Zakary Pelaccio’s world is small.
For the chef and co-owner of the Chickenbone Cafe, in Williamsburg, the perimeters of his globe encompass our borough and no further. But don’t pity him for not stretching his boundaries. Everything Pelaccio needs for his "Brooklyn global cuisine" can be found right here.
Pelaccio says he "supports local vendors," and by local he often means purveyors in the neighborhood. "Georgie," a Williamsburg resident, makes fresh mozzarella for the cafe’s PMT, a sandwich of pancetta, mozzarella and roasted tomato. His kielbasa bruschetta features Polish sausage from Sikorski’s, a butcher in Greenpoint. The Brooklyn Brewery supplies the beer.
Nice gimmick, but can he cook?
The answer is a resounding yes!
Pelaccio, who opened the cafe in April, has worked in the haute kitchens of the French Laundry, in Yountville, Calif., and Daniel, in Manhattan. Not only is he dishing out original, boldly flavored cuisine, the guy also understands his neighborhood. To accommodate Williamsburg’s low-on-cash, long-on-style clientele, he’s created a menu of small, inexpensive dishes. Patrons can build a meal of several plates, or eat on the cheap with one plate and a great cocktail.
A note of caution: If you’re not a hardcore drinker, steer clear of The Bone, the cafe’s signature cocktail. Its shot of rye with a splash of lime and Tabasco sauce will burn a path to your toes and right through the floor.
Much of Pelaccio’s dishes are bread-based or paired with bread, but calling Chickenbone a sandwich place would be akin to saying The River Cafe is a nice restaurant with a view. Pelaccio is serious about bread. His loaves hail from the Tomcat bakery in Long Island City, known for its crusty artisanal offerings.
He knows that grilling thick slices of olive bread until they’re crisp and smoky will add to the pleasure of eating a canellini bean and truffle bruschetta and recognizes that earthy, slow-roasted salmon with wasabi aioli needs to partner with a hearty, faintly sour, pumpernickel baguette.
Chickenbone’s large room - one part cedar-lined sauna without the steam and one part mellow, oceanfront shack with an illuminated kayak crowning the bar - makes a low-key backdrop with surprisingly little hipster attitude.
A German woman in a black halter-top told me that she returned to Chickenbone for the steamy tartiflette, and then ate two. The casserole, listed under small plates, is ideal for a winter evening, which wasn’t stopping anyone in the cafe from ordering it. Its tender slices of fingerling potatoes layered with Reblochon cheese (a creamy cheese with a rind and flavor similar to French brie), slivers of sweet, caramelized onion and tiny chunks of salty, smoky bacon is the kind of decadent dish that’s difficult to resist, even if you sweat while you’re eating it.
Another lovely and lighter small plate is the cannellini bruschetta. Pelaccio purees the white beans with truffles. The result is a velvety, nutty topping with a garlicky aroma. Firm, sweet halves of cherry tomatoes and fresh basil freshen each mouthful.
Pelaccio’s sandwiches (and frankly, a less pedestrian term needs to be invented for what he places between bread) reference American classics or mingle several nations - sometimes in one sandwich. The confit of pork (meat cooked and stored in its own fat) served on ciabatta is pure lusciousness - fatty, sweet and smoky.
A roast beef sandwich, another winner on ciabatta, is like the best cheese steak on the planet. The beef is moist, the shallot sauce is creamy, the Fontina Valle d’Aosta (an Italian cheese made from ewe’s milk) replaces no-flavor American cheese, and spicy cornichons add their vibrant, salty, sweet taste. Kielbasa bruschetta has enough garlic, dill and chopped pickle to perfume all the streets of the old neighborhood. (That’s Williamsburg before apartments became lofts.)
Each evening Pelaccio offers a different soup and several specials that are close to entree size. Pelaccio knows that the best part of a roasted pig is its crisp layer of skin, so he includes a thick slice of it edged in fat with his roasted pork shoulder. Tiny roasted beets tinged the meat with sweetness, and purslane, a crisp plant with a flavor a bit like cucumbers, lightened and added textural interest.
Pelaccio rethinks the French cassoulet (meat and bean stew) making it appropriate for a hot summer evening. Instead of white beans slow-cooked in fat, he sautes green, summer broad beans and porcini mushrooms diced into small cubes that deepen the stew’s flavor along with aromatic basil. Chunks of tender, roasted lamb added a mineral tang to the dish.
As for dessert, he’s a maple freak with a nostalgic side. An apple is baked and topped with maple cream and maple roasted walnuts. Maple syrup is drizzled over ricotta cheese then sprinkled with pine nuts.
And sandwiches don’t stop with the entrees. From the grill emerges a bittersweet chocolate sandwich on brioche. It’s messy, finger-licking, kiddy food made legit for the over-10 crowd with a "slaw" of candied lemon and lime. "Eula Mae’s" (a southern friend of the sous-chef’s mother) shortcake is interpreted as a featherweight buttermilk biscuit with a lightly caramelized, maple syrup-brushed top. Fresh-from-the-greenmarket sour cherries, peaches, strawberries and currants sit between the sliced biscuit, and maple-laced whipped cream gilds the entire luscious concoction.
Williamsburg has its ultra-hip cafes where designer cocktails ease the pain of the food. That’s not the Chickenbone Cafe. Pelaccio is an original with technique to back up his creativity.
And would anyone have a bone to pick with a chef who offers a chocolate sandwich?
Chickenbone Cafe (177 S. Fourth St. between Roebling Street and Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Small plates and sandwiches: $4-$15. No reservations accepted. For information, call (718) 302-BONE (2663)