Hard times call for hard liquor. And Southern cooking at Char No. 4.
ADDRESS: 196 Smith St., between Baltic & Warren Sts.; (718) 643-2106.
6 p.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-1 a.m.
CUISINE: Southern comfort food
VIBE: Hip house of whisky
Destination dining, group dinner
DON’T-MISS DISH: Crispy cheddar curds, sage
pork sausage, smoked honey glazed chicken
AVERAGE PRICE: Appetizers, $8;
entrées, $16; dessert, $9
How many bourbons can you name? Do you know the difference between rye and
Scotch? Is there really a Scotch named Compass Box Vatted Grain Hedonism? For
the answers to these questions, visit Char No. 4 on Smith St. in Brooklyn.
Be prepared to drink. A lot. I thought I knew a thing or two about bourbon until I sat at the bar. It’s a glowing shrine to all grains distilled and barrel-aged. The walnut shelves are lined with obscure bottles – a Black Wax wheated bourbon from Maker’s Mark made exclusively for the Japanese market, a Hirsch 22 Rye, and a
Classic Cask 15 Year traditional mash-bill bourbon that costs $100 an ounce.
Each bottle rests on a tiny white light that illuminates the liquid within. If after a few glasses the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling begin to look like barrels, it’s not because you’re drunk. “Each one is the exact dimensions of a standard American oak barrel,” Michael Tsoumpas says, “36 inches high, 24 inches wide.” He’s the co-owner of Char No. 4 and the obsessive genius behind what is, after all, an interactive whisky museum in Carroll Gardens. When you drink at the bar, you’re drinking from Tsoumpas’ personal collection.
There are more than 300 bottles to choose from, nearly half of them American whiskies. “Think of whisky as a genus,” Tsoumpas explains. “Bourbon is just a species of whisky. So is Scotch and rye.” I liked his explanation, but me, I’m more of a hands-on learner. I had never tasted a Suntory 12 Year, a Japanese whisky, before the bartender steered me to it. It’s smoky, spicy, sweet, smooth and only $6 an ounce. The Georgia Moon – a corn whisky aged less than 30 days and bottled in a Mason jar – tastes like sweet vodka. Not bad for $3 an ounce.
When times are tough, drink cheap whisky. There is an alternative theory: When times are tough, drink the best whisky you can afford. You’re going to need a little food to soak up all that alcohol. The chef at Char No. 4 is a Texan who was the sous chef at Café Gray and A Voce. His Southern-inflected menu is as serious as the whisky list. He cures his own bacon in-house and serves it over black eyed peas, roasted red peppers and pearl onions. Lots of chefs make their own pork sausage. But what Greco does with his is wonderful. (I want you to think with your tongue here.) Snappy casing, aromatic sage, plump filling, Swiss chard sautéed with onion purée and prunes, and the whole thing finished with fresh scallions and bits of fried pork skin – Southern comfort food with a sophisticated, urban spin. (By the way, Southern Comfort isn’t whisky. It’s a liqueur.)
What Greco is thinking about isn’t just flavor, it’s texture. That’s why he uses panko to coat his deep-fried cheddar curds – “the best fried cheese ever,” said a friend. And what about the house-cured lamb pastrami with pickled onion and coriander aioli? Or the grits mixed with rock shrimp, dried sweet corn, garlic and nutmeg? His roasted chicken is irresistible – lacquered in caramel, honey and malt vinegar.
Not a whisky drinker? Char No. 4 might make you one.