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LUNAR LANDING

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It was a sad summer day when I heard that chef Adam Shepard had closed his Japanese eatery, Taku. The food he served at the Smith Street restaurant, which he co-owned, was such a highly evolved, personal expression of the cuisine. But when I heard that he opened Lunetta - an Italian small plate and wine bar - in its place, I was surprised and hungry for answers.

How do you switch from Japanese to Italian, just like that?

Was he simply jumping on the small plate gravy train?

And, more important, would the food be as memorable as that of Taku?

The answer is an enthusiastic yes.

Shepard’s new place, Lunetta (Italian for "little moon"), opened in early October, and, while I can’t compare Japanese cuisine to Italian, what he’s serving is every bit as accomplished as its predecessor, maybe more so. Which just goes to show, if a chef has talent and sources great quality ingredients, he can cook any cuisine.

Anyone who remembers Taku will feel at home here because the changes in the interior are minor. The layout remains the same with the tables up front, a five-seat bar in the center, and the open kitchen, with a view of Shepard at work, in the back.

The walls have gone from gray-green to a warm ocher, the banquets are now covered with tufted red leather and the only decorations on those golden walls are fringed sconces. The decor is a little on the understated side and that’s okay. The crowd filling the tables and the food on the plates are enough of a distraction.

What’s on those plates makes joyful eating. The dishes are heavy with herbs.

"I’m using a trinity of rosemary, thyme and bay leaves in many of the dishes," says Shepard. Rosemary, though, is the prevalent flavor and its piney perfume works magic in many dishes I tried.

There’s a "contorni" (vegetable dish) of roasted beets and rosemary. It’s simply large chunks of the vegetable that are deepened and slightly sweetened with walnut oil; the herb plays up its earthiness.

Rosemary appears again in wildly delicious fried artichokes with lemon. Shepard slices the chokes thin, sprinkles them with lemon, then fries them until they’re potato chip crisp. The rosemary plays a subtle note here, lending a whiff of its fresh scent. The dish is like a plate of the world’s best French fries - salty, vegetal and crunchy.

Rosemary plays a starring role in penne topped with braised lamb, one of the entree-sized plates. The herb deepens the mineral quality of the meat - which is so tender it practically dissolves into the sauce - and adds to the tang of the slightly sweet-and-sour spicing.

Any of the red wines on the mostly Italian list (glasses: $8-$13, bottles: $26-$73) would pair beautifully with the dish, but the Lagrein, with its juicy, berry flavors and touch of lemon, made a perfect partner.

At Lunetta, one can start a meal with "bruschetta," a slice of grilled Italian bread from Manhattan’s Sullivan Street bakery that Shepard tops with several pungent spreads. You can taste the char from the grill in the "fire-roasted eggplant," a tangy, chunky blend of the vegetable, slivers of red onion and a piquant dressing.

Shepard’s "panzanella" is a celebration of bread. Cubes of the Sullivan Street loaves are tossed with d.o.p. buffalo mozzarella (Mozzarella di Bufala, a fresh, unripened cheese from the Campania region of Italy). The cheese releases a mild, nutty whey when it’s sliced that adds a creamy, delicate note to the mix. The bread is chewy but slightly softened in the center and freshened with crisp leaves of celery. It’s the best rendition of this dish I’ve had.

Like the "panzanella," ordering meatballs outside of Grandma’s kitchen can result in a sublime dish or a disappointment. I love Shepard’s small, light, pine nut-studded version, with its simple sauce of fresh tomato and meat stock permeated by the lemony-nutmeg aroma of bay leaves.

And, if you love fried chicken, you must order the "crispy chicken ’agrodolce’ with toasted pignoli nuts." It’s half a bird cut into pieces and deep-fried until the skin breaks off in brittle shards and the flesh is juicy. The "agrodolce" is a simple sweet-and-sour syrup dotted with plump, wine-soaked raisins and toasted pine nuts. You swipe the meat through the thin sauce and sigh with pleasure. It’s that good.

There are only two dessert choices and an occasional special each evening. (One of the duo of sweets that were offered on the night I visited was biscotti from One Girl Cookies, a bakery on Dean Street, the other was gelato from the well-known purveyor, Il Laboratorio Del Gelato of Manhattan.)

But I miss Taku.

To dull my pain, I plan on dining frequently at Lunetta.

What can I say? Shepard’s food makes for good medicine.

 

Lunetta (116 Smith St. between Dean and Pacific streets in Boerum Hill) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dishes: $3-$16. Dinner is available Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. Subway: F or G to Bergen Street. www.lunetta-ny.com. For more information, call (718) 488-6269.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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