Rumors. It is sometimes difficult to know when to believe them and when not.Usually there is some basis in fact, but whether they turn out to be true, can be anyone’s guess. One such restaurant that has been the subject of recent rumors is the ambitious new restaurant, Pillar & Plough, located in the brand new Hotel Williamsburg, in, of course, the hot and trendy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY. Having just opened at the end of November, the hotel is rumored to be in the process of being bought out by a company that has plans to jettison the restaurant in favor of a nightclub. Nightclubs can certainly be fun and possibly even profitable, but if this does come to pass, it would be a great pity, because, Pillar & Plough turns out to be a pretty damn good restaurant.
Having heard of the restaurant’s impending opening back in November, I stopped in to check it out when I happened to be in the neighborhood to buy a boatload of chocolate from the nearby Mast Brothers chocolate shop. I liked the modern dining room, but I became really intrigued by chef Andres Julian Grundy’s menu. This was not going to be just another comfort food haven. Unlike the vast majority of recent restaurant openings in NYC, Pillar & Plough, appeared to have ambition. Grundy’s menu was not using the same ingredients and styles to be found all over NYC. He was re-introducing luxury and creativity, two commodities that have been growing increasingly scarce in the NYC restaurant landscape. Add to that cocktails by Alchemy Consulting, and my interest was fully piqued. When I subsequently got wind of the rumors, I determined that I would visit at my earliest opportunity.
With a son still home from college, my wife and I availed ourselves of the opportunity to take a quick visit to the County of Kings and decided to spend a recent Saturday night at The Hotel after dinner at the restaurant. We arrived in time to check in to our hip room on the 4th floor. Billed as a deluxe room with a king sized bed, it had a very European sensibility. While not overly large (the bathroom was downright Lilliputian), it was quite comfortable and well-appointed even including a once again fashionable turntable, as well as a few LP’s (alas, I’m old enough to remember them well having had a fairly sizable collection of my own at one time). As hotels go in NYC, it was a good value and quite convenient to Manhattan as well as its own neighborhood. We even found a parking space right out front.
I had arranged a special Chef’s tasting menu as well as seats at the Chef’s Counter overlooking the kitchen. Including a small detail like a personalized menu certainly helped make my wife and I feel immediately welcome. The descriptions on the menu made us feel immediately hungry.
Another nice touch that helped us relax was an invitation from Branden McRill, the Food & Beverage Director of the Hotel, to a nice glass of bubbly, the 1998 from Jacquart..I love a good glass of Champagne, but I was really pining to try one of the restaurants cocktails. The mixologists behind alchemy Consulting, Toby Maloney, Troy Sidle, Jason Cott and Joaquín Simó are some of the finest in the business and I wanted a taste of their work. We were going to have wines paired with dinner, so I started with something refreshing – A Seasonal Pimm’s Cup. This had all the delicious attributes of a regular Pimm’s Cup, but it also had muddled blackberries and perhaps a few other subtle ingredients that made it one of the tastiest Pimm’s I’ve had. The meal started with a series of amuses, the first of which was pineapple compressed with yuzu, kaffir lime and Thai long peppercorn. It was wrapped in Norland ham, a play off the classic cantaloupe wrapped with prosciutto and was a bright and flavorful bite. My wife enjoyed hers with the Champagne, while it went quite well with my cocktail. At this point the amuses started coming in rapid succession. I am a sucker for sea urchin. Chef Grundy’s was as beautiful as it was delicious, with the granularity of the urchin gonads visually amplified by a soy marinade. The Maine sea urchin was layered atop a bonito gelee, which in turn sat upon a cauliflower custard, making the entire dish a sort of Chawan Mushi. The dish was served chilled. Surprisingly, the cauliflower was the strongest flavor in this delicate and delicious preparation. The sea urchin remained in the background, but