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André Hueston Mack, star sommelier, winemaker-founder of Maison Noir Wines, and one of Brooklyn’s most admired food personalities, loves to tell how a Caribbean woman from his Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood once stopped him on the street and said, “You could open a restaurant anywhere in the world! But I’m so happy and grateful you’ve decided to do it right here.”
Over the last several years, Mack and his wife, Phoebe Damrosch, have created what he calls a “mini portfolio of different micro-concepts” right here along Rogers Avenue. They include & Sons Ham Bar, which specializes in American artisanal hams; Chickadee Bread bakery, which mills its own flour; VyneYard, the couple’s pocket-sized wine shop and bar; and Mockingbird Taco, a breakfast taco spot.
“They call me Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” Mack says with pride, adding that his street had always been community-centric, and that he and Damrosch aim to contribute what they do best: feeding people and enriching their hood with new ideas and flavors.The couple’s latest hit is Kingfisher, a breezy Brooklyn-style bistro focused on sustainable American catch. Though it only has 60 seats — with 20 more to come in the backyard — it’s Mack’s biggest project so far. “Now neighbors come by and go, ‘Wow you got a real restaurant here,’” he laughs. “As if to say, ‘Hey dude, you’re legit now; you finally made it!’”
The talent behind Kingfisher’s concise seasonal menu — just a dozen dishes plus two desserts — is Mack’s long-time collaborator, Dutch-born chef Nico Bouter, whose résumé includes some of the world’s fanciest restaurants. “Whenever Nico would go back to Europe,” Mack recalls, “his dad would be like, ‘All this training, for what? To sling sandwiches somewhere in Brooklyn?’ But here Nico is turning out incredible dishes, standing tall and proud in his open kitchen.”
“Even if my so-called equipment here is a two-burner induction stove,” Bouter adds, “plus a small oven and griddle.” With that, here’s all you need to know about Kingfisher.
1. “New York is surrounded by water!”
“How is it that people forget this?” Mack muses, as our briny Alabama oysters arrive. From where we sit, he notes, the ocean is just a few miles away. “I always found it so odd that New York isn’t more fish-centric,” he says. “Not like Boston, which is proud of its lobster and chowder.”
As his own tribute to American fish, Mack wasn’t intending for Kingfisher to be some fancy affair with towering seafood plateaus. Instead, he wanted a laid-back little spot showcasing “all the great catch, mainly from U.S. Eastern Seaboard.” That means succulent monkfish from Wulf Fish (a famous purveyor in Boston), and delicate flounder and hiramasa from a “super-sustainable” Brooklyn outfit called Greenpoint Fish and Lobster, all perfectly fresh and simply prepared. “Guess I like single-concept extremes,” Mack adds with a grin, “going from all-pig at &Sons to fish-only here, though we do have one terrific chicken dish on the menu.”
Mack’s inspiration for Kingfisher actually started with oysters. Thinking of what his PLG neighborhood lacked, he envisioned a Southern-style raw bar serving many different bivalves on ice. But in the end, he explains, the space “kind of dictated itself,” as the thought of all the wet ice and eight different oysters suddenly seemed overwhelming. “So, we ended up serving just one or two kinds of oysters,” he says. “Grown-up and sophisticated. And instead of the usual ice which wastes so many resources, we present them on small rock-seaweed ‘landscapes’ so it’s cool and sustainable.”
Oysters have a further special significance for Mack. Though most people don’t associate them with African Americans, he was particularly inspired by a story of a 19th-century restaurateur named Thomas Downing. A child of freed slaves and a passionate abolitionist, Downing ran a hugely successful oyster restaurant in Manhattan’s Financial District — an oyster restaurant that also served as a station on the Underground Railroad for almost three decades between 1830s and 1860s.
2. The design proves that less can be more.
While vintage Americana and hand-made objets cram Mack’s tiny & Sons Ham Bar, the Kingfisher aesthetic is diametrically opposite. Intent on transforming this dim former coffee shop space, Mack and Damrosch ended up with a vibe they call “modern Shaker.” Though guests come in and instantly say, “Scandinavia!” Mack chuckles. Indeed.
With its Nordic-looking wood peg rail running along white-washed brick walls, a simple flower arrangement to anchor the room, and blond birch built-in banquettes the place feels like a piece of Copenhagen airlifted to Brooklyn. And those handsome spindle-back chairs? Yes, they are from a Danish designer.
“The design process was funny,” Mack reminisces. Initially he was aiming for “a slightly gritty DIY” look. But in the end, the space dictated itself once again, leading him to something breezy, open, and light, with soft eclectic beats playing on the sound system. “[It’s] the kind of music that makes everybody feel good,” as he puts it. “Maybe a new project was a way for me to break out of the stereotypes I’d backed myself into,” he reflects.
