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ON A WHIM

for The Brooklyn Paper
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How fickle is the restaurant business? In May I wrote a review for GO Brooklyn about a bistro called Copper on Degraw Street in Cobble Hill; five months later I’m reviewing Whim, a restaurant that opened in early October at the same address.

The new owner is Cobble Hill resident Marc Elliot, who, after stints at the Star Room in the Hamptons, and time behind the stove in Manhattan’s Independent, Noho Star and Cafeteria, opened Whim (named for the ease in which Elliot can change his menu), his first restaurant serving mostly seafood. For those craving lunch on the half shell, Whim’s raw bar opens at noon.

Elliot credits Rebecca Charles, chef-owner of the Pearl Oyster Bar in Manhattan, as his inspiration for the food and the setting of this new place. Charles’ tiny space in the West Village is little more than a large, well-lit counter with comfortable stools. She serves the kind of unpretentious food New Englanders take for granted - lobster rolls, chowders and cleanly fried seafood. On any given evening, loyal New Yorkers who rarely find Charles’ brand of seaside comfort food on their own turf can be seen downing big bowls of chowder perched along her counter.

In keeping with Charles’ model of the honest, pull-up-a-stool, roadside place, Elliot has painted the once tangerine walls of this tiny space an electric blue and hung a mascot of sorts over the dining room door - an enormous shark with a benevolent smile that’s more campy than killer.

The "raw bar" is an oversized keg filled with ice. On top of that impromptu setup sit Belon, Blue Point and Malpeque oysters so fresh with that steely, saltwater tang that I shuddered for a second after I swallowed one. A metal "oyster caddy" - a basket filled with Gold’s white horseradish, a house-made Bloody Mary cocktail sauce (Elliot eschews ketchup on seafood), a blue ginger Mignonette (fresh ginger and its juice replace the usual shallots, and blue curacao liqueur is the colorful alternative to white wine) and wedges of lemon, limes and juicing oranges - is offered if you prefer your oysters adulterated.

What Whim has that you won’t find in a shack or lobster pound, and often misses the mark in upscale New England restaurants, are more polished seafood preparations that retain all the lustiness of anything you’d eat with pliers and a side of melted butter. For sea-phobic eaters there’s a hanger steak, a lamb dish and a vegetarian potpie on the menu.

The dinner menu is divided into "small plates" and "large plates." Listed under small plates is the corn-and-lobster chowder, a bargain at $9. This sophisticated soup - not as rustic as chowder and too opulent for bisque - fills a bowl large enough to feed two as a first course or as a light dinner for one.

And, it’s a beauty.

Circling a mound of fresh lobster meat and shrimp are perfectly cooked mussels still in the shell. Crisp yellow corn kernels float in a stock that is brawny with the taste of shellfish and mellowed with a touch of cream.

Of the larger plates, the capocollo-wrapped monkfish was the most successful. At its best, monkfish can mimic the taste and texture of lobster; at its worst it can taste like dirt and possess the density of a sea sponge. Elliot wraps his fish in a slice of capocollo (an Italian cured ham) then roasts the filet in the oven. What emerges is a pleasantly salted filet, moist from the fat of the ham and still faintly sweet. He serves the filet over a rich fish and veal stock. Slow roasting asparagus, served on the side, brings out their nutty flavor and a few sweet oven-roasted tomatoes make a delicious trio with the fish.

Slight overcooking marred an otherwise delicious striped bass filet. A note on the menu states that the fish is cooked medium-rare to medium. I prefer fish rare and should have asked for it that way. Roasted to medium, the striped bass was somewhat dry. But sides are the real thing here. Wasabi (a root similar to horseradish) mashed potatoes were chunky, creamy with a lingering heat from the wasabi, and plenty of sauteed garlic mellowed a tangle of fresh spinach.

The restaurant was only three days old when I visited, so a few things were still in flux. A basket of rolls or good, chewy bread and butter should be placed on the tables. A dessert menu hadn’t been finalized, but the one dessert offered - sliced strawberries served in a martini glass with a dollop of whipped cream - was the perfect, uncomplicated dessert to follow our meal. Bread pudding, a molten chocolate cake (yawn, this dessert has been a has-been for some time now) and fresh fruit are being added shortly. Wines will change on the whim of Elliot and his wine purveyor.

If Elliot continues to do what he’s started - give the neighborhood a comfortable place in which to kick back and serve the kind of straightforward seafood people crave at prices they can afford - it’s going to take more than a whim to get a seat there.

 

Whim (243 Degraw St. at Clinton Street in Cobble Hill) accepts cash only. Entrees: $7-$16. For information, call (718) 797-2017.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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