Hearing "you look good for your age"
on my birthday didn’t give me much of a thrill. I remember hearing
those words without the "for your age" qualifier, and,
of course, I prefer the shortened version. Saying it about a
restaurant, however, is high praise.
I’ll bestow the compliment on 200 Fifth, a restaurant and bar in Park Slope that recently celebrated its 17th birthday. Opened when Park Slope was still up-and-coming, and Fifth Avenue was a desolate strip with a few dingy diners and shuttered storefronts 200 Fifth wasn’t a place someone would look at and think, "perfect for a good restaurant." Yet that’s exactly what owner Mark Gerbush, achieved.
In the years that followed, the area gentrified and Fifth Avenue became a veritable Smith Street East, with boutiques and small, eclectic eateries. Gerbush’s restaurant became a sentimental favorite - a workhorse delivering good, dependable American cooking in a comfortable setting.
The restaurant was known for smoking chicken, ribs and brisket over Hickory wood. Anything out of 200 Fifth’s smoker was - and still is - delicious. The brisket, with its intense, smoky aroma is sublime. If a diner could look beyond the meat dishes, they would discover that the fish is also nicely prepared, salads are fine, and desserts are the kind of traditional cheesecake and chocolate cake you’d expect. Forty beers on tap and in the bottle are still a big draw.
There’s nothing wrong with a reputation for fine, if not exciting, fare, especially if you’re filling tables and keeping a bar crowd humming as 200 Fifth has done. But, if your intentions are a little loftier, then good enough may not be.
Two years ago, Gerbush hired chef Mendy Mpathe to invigorate the menu. Mpathe’s experience includes the Knickerbocker Grill, in Manhattan, and the Zagat Survey’s pet Brooklyn cafe, The Grocery, on Smith Street. While the menu choices are laden with obligatory beer partners - zucchini sticks, Buffalo wings and grilled chicken sandwiches - Mpathe’s specials and a few menu staples are as personal as anything you’d find in a smaller, televisionless bistro. (This restaurant has 25 TVs, with most in the next-door bar. None are turned on in the dining room during dinner hours.)
Start with a special of plump sea scallops and mussels. One side of each scallop is seared until crusty, and the mussels are sweet and fresh. Garlic added punch to a luxurious, buttery, spinach sauce that contrasted with the clean-tasting seafood. Little rounds of potatoes that mimic the appearance of the scallops sat on the plate. They did not add flavor and were annoying - I kept spearing them on my fork thinking they were scallops.
And I just don’t understand dishes like the steamed mussel stew. It’s a tomato-based mix with lots of celery and not enough salt that obscured the taste of the mussels. I did like the moist risotto cake that covered the dish, but not enough to order it on a return visit.
I would gladly order the soul-nourishing short ribs on any cold evening. They’re served in a rich, winy sauce with big chunks of carrots, celery and soft strands of onions. Mpathe cooks the meat long and slow until it falls from the bones and adds richness to the sauce. On the side is an oval dish of garlicky polenta that, if you’ve only had it in its dry, crumbly state, will be a revelation. The garlic complements the meat, and the cornmeal is creamy, almost a pudding. The slightly pebbly texture pairs beautifully with the meat’s smooth sauce.
Arthur Schwartz, who mentioned the T-bone steak on his WOR-AM radio show "Food Talk" prompted my visit to the restaurant after an absence of 10 years. The steak was everything Schwartz said it would be - crusty on the outside, rare, and as good as the steaks I remember eating as a child. Mashed potatoes, served on the side, were simple and creamy and creamed spinach was more cream than spinach, just the way some people love it.
Mpathe also serves as the restaurant’s pastry chef. If his wild blueberry cobbler is an indication of his talent then he’s as capable with the sweet side of the meal as he is with the savory. The cobbler’s filling was tart and tasted of cinnamon; the berries were firm and tasted freshly picked. The best part of the dessert, however, was the bottom crust, which was as crisp as a sugar cookie, chunky and brittle. A big scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream melted over the cobbler’s crumbly top. American desserts may appear humble, but I’d take a well-made cobbler over this fussy tasting plate any day.
Gerbush’s 200 Fifth keeps doing what it does best - serving traditional favorites and more sophisticated fare for an increasingly demanding clientele, an esoteric selection of beer, served in an attractive, comfortable room. So happy birthday, 200 Fifth. You look good for your age.
200 Fifth (200 Fifth Ave. between Union and Berkley streets in Park Slope) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. Entrees: $6.50-$20.95. The restaurant serves dinner seven days a week and lunch on Fridays, from 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays, 11 am-4 pm. For information, call (718) 638-0023 or (718) 638-2925.