NL; Panino’teca 275

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



We emerged
from the W. 4th St. station into a collegiate street party. Packs of upper-middle-class
white kids wearing Mardi Gras beads were roving drunkenly through the fading
daylight. One of a group of boys in baseball caps loudly slurred his appraisal
of a female in our party. Half a block later, a herd of sorority sisters blocked
the entire sidewalk and much of the street.


We ignored
this inauspicious commencement of our evening out and gradually made our way
to NL. The Dutch restaurant opened about a year ago and was enthusiastically
reviewed. Supposedly it wasn’t doing so well now–probably, I guessed,
because so many of the people who read the raves never got around to actually
visiting the Sullivan St. establishment, as I hadn’t. Cravings for the
cuisine of the Netherlands and its former colonies are rare. But my companions
and I ate very well as tourists there, finding the sophisticated pragmatism
of the Dutch satisfying, and in flavor much hipper than the wooden-shoes-and-windmills
stereotype. My girlfriend’s recent business trip to Amsterdam was our inspiration:
her descriptions of mustardy greens and potato soups, bar snacks of excellent
cheese or smoked fish on brown bread and desserts featuring caramel wafers and
baked cinnamon apples in pastry led directly to consensus on finally trying
NL.


At 7 p.m. we
were the first customers. That’s not so bad for a nightbird neighborhood
like the Village, though by the time appetizers arrived we’d been joined
only by one other party. Unfortunately, this other party had a major impact
on our dining experience, and so, with a rubbernecker’s sense of regret,
I must describe it.


The female
half was young and fat. She had a bowl haircut and spoke extraordinarily loud.
The first thing she did upon arriving was accidentally knock a glass off a table.
She was making her way into NL’s sleek, orange-cushion-and-steel banquette,
and swept the vessel from the table alongside hers with her shoulder bag. She
reacted without remorse or apology. Very attention-grabbing, this was–especially
given the silent docility of her tall, thin, older male companion. I figured
the obnoxious young woman was his mildly retarded daughter. We soon learned,
from her conversation with the waiter–which she continued even while he
was busy on the other side of the empty, tiled room–that the man was her
husband, and Dutch, and they’d met on the Internet.


I remember
being in Holland and feeling like a barbarian as the only shopper in a grocery
store who didn’t bring my own canvas bag, and thus required the wasteful
use of paper or plastic. Plus, I don’t maintain windowboxes of colorful
flowers, even though it’s apparent to me that they make a city street look
better. They must have them, but I’ve never known a Dutch person to confess
to feelings of cultural superiority. Maybe I’ve only met the very nice
ones. NL’s waiter was no exception. The way he bantered with the appalling
Internet bride was nothing if not civilized.


We started
our dinner with mustard soup from the Zaan region, an order of imported maatjes
herring and two salads with fish. Mine was a mille-feuille, piled high, with
a potato cracker topping smoked eel, sliced portobellos, greens and a fennel-and-lemongrass-mayo
dressing. The other was a special: Belgian endive and watercress with chunks
of orange and smoked trout. This second was a winner, with the sweet citrus
teasing out the power of the mild, flaky trout. My eel was more firm and smoky,
as fatty as mackerel, yet also somewhat subtle. I liked it more than a little,
but the accompaniment didn’t add much, and would have been run-of-the-mill
served alone. Given that, the eel salad cost too much at $14.


The creamy
soup was billed as a blend of three Dutch mustards. Its taste, though, was singular,
and compelling, if not enough so to overwhelm all distractions. Again, the portion
was unnecessarily large, as if to justify its price ($7). Before my friend was
half-finished, she’d begun to feel as if she were eating a sauce intended
for baked halibut or something. The soup would have been great as that, or as
a smaller starter, in a cup alongside some of NL’s fries. Those are worth
writing home about–plenty crisp with no sacrifice of earthy mash, similar
to but not as oily as the addictive potato prisms from Manhattan’s Belgian
fry stands. As the pattern of our NL experience became apparent, so did the
idea that this fine dining establishment has something much closer to those
stands inside it, dying to get out.


The herring
($6) is NL’s not-to-be-missed specialty. It’s exactly what Amsterdamers
snack on in their town’s squares: a side of burgundy meat with glints of
silver, consumed raw, soft bones and all, with some sweet pickle and chopped
onion. The jarred versions you can get in New York’s fancy groceries tend
toward the overwhelming. At NL, the herring is rich and salty, with phantom
notes of vinegar and wood smoke, and so fresh as to guarantee a natural balance.
The true maatjes consistency is akin to a good cut of sashimi, which it pretty
much is, though three times as thick. The pickle and onion harmonize to make
a 3-D portrait in regional taste, like what capers and olives do with Italian
anchovies.