its presence was still noticed and appreciated. It quickly became apparent that Chef Grundy was well versed and highly skilled in a number of different cuisines. The first couple of bites showed clear Japanese influence, while this bite showed European touches. The vidalia onion tart did not take a classic approach, though. This one was seasoned with black licorice and lemon. On the side were a puree of roasted onion with black licorice and lemon and house-made ricotta. The dish was a touch sweet for my preference at this stage of the meal, but it was well crafted with good flavors. Ultimately, it was my least favorite dish of the evening, but that is more of a testament to the rest of the meal than a serious knock on this dish. Burnt bread soup (rich ham broth steeped with burnt peasant bread and butter) with biscotti and olive oil iced cream was a study in flavor balance with the bitterness of the burnt bread assuaged by the cool sweetness of the ice cream and biscotto. The combination was quite tasty. This amuse showed real finesse. The Country egg “en bru” with porcini and potato feuilletine displayed some of the skills Chef Grundy picked up along his career arc. Having worked at L’Arpege, is it any wonder that Grundy served such an homage to one of his mentors, albeit with his own touches? Grundy’s scrambled eggs were creamy, full of rich flavor and just perfect. The feulletine covering the top of the egg was crisp and wonderful. This dish was a true tease. I would have loved more, but the portion was just right, especially considering all that was still to come. Chef Andres Grundy had been the Chef de Cuisine of Ken Oringer’s Clio in Boston for three years. Clio has been a training and proving ground for many an innovative and talented cook, including people such as Alex Stupak, Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa amongst others. That restaurant has been one of the most consistently and wonderfully creative in the country for the past 15 years or so and has been particularly noted for championing and popularizing a large number of exotic and unusual ingredients. Grundy’s king crab, luxurious, but not in itself not particularly exotic, employed a subtle Japanese balance with ingredients like bottarga konbu, sudachi lime and purple shiso. Diced jicama and apple added a pleasing crunch. The crab mixture was enveloped in the translucent konbu sheets. This dish was delicious without pounding a sledgehammer of flavors. These were quiet flavors that played well together and with the paired wine, Cotes-du-Rhone, JL Colombo ‘La Redonne’ 2008, Rhone Valley, France from a 375ml bottle. Not everything in Chef Grundy’s bag of tricks was overtly intricate. With his roasted baby leeks with marcona almond, muscat wine, preserved calamansi and honey sabayon, he evoked culinary images of Spain and showed skill with a dish composed entirely of vegetables, keeping things relatively, but deceptively simple. The roasted leeks were simple – and delicious, but here the complexity came from the supporting elements. The marcona almonds had been fried, then candied and seasoned with star anise, cinnamon, clove and Szechuan peppercorn. The muscat wine was mixed with grilled and burnt leek bits, set with agar and served as a gel. Honey sabayon was made with muscat wine, reduced citrus juices, egg, and mustard powder. My wife and I were reminded of the Catalan spring tradition of calçots with romesco, but gain, Chef Grundy, put his own spin on the dish.
I like tripe, but I don’t typically love it or go out of my way to eat it. This dish, however, elevated tripe to another stratosphere. An early candidate for one of the top dishes of the year for me, this was incredibly delicious. In Mexico, mole is the core of a dish with things like chicken or turkey essentially used as vehicles to carry the complex, delicious sauce. In this dish, that role was given to the tripe, which couldn’t have carried it any better. Grundy’s molé (pumpkin seeds, almonds, tomatoes, cocoa nib, bruleed onions, leeks, chicken stock, chipotle and pasilla chiles) was deeply flavored, rich, intricate and extraordinarily delicious. The soft, tender tripe added some flavor of its own, but its real value came from its remarkably soft texture and tenderness.. Crunchy hominy added contrasting crisp texture that complemented the beautiful tripe. I will dream of this dish for some time!
