The first thing you should do after entering Brooklyn Label is head straight to the U-shaped bar. If owner-chef Cody Utzman is there (he’s the young, sandy-haired guy with a Brooklyn Label tattoo beneath his ear), say, “hi,” and ask if they’re serving pineapple upside-down cake.
If the answer is “yes,” it’s fine to jump up and down a couple of times and even clap, a display that will delight the owner. Ask him to save a slice for you, then continue to your table with the knowledge that the end of the meal will trump anything that came before it, no matter how good the pre-dessert dishes are.
Pineapple upside-down cake? No, I’m not kidding. The last time I tried a piece was at a kid’s birthday party circa 1970, that’s how retro it is. Sometime in the 1960s, serving pineapple upside-down cake would instantly elevate the hostess from every day cook to culinary marvel. Other formerly chic favorites also appear on Utzman’s menu of “neighborhood cafe type” dishes, formerly known as comfort food, and they are the kind of dishes that we remember, have always loved and continue to crave.
Utzman opened Brooklyn Label in January, with an all-day breakfast menu, sandwiches and strong, rich coffee made with Raven’s Brew beans, a roaster out of Washington. The dinner menu came later. The kind of heal-a-hangover dishes and big salads that he offers suit the young Greenpoint community.
Before Utzman could offer up a place for locals to linger, he had to gut a space in the 150-year-old Astral Building down to the floorboards and then work his way up. The room he fashioned is part funky coffee house replete with an enormous blackboard and faux wood tables, part bistro with vintage light fixtures and gold-sponged walls. Tattooed denizens sit solo at the bar or at a table with a laptop. No one rushes, and even with the gentle pricing, sharing dishes appears to be the norm, not the exception.
My husband and I joined the crowd by dividing another retro-favorite: a spinach salad. I’d forgotten how good — and how good-looking — this starter is with its bright pink rings of crisp red onion, squares of salty bacon and chunks of creamy bleu cheese. A slightly tart balsamic vinaigrette unified the strong flavors.
A glass of wine would have paired nicely with the first course, but the restaurant just received its liquor license and wasn’t serving alcohol yet. Later this month, they will begin pouring wine and beer, as well as cocktails on the weekends. In lieu of booze, I ordered an “Italian soda” made from lavender syrup mixed with San Pellegrino water (a terrible choice with the salad, I know). The drink emitted the fresh perfume of the plant and a delicate floral taste. The “hibiscus orange fizzy,” a clean, tart blend of hibiscus tea and fresh orange juice mixed with San Pellegrino, is neutral enough to pair with most dishes.
You have to love a place that includes three macaroni and cheese variations as one of its six entrees. The “Old Mac,” an instant classic for anyone who likes this dish creamy not dense, is made with jumbo organic elbow macaroni enrobed in a lush trio of Gruyere, cheddar and Parmesan. With its salty, mellow and sharp notes, this is the queen of mac and cheese.
There are two spinoffs: the “Chorizo Mac” with chorizo sausage and jalapeno peppers, and the “Basil Mac” with basil pesto. I’ll have to wait until next time to try them.
It’s not easy finding a new way to present a tired menu staple like salmon filet, so I was surprised at how sophisticated and visually appealing the special was. Utzman sautees the fish briefly then tops it with a “slaw” of fresh fennel slices, pickled red and white onions and dill with a hit of mustard seeds. The vibrant herbal tastes of the vegetables contrasted beautifully with the rich fish and its pillow of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. A ring of bright green snow peas, sauteed in olive oil with a hint of garlic, added crunch and looked lovely against the coral-colored centerpiece.
I applaud a chef who serves a steak with a nice rim of fat, but even with that extra helping of goodness, this Black Angus was one dull piece of meat. A generous mound of gloriously crisp and salty, skinny, hand-cut fries helped.
Now for that pineapple upside-down cake. This is no canned fruit rings and dry batter affair, although there is a single maraschino cherry in the center of the slice. Thick circles of fresh pineapple — caramelized until they’re candy sweet — form a jewel-like crown. The cake layer beneath the fruit is buttery and tastes of fresh vanilla; its edges are slightly chewy.
Go get a slice.
Brooklyn Label (180 Franklin St. at Java Street in Greenpoint) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner entrees: $7-$16. The eatery is open Monday through Friday, from 7 am to 10 pm; Saturdays, from 9 am to 10 pm; and Sundays, from 9 am to 4 pm. Brunch is available on weekends, from 9 am to 4 pm. Subway: G to Greenpoint Ave. For more information, call (718) 389-2806 or visit the Web site www.brooklynlabel.com.