The sauerkraut
risotto entree with wild mushrooms and house-dried tomatoes ($17) was yet another
exhibit supporting our theory that NL should convert to a concentration on small
plates. The flavors suffused the rice unobtrusively, so that even the pungent
kraut came off as a high, chiming tone. Alternately woody and tangy support
from the mushrooms and tomatoes gave the risotto a sense of being rooted in
an old land. The lowland sting and comforting design of the dish made for a
much-appreciated sample of what could either be NL’s sense of invention
or Dutch home cooking. The conflation seems appropriate, because a paradoxical
tradition of innovation is the crux of Holland’s style.


Sauteed cod
with lime cauliflower sauce ($21) was inexplicably bad, as if the result of
a grievous cooking error. I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that the kitchen
had run out of limes, but even that wouldn’t explain why the cod tasted
like defrosted tofu, or why the sauce came off like a Campbell’s cream
of cauliflower, devoid of spice or even salt. A side of spinach was more in
line with reasonable expectations, and the fries, as I said, were stellar.


A grilled chicken
curry dish was served with "Surinamese tortilla," which NL’s
menu explains is really a roti. Surinam is in northeastern South America, but
due to Dutch colonial exploits many of its inhabitants are of Javanese or Hindustani
descent. The combination of cornmeal and curry thickened with potato adorning
spicy meat promised the kind of transglobally indigenous taste twofer that only
a reformed imperial power can provide. Instead, the dish would have been par
for the course at any South Asian satay joint (where it wouldn’t bear even
half the $19 price tag), save for the green beans and shiitake mushrooms. The
roti was a fine corn tortilla, but too crumbly to work as a wrap. The chicken
was pumped up like a young Schwarzenegger and proved about as refined–too
much breast muscle, not enough taste. As for the yellow curry, it was comparable
to dipping sauces I’ve enjoyed from outdoor satay carts out West (and when
will New York be getting some of those?).


Happily, the
tables turned again once the main course was over. A dessert of parfait with
stroopwafels–those caramel wafers over which my girlfriend rhapsodized–found
NL back at the level of its herring appetizer. Not coincidentally, the stroopwafels
are one of the only other foodstuffs the restaurant imports from back home.
The number of them you get in an order on Sullivan St. ($8) is paltry compared
to one in Amsterdam, but it’s enough. The parfait comes in a little pyramid
atop slices of spiced pear, with the scrumptious wafers leaning along its sloped
sides. The caramel inside is as light and effective as sunshine–the nectar
actually trickles out of the cookie when you bite it. Bonus pieces of stroopwafel
inside the parfait guarantee that the pyramid won’t have time to melt out
of shape before it’s consumed.


NL isn’t
deserving of death, which is what it appears to be on its way to. Here’s
hoping it’s someday repaired to form similar to that of the restaurant
described below. It’s perhaps arrogant for me to tell a worldly Dutch restaurateur
how to run her business, but I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m nowhere
near as rude as Americans get.


NL, 169 Sullivan
St. (betw. Houston & Bleecker Sts.), 387-8801.



Panino’teca
275



There are so
many newish restaurants on Brooklyn’s Smith St. that it’s a little
silly. Dozens of assistant chefs in early-90s Manhattan had dreams of their
own restaurants come true–all at the same place and time. Brooklyn people
spend hours discussing which ones they’ve tried and what they thought of
them. Now I’m going to tell you about my current favorite.


Panino’teca
275 is an Italian sandwich place. It has a selection of tap beers, and unlike
many Smith St. destinations it’s open during the day. It’s serene
there in the afternoon, even on weekends. Cobble Hill has no near equivalent
of Manhattan’s W. 3rd St., but it does get crowded. One hot Saturday not
long ago, I found all the coffee shops on Smith full to bursting, then joined
a smattering of Panino’teca patrons reposing with beers and San Pellegrino
sodas, shooting the breeze and nibbling on compact delicacies.


The place serves
tramezzini, triangular sandwiches on fluffy, crustless white bread. Various
cheeses and herbs, smoked salmon and cucumber, house-cured tuna–like that.
Then there’re the pannini, which are grilled so the cheese melts into the
fresh vegetables, roasted garlic, fresh artichoke, imported prosciutto or what
have you, and sealed in by golden ciabatta toast. Most sandwiches fall in the
$5-$8 range. If you only want a snack, there’s also a selection of bruschettas.


It makes for
a cafe style that can’t quite exist in Manhattan, but is close to ideal
for a Euro-ethnic establishment specializing in expatriate camaraderie and imported
treats. I don’t live particularly close to Panino’teca, but I’ve
made my way there several times since discovering it. Restaurants want to rope
you into more than you bargained for, while bars ask you to make do with less.
Then there’s Panino’teca, offering cool refreshment and a great modest
meal.


There are at
least five Brooklyn main-drags besides Smith St. where a relaxed, inexpensive
version of NL would fit in. Downtown may have been New Amsterdam, but it currently
has more in common with tourist New Orleans. Cross the East River, NL. Who knows–maybe
Bloomberg will even let you open a mannered back garden for cannabis.


Panino’teca
275, 275 Smith St. (betw. DeGraw and Sackett Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-237-2728.


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