This white Rioja from CVNE was well balanced, delicious and a great complement to the food. It was paired with the molé, morcilla and buratta. Branden McRill selected and poured the wines. His background is also quite impressive. Amongst other jobs, he was on the opening staff at Alinea. His pairings for this dinner were spot on from beginning to end.Next stop on Chef Grundy’s world tour was Italy. His buratta with olive oil, Maldon sea salt and roasted red pepper piri-piri was a sensational follow-up to the well spiced molé. This was an exceptionally well crafted buratta and decadently rich and delicious. The cream came from Battenkill Creamery (practically in my own backyard and the milk my family drinks every day). The piri-piri cut that richness and added depth and complexity to the dish. Chef Grundy’s versatility was showing itself to be more and more impressive. Many people can cook in a number of different genres, but few can pull off many different influences with skill and deliciousness in one meal, all while keeping the meal cohesive. The way this meal was shaping up, this is exactly what we were witnessing and enjoying. This dish was “Italian” in the personal style of Andres Grundy. His tripe molé showed us that Chef Grundy can do offal, but this morcilla confirmed it. It was served with toasted grains (millet, black quinoa, couscous, and black rice) that were cooked and mixed with scallion, toasted onion seeds, and parmesan cheese (inspired by rice a roni) and burnt cipollini broth. There was so much going on in this extraordinary dish, both in terms of flavors and textures. Additional spooned on toasted grains were wonderfully crunchy and flavorful, while the morcilla was soft and packed with flavor. Pork belly has been so ubiquitous over the last five years or so, it would seem to have played itself out, but Chef Grundy breathed new life into this delicious, but omnipresent cut. His pork belly was just about perfect with a delightfully crisp exterior and a melting interior, but it was the fact that it was so unintuitively, but masterfully combined with Burgundy escargot, pumpernickel crumbs, a habanero emulsion and jaggary vinegar. Once again, this was a dish that had it all, including surprise. It was well paired with a delicious Chorey-Cote-de-Beaune, Tollot-Beaut 2008, Burgundy, France from a 375ml bottle. Grundy’s striped bass was moist and flaky without being over or under cooked. The skin was perfectly crisp. The fish was allowed to shine with the other elements on the plate; violet artichokes, pink grapefruit and bell pepper relish serving as notable accents. Why not a taste of India? This Santa Barbara spot prawn was accentuated by a judicious South Indian spice treatment including curry, coconut and a variety of well-balanced Indian spices mixed with crisped cauliflower min-florets. The shrimp flavor sang as did the Indian notes. This was harmony that reminded me of the flavors from an outstanding dinner in Kerala on the southwest coast of India. Grundy’s shrimp would not be out of place on the menus of the finest Indian restaurants. St. Aubin 1er Cru, Philippe Colin ‘Le Charmois’ 2008, Burgundy, France provided a fine pairing for both seafood dishes even as both dishes were quite different in their flavor profiles. I had never had foie gras quite like the terrine served to us this night. This tour de force had chilled foie gras layered with smoked pineapple, goat cheese and grain toast on the bottom and Turkish urfa biber, Maldon salt and grains of paradise off to the side. The caramelized goat cheese on top looked like toasted marshmallow, which led to expectations of excessive sweetness. Instead, the cheese contributed a deeply savory element to the dish. This preparation did contain sweetness from the pineapple, but by no means was it excessive or unbalanced. The flavors blended seamlessly. This was wonderful accompanied by a sweet and slightly funky Tokaji Aszu, Imperial Domain of Hetszolo ‘5 Puttonyos’ 2001, Tokaji, Hungary from a 500ml bottle. Though not as far out of the typical foie gras box as the terrine, the seared foie gras was still original and certainly delicious. This foie was lacquered with braising liquid from the Japanese eggplant along with Ceylon cinnamon and long pepper. On the side was a kohlrabi kraut with “warm” spices (juniper, allspice, cinnamon, star anise), eggplant braised in sauterne with Ceylon cinnamon and a whipped yogurt. The foie was dusted with chopped chives, grains of paradise and bee pollen. The “kraut” was acidic, peppery and slightly sweet and set the tone for the rest of the plate. It was marvelous. The foie itself was perfectly executed and well balanced with everything else on the plate. The richness was cut by the lightness of the yogurt foam. These were two powerhouse foie dishes – original and delicious. By this time, my wife and I were starting to get just a wee bit full. A beautiful cylinder of hangar steak was cooked with black garlic and cocoa piment, a mixture of cocoa nibs, cascabelle