I always love receiving emails on my blog email address (email@example.com); talking to readers and people in the restaurant industry is always unfailingly interesting. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from the GM of a small restaurant on the LES inviting me to try the place out. She mentioned a high quality of food and especially killer mac & cheese... and I was sold. So on a surprisingly lovely Saturday evening, AV and I made our way down, down to the wilds of the far LES to visit Brown Cafe.
It's a charming, tiny spot in a rather gritty and obscure neighborhood, a friendly haven off the street. Unique, rough wood tables flanked by benches populated the small room, and we sat in a sunny, large table at the window. We first pondered the wine list, which was presented alongside a list of cool-looking cocktails; I chose a glass of chenin blanc and AV went with a bottle of Wolaver's organic oatmeal stout (from Vermont). Both were delicious.
We placed our orders from the menu, which offered several vegetarian options, and sipped our beverages while we waited. Curiously, there was no bread course at Brown Cafe, which normally would have been disappointing, but for some reason neither AV nor I was craving bread, so the absence actually worked well that night. After a perfectly timed wait, our entrees arrived.
AV had chosen, of course, the mac & cheese. It came with such a ringing endorsement, it seemed destined to let us both down. But damn, I think this was the best mac & cheese I've ever tasted, even better than the previous holder of that coveted title, the mac & cheese at Irving Mill. The incredible mixture of penne, gruyere, fontina, ricotta, and mozzarella was presented in a cast iron skillet. There was a golden-brown crust on top that yielded to the fork to reveal a creamy, sharp, cheesy, melt-in-your mouth delight below. I tried a bite, and then another, and then another and another until I had to restrain myself so AV actually had something to eat. For his part, AV noted that if he ever moved away from the city, this was one of the dishes he'd have on his visits back to NYC-- it was that special.
My selection was roasted vegetables with mixed greens salad. The dish came crowned with several generous, thick slices of manchego, which I love. The greens were well dressed in a tangy vinaigrette and came accompanied by thick slices of fennel, leeks, and tender red beets. All the vegetables had incredible flavor-- in fact, this was one of the most flavorful salads I've ever eaten. Each ingredient was high quality and treated well, tasty and almost decadent. Definitely a top-ten salad.
Although it seemed Brown Cafe did have one dessert on offer, it didn't seem as though they had a dessert list, so after we finished our entrees we were presented with the check (in a very cool leather folio). But before we could pay, the friendly GM approached with the petit fours of the evening, bread pudding bites made from her grandmother's recipe and paired with a raspberry sauce. Neither AV nor I typically love bread pudding, but this was a fantastic version-- custardy, rich, and silky. Delicious, and complimentary-- the best of both worlds!
After paying the exceedingly reasonable check, we ventured back out to the street to embark on a post-dinner digestive stroll. We both left Brown Cafe feeling happy, satisfied, even invigorated. As was promised in the email inviting us to check the place out, the food at Brown Cafe was incredibly thoughtful; it seemed as though the people in the kitchen and at the front of the house really cared about what they were doing. That's exceedingly rare in NYC, and it made us appreciate the excellent food all the more. And that supersedes any gripes I'd have about the restaurant-- backless benches, tiny water glasses, cramped (but charmingly old-school) bathroom. When the people and the food are so delightful, that doesn't matter. I only wish Brown Cafe were not so ridiculously far away from my Hell's Kitchen home base-- it's a four Offset Spatula restaurant I'd visit regularly. As it is, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
61 Hester Street (at Ludlow)