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FRESH CHEFS

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In every artist’s life a little rain must fall. For artists living in DUMBO that rain takes the form of many-pillared condominiums with million-dollar price tags and artist lofts that few artists can afford. It’s happened before; remember Wiliamsburg? Or SoHo before the galleries moved out and the makeup meccas moved in?

While artists contemplate the next neighborhood to renovate, they have to eat, and that’s where Superfine comes in. Tucked under the Manhattan Bridge, Superfine - named for the Webster’s Dictionary definition, "su.per.fine 3: of high quality or grade" - opened in October 2001, joining a slowly emerging dining scene. (Among the area’s newer arrivals is Rice, a multicultural rice-with-toppings eatery; and, for artists craving a sugar buzz, there’s Jacques Torres Chocolate, a factory and cafe that produces decadent chocolates and chocolate croissants.)

Partners Tanya Rynd, who manages the restaurant and purchases its provisions; Laura Taylor, the chef; and Cara Lee Sparry, who designed the space and manages the bar, pooled their talent and spent 18 months operating Superfine out of the kitchen and dining room annexed to the DUMBO mainstay Between the Bridges bar. There they found a following of locals happy to abandon a diet of burgers, nachos and dip for Taylor’s seasonal Mediterranean cuisine.

After their successful trial run, the three spent a year renovating a century-old horse stable turned vacuum and auto parts warehouse into a soaring, multi-level restaurant with all the accoutrements an artists’ community demands: a Day-Glo orange pool table, a long wall reserved for monthly art exhibits and a well-stocked bar that takes center stage.

The decor features a high-tech kitchen open to the dining room - where Taylor can be seen flipping tuna on the grill - and a one-of-a-kind collection of enamel-and-wood dining tables with mismatched chairs and tableware that make the expansive space feel a little more country than rock ’n’ roll. On Sunday mornings, families pack the place for a Southwestern-style brunch. A bluegrass band keeps the kids away from the tables and on the floor dancing.

Each evening Taylor presents a menu of three appetizers and seven entrees incorporating ingredients from nearby organic farmers’ markets, prime butchers and fish markets. Every dish is made to order, which means that it can take a few extra minutes to get your entree.

Be grateful for the wait.

When your meal arrives, all the flavors will taste clean, not muddled, and the textures will be firm and crisp. The menu du jour, brought to the table on a blackboard, includes a hearty salad with enough ingredients to double as an entree; two fish dishes, one pasta and pork chops that have become a Superfine mainstay.

Taylor respects the flavors of prime ingredients by fussing as little as possible at the stove and grill (where she excels), and leaving off superfluous garnishes.

According to Rynd, "[Taylor] elevates the flavors of the freshest ingredients coming directly from the earth that day." Amping flavor to the max is more like it. What appears on the plate is rustic, boldly colored and flavored dishes that are gorgeous in their simplicity.

An appetizer of tomatoes - just perfect red slices of beefsteak tomatoes, a few slices of ripe, yellow tomatoes and tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes - was dressed with nothing more than good fruity olive oil, a few dabs of chunky, garlicky pesto, and paired with freshly made mozzarella. So simple: more of an assembly of ingredients than a prepared dish, yet I’d have a difficult time finding a better example of summer at its peak.

Playing cheerleader to her grill, Taylor stands back and lets it quickly work its magic on her fish and vegetable dishes. An appetizer of tender grilled calamari, sliced into rings, lacked the usual jaw-grinding chewiness. Aioli, a garlic mayonnaise, worked as a delightful dip for the lemony squid, and halves of grilled new potatoes made a novel partner.

Fresh, pink cranberry beans sauteed with sweet shallots served as a delicious mattress for sushi-grade tuna that was crisply seared on the outside, and just warm inside. That fish, scattered with slices of grilled zucchini and velvety grilled eggplant, could make a believer of tuna-jaded New Yorkers.

If pure comfort is in order, the big bowl of delicate spaghettini, tossed with Taylor’s robustly flavored house-made lamb sausage will do nicely. With its earthy mix of chunked sausage studded with garlic and fennel seeds, a few wilted leaves of spinach and sweet roasted tomato sauce - the dish is a humble delight.

Jessica Powers, Superfine’s pastry chef, shares Taylor’s "less is more" aesthetic. Each evening she offers five desserts: something chocolate, maybe a torte or layer cake; a custard or creme brulee (try the cardamom); a homey confection like her buttermilk cake with berries and creme fraiche; and the rest are inspired by whatever fruit is freshest in the market that day.

Powers’ lemon pot de creme, served in a little white ramekin, was all creamy, mouth-puckering tartness. Sweet, ripe cherries, blackberries and blueberries that topped the creme added just the right note of sweetness. Another little ramekin, this time filled with a blueberry-and-peach cobbler, was sweetened with just a hint of sugar, allowing the flavors of that natural fruit pairing to shine. A crumbly, cookie-like biscuit sat like a mini-fez on the fruit, and unsweetened, softly whipped cream added a bit of luxury to the unassuming dessert. A cup of stand-your-spoon-in-it-strong coffee is all that’s needed to complete the meal.

Sunday brunch is influenced by Taylor’s stint behind the stove at Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, famous for its innovative spin on traditional New Mexican dishes. You’ll find imported New Mexican hatch, green chilies giving the salsa a fiery bang; fried eggs on tortillas with tomato sauce, called huevos rancheros, leave scrambled eggs in the dust; and soft corn tortillas wrap spicy chicken or steak in classic enchiladas. Served with a heaping dollop of sour cream, those enchiladas are breakfast dining at its spicy best.

For anyone who has been served a meal long on frou-frou and short on flavor, I suggest you try Superfine. Everything at Superfine is at its just-picked prime, which makes a plate of tomatoes and cheese taste like a bit of summer magic.

 

Superfine (126 Front St. between Jay and Pearl streets) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $9-$20. Superfine serves lunch from noon-3 pm Wednesday through Friday. Dinner is served Tuesday-Saturday, 6 pm-11 pm. Brunch is served Sunday, 11 am-4 pm. The restaurant will be closed from Aug. 26 through Sept. 3. For reservations, call (718) 243-9005.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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