoyed in memory days later, was the pork rib memela ($16), a hand-patted flatbread topped with shredded meat and white cheese, with just enough chile de arbol to give it zing and acidity. The outdoor kitchen — and the way it imbues smoke into dishes — certainly is an asset.
But on my following visits, some wood-fire cooked items weren’t available, though the owners say the outdoor kitchen is functional year-round. The menu had shifted around considerably. Could Claro make up for its wood oven deficit? The short answer is yes. Replacements included a heart-warming chicken consommé with masa dumplings and shredded kale that did a convincing imitation of matzo ball soup, and a chile relleno stuffed with chorizo and potato sprawled in an earthy tomato sauce. The memela menu had been expanded, and so had the range of raw fish dishes and the selection of moles, too.
Let’s look at the moles first. These represent the cooking of indigenous nations that resided in Oaxaca before Cortes arrived in the early 16th century, painstaking sauces often containing chiles, nuts, herbs, spices, and even chocolate. In fact, the most famous of these, attributed to the state of Puebla just north of Oaxaca, is often called simply “mole.” Legendarily, Oaxaca has seven moles, identified by color and each having its own special uses. These are so difficult to make that many restaurants don’t bother.
Not so at Claro. Its menu includes mole negro ($32), a thick, midnight-black sauce with just a trace of sweetness that one-ups Pueblan mole by toasting the spices first. Claro puts a duck leg in it, sprinkles sesame seeds on top, and sides it with a rotating roster of vegetables, which on my visit included delicata squash and brussels sprouts. The sprouts didn’t really belong, but who demands absolute authenticity? The other mole currently on the menu is a mole rojo (red mole) with pork cheeks. Please, Claro, more moles!
In its post-summer menus, the restaurant has gone wild with tostadas. These crisp toasted tortilla platforms are often used in Mexico as staging areas for ceviches. Claro’s yellowfin tuna tostada ($22) is perfect in every way, pink nuggets of fish mixed with blood orange and crunchy chicharron, and so is an octopus tostada with pickled chiles and tocino, a crispy pork belly. The biggest dud on a menu that contains few is a tostada smeared with a ground Wagyu beef tartare, seasoned with the kind of gusano (worm) salt more often used on the rim of a margarita. I say bring on the insect larvae — but not in this usage.
Claro is one place where you shouldn’t ignore the desserts, even though only three are offered. Best is dulce de calabaza ($12), a wedge of well-roasted pumpkin flooded with caramel sauce and sided with thick whipped cream. There is no earthier dessert in town, and it powerfully recalls the ancient origins of Mexican gastronomy. And the restaurant will surely warrant a revisit for more wood oven fare.