Monday, November 2, 2009

Round two at Brown Cafe: Still the best mac & cheese in town

On Saturday night, before the madness of halloween truly got rolling, AV and I met his friend PP for a pre-Yankees-game dinner at Brown Cafe on the LES. As you may recall, AV and I absolutely adored BC when we went last and vowed to return. Unfortunately, with the LES being so very far away from both Hell's Kitchen and the UES, we haven't made it back. Until now!

We entered the small, rustic wood-clad room and chose the same table in the window nook as last time. After regarding the tightly-edited menu, we made our decisions. PP ordered a beer; AV and I sipped water from the tiny water glasses until our genial server brought over a complimentary amuse-bouche: a simple salad of al dente chickpeas, roasted red peppers, and avocado. It was uncomplicated but pure of taste and consequently something to be savored.

Simple salad

At this point, Hannah, the manager, came over to say hello, and as we chatted she mentioned she had been trying out some recipes for mulled wine. A few seconds later, all three of us had tiny coffee mugs of steaming, fragrant beverage in front of us. I've never had good mulled wine before, but this was absolutely it: with a spiced fragrance and the complexity of wine underneath, all with a touch of sweetness, this beverage was warming through and through. It positively begged a wood-burning fireplace to curl up next to.

Deliciously warming to the core

We nursed our wine and waited patiently for our entrees, which emerged a short time later. AV, of course, had chosen an entree portion of the mac & cheese-- the piece de resistance of Brown Cafe. It was just as good as we remembered, with several kinds of gooey, meltey cheese enrobing firm pasta, all covered with the best kind of cheesey crust. PP had to try it as well, so he ordered a side portion, which came in the cutest little mini cast-iron skillet I've ever seen.

Mother mac and baby mac

PP's main entree was the leg of lamb with herbed asparagus, gruyere, smashed potatoes, and mustard aoili. This was an incredibly generous portion and was highly approved by PP and AV, who snuck a taste.

Meat & potatoes

My entree was the beet salad, which came with greens, walnuts, and mint. All the ingredients in this salad were top-notch, and the mint added an interesting touch to what could be a mundane combination. You can't go wrong with pretty much anything vegetable-based at Brown Cafe, since everything is so thoughtfully sourced, and that was certainly the case here as well.

Greens with beet jewels

With our entrees successfully packed away, we moved on to the dessert course. Our server brought over a trio of example desserts: an apple turnover, a dense brownie duo, and a mixed-berry crumble. PP and AV ordered the brownies to share, and we sat back to digest. In the meantime, Hannah came over with her second cocktail project, a pinot-grigio-based wine cocktail with a thyme accent. I'm usually not a huge fan of herbs in my cocktails, but gosh darn this was surprisingly good-- a subtle sweetness with only a whisper of thyme at the end. Well done.

Even with a greenery garnish, you've got yourself a good cocktail

Soon our desserts emerged, and the house had graciously supplemented the brownie order with an extra mixed-berry crumble. The brownies were incredibly dense and fudgy and came with chestnut ice cream; our server had described the ice cream as "distinct," and I truly agree-- it was very heavily chestnut-flavored. While I really liked the brownie, which was as true an expression of chocolate as you'll find, being a non-fan of chestnuts I had to pass on the ice cream.


The crumble was also both simple and tasty. A layer of tender warm strawberries and blueberries lay under an oatmeal strudel, all topped with a scoop of green tea ice cream. Once again, the green tea flavor here was powerful (and being a not-huge-fan of green tea flavor I had to pass once again), but the crumble itself was delicious.

Incongruously green, with cute mini-skillet

At that point we were stuffed-- but as we got the check, of course there was one last surprise, tiny mini-bites of the house bread pudding. Positively delicious, especially the creme anglaise on top.

The final bite

Having such a delightful experience at Brown Cafe is bittersweet. The food is so simple, thoughtful, and well-executed, and the price-points are lower than you'll find for comparable food most anywhere else. If BC were located any closer to either AV or me, we'd go on a weekly basis. But it's just so far away from both of us, we have to reserve it for special occasions. However, dear readers, if you live any further downtown than we, please do yourself a favor and visit the four-Offset Spatula Brown Cafe. And get the mac & cheese. You won't regret it.

Brown Cafe
61 Hester Street (at Ludlow)

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