When you enter James, an upscale New American eatery in Prospect Heights, you encounter two disparate objects that encapsulate Bryan Calvert’s vision. One is an image of his great-grandfather, James Calvert, dapper in a pre-Prohibition barman-cum-gambler way, with cravat and handlebar mustache. The other is a Lucite cross-section of a chandelier, unfurled like an accordion, emanating an LED glow. This contrast of 1908 and 2008 continues through the decor (of polished wood and unfinished walls), and the food and the drinks, provoking a timeless yet contemporary character.
Calvert, a veteran of Union Pacific and Bouley, brings this touch of timeless romance to a 100-year-old brownstone at St. Marks and Carlton, a bucolic ‘hood still wanting for restaurants — he and his partner, Deborah Williamson, have created a real neighborhood place, destined to last a long time.
Perhaps the best item on the menu was a plate of crispy sweetbreads with a rhubarb glaze and dandelion greens, a bittersweet adult version of chicken nuggets. Actually, kids would love em, too — if you don’t mention their origin. Grilled prawns with sunchoke shone as well. These both went great with James’ Revenge (named after the great-grandfather, not the restaurant), a take on the old-school Manhattan with rye, cointreau, bitters, sweet vermouth and kumquat juice, one of many reinvented classics. The wine list also presents some gems at prices appropriate for a neighborhood hangout.
Pine nut-crusted lamb saddle, ruby red and high on rosemary, was a welcome break from the usual rack, nearly as tender and way meatier, but an accompanying white bean stew transported it to Toulouse. Roast chicken delighted equally. A notoriously difficult test for the restaurant kitchen, this Amish bird was juicy with crispy skin, and came with non-homestyle couscous with pea shoots and lemon thyme. Even dessert, or the half of it we could still eat, lived up to Mr. Calvert’s vision. His ricotta beignets with raspberry red wine coulis were airy, perfect for the delicate sweet cheese filling.
Some may balk at this chef’s abandonment of high-end Manhattan for neighborly Brooklyn, but James is a statement and a gift to an under-served neighborhood. In Manhattan, nine out of ten new restaurants close in the first year. Without sacrificing quality or originality, I’d bet that ain’t going to happen in Prospect Heights. Not to James. Any takers?