Most restaurants begin with a concept.
Perhaps a chef or restaurateur envisions a rustic Italian place
that specializes in grilled food or they want to open an eatery
specializing in global, small plate dining.
They look for the perfect location and an architect who understands their vision. After that, the hunt for flatware, dishes, linens and art begins.
When it comes to waitstaff, any proprietor will tell you that good people can make or break a restaurant, but sourcing them often comes last.
For Steve Henderson, the owner of Royal’s Downtown in Carroll Gardens, the waitstaff came long before the restaurant. Henderson was the president of an agency that supplied the help for parties and events. That business segued into a catering and event planning company that handled affairs for MGM, Cirque du Soleil and Chanel, among others.
So when Henderson decided to make his long-held dream a reality by opening an elegant, yet informal, neighborhood eatery in a locale similar to Bay Ridge (where he grew up), he knew exactly which waiters he’d hire. The waiters - all young, good looking, and, as you’d expect, thoroughly professional - work the floor in the restaurant, which opened in October in the former Nino’s dining room. (The pizza area of Nino’s is still in operation.)
Royal’s sits between brownstones on a tree-lined, mostly residential street. Inside, the room has the ambience of an exclusive, cozy inn. The walls are painted deep red, wooden tables are covered with linen clothes and illuminated by candles, and diners sip wine at the long mahogany bar, while a big fireplace sends waves of bone-warming heat through the space.
Henderson chose Alex McWilliams, formerly of Zoe, La Reserve and Craft in Manhattan, to serve as the restaurant’s executive chef, as well as handling the fare for Henderson’s catering company 9events. (Both operations share the restaurant’s kitchen.)
McWilliams’s menu at Royal’s Downtown ("downtown" is Henderson’s word for a collection of neighborhoods including Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and parts of Park Slope) is market driven, innovative American with dishes influenced by Spain and Italy.
If you visit on the weekend, you’ll be treated to a basket of "pandebono." This South American bread is made with "casablanco," a mild white cheese. The rolls are warm and flaky with a tinge of sweetness. McWilliams serves them with "chimichurri," a pungent Argentinean herb sauce made with parsley and lots of garlic.
With the rolls are slices of bread from Mazzola Bakery, known for its hearty loaves. I’d happily consume slices of the crisp-crusted, raisin-studded sourdough everyday.
The "pandebono" are great dipped into a tart, brightly flavored tomato soup enhanced with "pastini" (fine bits of pasta). It’s accompanied by a tiny grilled goat cheese sandwich on Mazzola’s olive bread that pairs beautifully with the soup.
Even better than the soup, was the "tuna crudo," a long, rectangular plate lined with translucent slices of the raw fish. McWilliams coats the rosy pieces with a smear of grapefruit vinaigrette and tops it with a fine dice of chives, red onion and a sprinkling of "tobiko" (flying fish roe) that brighten every mouthful.
McWilliams makes a superb, creamy yet tender, risotto flavored with earthy white truffles and Parmesan. The serving is on the small side, a wise decision, as the appetizer is rich.
Rich, too, is the braised Berkshire pork, and worth every calorie-laden bite. The meat is cooked down until it’s soft enough to eat with spoon. Beside the pork is a square of moist, golden raisin bread pudding. Once the side absorbs some of the stone ground mustard sauce that enhances the meat, it develops a sweet and sour note that is just ideal.
The cabbage leaf stuffed with onion confit is a superfluous touch. I get the whole countrified, "I’m eating at my Polish grandmother’s table" (or Russian or Irish grandmother for that matter), but the dish is better without it.
The only flaw to an otherwise perfectly cooked sea bass was a lip-puckering, Meyer lemon-rosemary vinaigrette. The sauce’s tartness gave a sour note to impeccably fresh, nicely charred piece of fish and its partners: roasted, halved fingerling potatoes and pleasantly bitter, earthy Swiss chard.
Any imperfections in the meal were quickly forgotten after tasting the "Royal cheesecake." It’s a little round of moist cake that sits atop a decadently buttery, crisp crust. A bit of pomegranate syrup delicately scented with lavender is drizzled over the pastry. A few ruby-colored pomegranate seeds are scattered about the plate; they make a satisfying "pop" in the mouth.
I love bread pudding, and the one served here, studded with dried apple pieces and currents is perfectly moist, but too much white chocolate made it overly sweet, as did a swirl of creme anglaise. The rest of the dessert roundup covers familiar territory: a warm chocolate souffle with a coconut truffle center, a selection of gelatos and sorbets, and creme brulee.
When we left, the room had the feeling of a great party winding down. A couple took seats near the fireplace and sat with their heads together, laughing softly. Busboys cleared away plates and empty glasses.
Henderson glanced around the space and smiled. He looked liked a happy man.
Royal’s Downtown (215 Union St. between Clinton and Henry streets in Carroll Gardens) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $18-$32. The restaurant serves dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. For reservations, call (718) 923-9866.