160 North 12th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11249
Cuisine: Retro 80s cafe fare
Our Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ Great
Cards: All Major
Hours: 5pm – 11pm Daily
Booze: Full Bar
Subway: L at Bedford Ave.; G at Nassau Ave.
NY Mag says:
In the crazed world of New York bars and restaurants, there is always room for another concept. Still, it came out of left field when two of Williamsburg’s most successful restaurateurs—Joe Carroll (Spuyten Dyvil, St Anslem, Fette Sau) and Francesco Panella (Antica Pesa)—announced that their new restaurant, Oleanders, is based on the fern-bar concept popularized in the ’70s. Now, in the McCarren Hotel’s former the Elm space, they’ve taken the tiki craze into the era of Harvey Wallbangers and Lemon Drop martinis. It’s a world modern-day cocktail culture arose, arguably, in reaction against.
Fern bars are fairly foreign to a younger generation of New Yorkers reared on faux dives and retro cocktail dens—likely leaving many scratching their heads about what exactly Oleanders will be like. New York restaurant critic (and child of the ’70s) Adam Platt characterizes the fern bar, aesthetically, as a place defined by brass, pillows, white colors, and, of course, plants. “It’s Laura Ashley rendered in culinary terms,” Platt says. “They’re basically bars with plants, and they serve sweet food and flowery, flavorful drinks.”
Typically, the food menu at fern bars featured a grab bag of classic, turn-of-the-century dishes like lobster thermidor and more contemporary American comfort foods (a lot of cottage cheese, too). “You’d see stuff like meatloaf and coq au vin on the same menu,” Carroll says. At Oleanders, the menu from chef Kevin Chojnowski (Willow Road, Public, Olives NY) features dishes like coq au vin (thickened with pig’s blood), pasta primavera, and loaded potato skins. And James Beard Award winner Dale DeGroff has developed the bar program, putting together a menu of “modernized and updated” vintage drinks like the Think Bay Breeze, Mud Slide, and even a Sex on the Beach for good measure. “The great example is a piña colada—people always bitch about it, but it’s so good,” Carroll says. “Who doesn’t like that?”
Above all, Carroll and Panella believe that Oleanders—which officially opens on Friday—makes sense for the space. As Platt notes and Carroll conceded, the spacious, bright dinning room was already decked out in enough plants to fill a Rainforest Café. In their eyes, the neighborhood needed something more easy-going and approachable after the Elm, which never really resonated with locals. There will be indoor seating for 85 with a large bar area, pool-side dining, and even a game room where guests can play billiards while sipping on cocktails.
The dining space at the McCarren Hotel and Pool in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is getting the fern bar treatment with Oleanders opening on June 12. Two of the neighborhood’s most prominent restaurateurs, Joe Carroll (Fette Sau and St. Anselm) and Francesco Panella (Antica Pesa) are at the reins, taking over the space vacated by the hotel’s previous eatery, the Elm.
“I wasn’t interested in opening up another whiskey bar in Brooklyn, with the same turn of the century decor — who cares?” Carroll said. “And this is so the opposite of that.” The restaurant is a sleek version of the fern bar concept with green enamel tables, kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers, and animal caricatures all give the space the proper time warp.
The menu is also chock-full of familiar throwbacks: coq au vin, beef Wellington, Clams Casino, lobster thermidor, and a reimagined classic shrimp cocktail. “If I start now, we’d finish tomorrow!” Francesco said enthusiastically of trying to pick a favorite dish. For his partner, the stand out is easy: “the potato skins. They are so simple, but I just f—ing love it.” Their spin will be of the era but decidedly luxurious, with crème fraîche, chives and a salmon rub.
The restaurant features a lengthy copper-capped bar, which will proffer drinks in line with the restaurant’s Eighties theme. “I’ve joked that the people who are doing craft cocktails now know more about the 1880s than the 1980s,” laughed Carroll. Oleanders throws it back with forgotten favorites like lemon drops, mudslides, and Long Island iced teas, all crafted by James Beard Award winner Dale Degroff.
Todd English-trained chef de cuisine Kevin Chojnowski jumped at the chance to revisit the plethora of French dishes he learned in cooking school but hasn’t prepared since. “We’re going to be exposing people to something new, which is the fun and interesting part of doing a restaurant: not only to nourish people and give them a good experience, but to teach them at the same time. Especially in New York, the diners are educated people, and they want to be educated diners as well.”
“In general, the buttoned-up culture of restaurants is going away,” Carroll said of New York’s culinary scene. “Especially in Brooklyn.”