Everyone associates Williamsburg with bustling Bedford Ave, but if you take the L train farther east to Morgan Ave, you’ll find yourself in a remote industrial wasteland far removed from the comforts of Smorgasburg and Radegast. I found myself walking down this desolate stretch on a cold winter’s day, and I started feeling anxious by the empty streets, because if someone were to jump out from behind one of these abandoned warehouses, there would literally be no one to witness my screams.
I walked a little more quickly, until I finally found myself at Fitzcarraldo, a warm oasis in the middle of all these ugly, gritty buildings. It’s sort of magical stepping in here because it’s so unexpected to find this charming space with a bar and an open kitchen inside. The vibe is pretty casual in typical Brooklyn fashion–the chefs looked like they were dressed for a low-key house party, and the clientele was a mix of people in their late 20s to early 40s. It was comfortable and unpretentious, and thankfully lacking in that aloof, lackadaisical attitude that seems to plague the hipster Brooklyn restaurants.
The food here is described as Northern Italian, specifically of Liguria, a coastal region in the Northwest. The mild region is ideal for growing simple produce, and it’s known for its vegetables, olives and grapes. It’s also the birthplace of pesto, that ubiquitous green basil garlic sauce that we’ve come to love. Of course, the proximity to the ocean means more emphasis on seafood and less so on meat. Despite the Ligurian association, I felt like the food had this hard to define ambiguity about it. It was Italian, but also Asian at times, and then American. It’s very much a reflection of this current globetrotting trend in food, where the easy worldwide exchange of cooking ideas results in an absorption of everything so that regional definitions become less clear cut.
Ligurian, Ligurian/Asian, whatever the case, the definition might be hard to pin down, but the flavors are undeniably delicious. We opted for the tasting menu, a steal at $45 a person, and I was immediately blown away by the first course, a plate of cured steelhead trout. The vibrant red fillets arrived looking plump and gorgeous, waiting to be plucked from the umami sea of miso cream that swam beneath it. Yet the key is to keep the two together, swirling it here and there like so, because there is just so much chemistry between the fatty fish and its rich, creamy soul mate.
Although Fitzcarraldo likes to flirt with outside influences, it does very well when it stays close to home. The next course featured a very traditional Ligurian dish called farinata, a thick chickpea-based pancake. It arrived in a very enticing fashion, all crisp and golden in a black flat-iron pan, and topped with a divine aioli with chunks of albacore meat mixed in. It tasted as hearty and comforting as you would expect a rustic flatbread to taste, but with a little more character, as the briney kick from the garum and fish roe made things more interesting.
The third course was a pasta dish, a trofie pasta served in some uni butter and mandarin oranges. This was the first setback of the night. When you put uni butter on the menu, you expect a funky, dreamy sensation of thick sea foam, but I didn’t taste the sea at all. I did taste a lot of orange creamsicle, which might be great for dessert but not for your pasta.
What Fitzcarraldo should have done was swap the tricked out trofie for the simple and humble cacio e pepe. On the surface, the pasta looks very plain and unassuming, but never underestimate the power of good cheese and carbs. The melted cheese was impossibly rich and fresh, leaving no doubt to its origins as the descendant of the most whole and creamiest of milk. We ordered this as an add-on to the tasting menu, and while it did fill us up, we gladly made room for it.
The fourth course was a little strange, a seared albacore tuna steak served with grilled mushrooms and rice porridge. I felt like this dish was something out of a test kitchen that hadn’t been fully vetted yet. It was also having a bit of an identity crisis, and I think it was trying to be Asian, which is okay, but it wasn’t Asian enough in the right ways. Congee can be wonderfully flavorful and hearty with the right mix ins, but this rice porridge was congee light, a very clinical rendition of plain gruel without any add-ins. There was a hint of shiso and soy sauce, but not enough to punctuate the ingredients with any meaningful flavor. If they rework this dish to make the fish a little more juicy or infuse the rice with more stock then it would be much improved upon.
The chocolate cake finale was pretty solid–it didn’t necessarily show the same level of technique and creativity as did the other courses, but you can’t really hold a grudge against chocolate cake and cream. Despite a few hiccups, the tasting menu overall had more than enough moments that truly blew me away or opened my eyes to something new. It’s a little inconvenient getting there, but the mecca to this little culinary shangri-la is well worth it.
195 Morgan Avenue (between Meadow and Stagg St)
Brooklyn, NY 11227
Take the L train to Morgan Ave. It’ll be about 6 blocks away from the station.