chile and piment d’espelette and served relatively traditionally with trumpet royale mushrooms that had been confited and grilled and a spinach roll with leaf spinach enveloping sautéed spinach and elephant garlic. A cabernet vinegar reduction pooled over the bottom of the plate. The flavors were familiar, but not quite so, as each component played with being part of a classic combination, but adding flavors like the cocoa piment and black garlic to take the flavors just beyond pure comfort and familiarity. Allegrini is one of my favorite Amarones. A smile crossed my face when Brendan McRill opened and decanted the 375ml bottle towards the beginning of the meal and again when he poured it to go with the hangar steak. The smile only grew bigger as I sipped this delicious, big wine. This wonderful piece of meat and its supporting cast deserved a better audience than my wife and I at this point in the meal. Covered in a crust of housemade beef jerky, panko, bone marrow fat, espelette pepper, chopped parsley leaves, and roasted garlic puree, the veal breast was the bovine version of the earlier pork belly, with a crisp exterior and a juicy, tender interior. It came with crosnes, decadent bone marrow croquettes (potato croquettes made with bone marrow instead of butter) and habanero mustard. The mustard packed a bit of heat, but not too much to obliterate all the other flavors. I particularly enjoyed it with the croquettes. Chef Grundy used spice heat well throughout the meal, with this mustard being the final example. His approach was to have enough heat to enhance a dish, but not so much as to overwhelm it. Tis balance was impeccable throughout the meal and was a perfect use within the realm of fine dining. Nearly comatose from an extraordinary sampling of savories, it was time to rally for dessert. The funny thing about dessert is that no matter how full I am, I can still always find room to taste some sweets so long as they are interesting, well balanced and not too sweet. Branden McRill got us going with two extraordinary dessert wines. The 2008 Late Harvest Zinfandel from Dashe, was well structured and simply delicious, but as fine as that was, the 2011 Biancospino Moscato D’Asti from La Spinetta was crack for my palate. Emboldened with seemingly enough acid to melt away metal, the inherent sweetness of the wine was allowed to work magic with the light bubbles effervescing up the glass and onto our tongues. This was a perfect dessert wine for this meal and would have been a sufficiently wonderful finisher on its own. But the wine was not intended to finish the meal in and of itself. It was to aid and abet Chef Grundy’s desserts. The first was a parsnip panna cotta with buttermilk sorbet and dulce de leche. Billed as a pre-dessert, it was clean and a good palate cleanser. Ice cream cones were fun and tasty. Three different flavors were presented already turned over onto the plate (inspired by the chef’s young son): herb (parsley, shiso, basil and mint) sorbet, passion fruit sorbet, frozen vanilla custard. The dish was garnished with crushed feuilletines. This final dessert was my favorite. It was the most complex and flavorful, combining a number of tropical flavors into a cohesive whole with a bevy of contrasting textures. A vibrant passion fruit curd was supported by coconut sorbet and meringue, roasted banana, lime gelee and rum granite. Winter may have finally arrived outside, but at that moment, we were squarely in the tropics. The kitchen team under Chef Grundy did a marvelous job, especially considering that the restaurant has not been open for that long. Everything was orderly and appeared to be under total control. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the service. Steven, our server, was superb. He knew the food, was extremely pleasant and efficient.
Chef Andres Julian Grundy has an extensive background, having cooked at some of the country’s and the world’s best restaurants, from Bouley to L’Arpege to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon to Clio amongst others. The meal served to my wife and I brought us through many culinary landscapes, all at an extremely high quality. This was a meal that was fun, luxurious and delicious without being stodgy or “fussy.” Chef Grundy has learned how to use a multitude of ingredients from around the world and the techniques to best employ them. His style, however, is his own. The restaurant is nicely designed, comfortable and well situated. I believe that it has the potential to be truly great – our meal certainly was – but at the moment it appears to be suffering from the rumors surrounding the Hotel management, whether they be true or false. Pillar & Plough certainly wasn’t empty the night we were there, but it wasn’t fielding the demand that a restaurant of its quality should. I hope that the rumors turn out to be false, but should they not, I’m glad that my wife and I made this trip as we have found another chef and a team to follow with great interest wherever they may be.