Nothing quickens the heart of a hungry diner quite as much as the sight of a wood-burning oven. Fed with oak and other woods, the oven at Victor is a great, black, domed affair that dominates the kitchen. It sends warmth and flickering light into the adjacent bar and dining room, which is outfitted with a curved and ribbed ceiling that feels like the hold of a ship.
The oven is a remnant of former tenant Freek’s Mill, opened in 2016, with a menu that included dry-aged duck, roasted vegetables, and smoky chicken livers plopped in a dandelion salad. Its retro-concept might be described as countrified bistro by a creek, which the nearby Gowanus Canal once was. If you’d asked why the place closed, I’d have to say it was because of its obscure location on a sleepy side street in a little-visited neighborhood.
Now that sleepy side street is not so sleepy, as an ice cream chain and canal-side barbecue flourish nearby, and the neighborhood thrums with foot traffic in the evening, so that Gowanus seems like it might really become Venice someday. (That’s Venice, California.) When I heard of Victor’s debut this past March in one of those daring pandemic openings, I remembered that wonderful oven and wanted to see what the new place was doing with it. The establishment is owned by a pair of Brooklyn chefs, Ian Alvarez and Ryan Angulo, who were also behind Buttermilk Channel, a Carroll Gardens bistro with Southern flourishes. Victor’s menu skews more Mediterranean.
To whet your appetite, try the roasted oysters (and no they haven’t been pulled from the canal, which was one of the city’s richest oyster beds in the 19th century). Each liquidy bivalve is concealed under a coating of coarse breadcrumbs and merguez, which imparts an orange sheen as the oil from the Moroccan sausage seeps out. The stuffing makes the briny oysters (four for $16) taste even brinier. Another exemplary small plate, which owes little to the oven but much to the ocean, is mackerel tartare. In a brilliant flourish, the fine dice of fish in a creamy and herby base is served with pizelle, Italian stamped cookies, which makes a perfect mellowing platform for the strong-tasting fish.
But the app that owes most to the oven is a heap of wonderful, shell-on smoked prawns ($17), which haven’t been so much been cooked by the wood smoke as exalted by it. In the process, the shell becomes crunchier, and those who carefully peel away and discard the exoskeleton will find themselves missing out on a ton of flavor. The dish is served with a novel almond aioli, but you might find yourself ignoring it, so good are the shrimp.
Reservations for Victor are handled by Resy, and when I checked it for availability one evening with the intention of paying a visit, I found all times were available. Nevertheless, when I swerved around the corner of Nevins and Sackett after a sunset stroll across the Union Street Bridge, I found the ample outdoor seating area thronged with diners, including a couple of friends who live in a house on the other side of the canal. This is a real neighborhood spot, I thought, a charmer that needs no hype to be popular.
And the great food guarantees that it can be reliable for locals. This being a neighborhood bistro, there’s a compact burger, not so big that you feel you need to share it with your companions. On the bottom half of the bun is a greenish gravel of minced cornichons and mustard seeds, and a mantle of melted comte graces the top — so one would be compelled to identify it as French. Cooked medium rare, the ground beef is bright red in the middle, and profoundly seared on the outside.
The oven roasted chicken ($26) bravely wears a slice of charred lemon on its breast like a war veteran, signaling a citrusy sourness, though not much else in the way of flavor. Nevertheless, it represents a massive amount of poultry, enough to be shared around the table. The burger and chicken are two of five entrees on a menu, which vastly favors the smaller plates (so don’t hesitate to dwell mainly in that section of the menu).
These are of widely varying size, and usually unaccompanied. One exception is the best thing on the menu: baccalau ($17). Utilizing the Portuguese word for salt cod, it comes in a bowl of broth, a nice piece of dense fish mounted on a dark-bread throne and surrounded by giant pale beans like royal retainers. Finally, segments of oven-roasted mandarin add a contrasting sweetness.
Wine, cocktails, and beer are another reason for the local crowd, which lingers far into the evening, as lights twinkle on in the adjacent warehouses, many of which now seem to be converted to residential uses. Three desserts are offered, the best of which is described as a Basque cheesecake ($7). It arrives charred and crumbly in a cloche of parchment. It would be good cooked in a conventional oven, but at Victor the wood oven knocks it for a home run, and you’ll leave the restaurant for a stroll by the canal mightily satisfied.