3. So does the food.
Bouter, Kingfisher’s chef, worked at Holland’s cutting-edge three-Michelin starred temple, De Librije, before coming to the U.S. and staging at Chicago’s Alinea and New York’s Eleven Madison Park. And yet “all this fancy training” he says, ultimately brought him to a kind of “older-and-wiser” sophisticated simplicity that he feels is more in tune with the zeitgeist. “When I was starting out,” Bouter explains, “I wanted to show off all these crazy techniques. But my ultimate takeaway from my background? To source amazing ingredients and take really care good care of them.” Which he does to full effect at Kingfisher.
There’s his raw hiramasa for instance, one of Kingfisher’s best-sellers. “It’s a beautiful rich but clean-tasting fish,” Bouter notes. “We slice it slightly thicker than usual and give it a little special attention, like the dabs of XO sauce we make in house with seafood, spices, and ground-up trims and ends from the hams from &Sons and, to finish, a little chile oil kick and a crunchy-juicy accent of Asian pear”.
Another standout is the shrimp cocktail: just fat sweet shrimp from the Bayou served with a perfectly balanced cocktail sauce of reduced tomatoes, lemon juice, and two vinegars (apple cider and sherry), and a side of freshly shaved horseradish. The presentation is both classic and special, with the shrimp nestling in an antique silver footed bowl that as Mack puts it “has a feel to it and adds old-world glamour.” The same sophisticated simplicity applies to the Maine razor clams so sea-fresh and plump they need nothing more than a zingy bright sauce of juiced-up apples and fennel greens.
The most complex dish on the menu? The “Kingfisher,” Bouter’s take on a bisque with mussels, scallops, chorizo, and lobster. “It might seem like a simple idea,” he says, “but it needs perfect timing to cook each sea creature perfectly. Especially when you do 60 covers and suddenly all the tables want their entrée right now”.
4. The wine list is also streamlined.
“&Sons Ham Bar is a tiny place with a huge wine list, some 600 selections,” says Mack. “For Kingfisher, I’m trying something totally different: a micro-list that will change a lot, maybe even daily. Think of a chef constantly shopping for the freshest stuff at the farmers market.”
High-acid low-wood whites friendly to seafood are the focus, from Albariño to Gruner Veltliner. “Expect much much terroir,” Mack promises, “but no more than 60 selections, small and fluid and interesting.” His current favorite oyster wine is an Etna Bianco from Sicily that he describes as “salty, minerally, and perfect for bivalves.” With the hiramasa with XO and chile oil, he suggests a Riesling Kabinett: “Faintly sweet but still with plenty of that piercing acidity to cut through the chile kick.” Meanwhile, the monkfish with its refreshing green sauce might call for some a white Burgundy that’s weighty but fresh with aromas of fresh peas and tropical fruit. And for the sole chicken dish on the menu (which combines a succulent breast with an earthy ragu of dark meat) Mack might pour a chilled 2021 Gamma Ray from his own Maison Noir label, a bright juicy Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir blend from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
When Kingfisher finally gets its hard liquor license, there’ll be bottles of Mack’s newest project: Rye & Sons, a straight rye whiskey that’s vintage, dated, and complex but with an affordable price tag. Mack is producing it in collaboration with Pinhook Bourbon co-founder Sean Josephs, with whom he worked at Per Se.
“What you won’t be seeing much of is cocktails,” Mack says, “other than maybe a rye number or two. Here the 20-seat bar counter is strictly for eating.” He grins. “And for watching Nico strut his stuff in the kitchen.”
5. Whatever you do, do not sleep on the egg dish.
“Ten years ago, if you told me I’d be making an egg and be proud of it, I’d say you’re crazy!” exclaims Bouter. He still looks a little bemused by the development. But the unforgettable egg, one of the current greatest dishes in Brooklyn, is something to boast about. A jammy-yolked specimen from an heirloom chicken called Ameraucana arrives on a bed of toasted croutons of sourdough bread from Mack’s Chickadee bakery and some heirloom potatoes and chives. This bread-potato “hash” is bound with a bit of rich hollandaise and laced with orange bubbles of smoked trout roe and tobiko that pop in the mouth with a salty intensity. The combination is genius. “How you cook an egg says so much about your skill,” Bouter declares.
“Maybe we sound like old fogies,” adds Mack, “but you’ll often hear us say: we’re over this or that fad. The older you get, the less interested you are in stacking 85 pea shoots on a plate using tweezers, those vulgar displays of wealth through sheer manpower. A beautifully presented dish of awesome ingredients — great egg, perfect croutons —is just as much of an artwork. And why doesn’t our neighborhood deserve this?”
Kingfisher is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m.