Raising the Bar: Grand Army

05/19/2015 10:37 AM |


Grand Army
336 State St, Boerum Hill



No matter that it’s barely been open a week: Grand Army is officially Brooklyn’s hottest new bar. It was a given from the get-go, considering the cocktails are devised by co-owner and star mixologist Damon Boelte, who also designed the well-regarded bar program at Prime Meats; the antique-y interiors come courtesy of American Construction League’s Matthew Maddy, who was recently nominated for a James Beard award; and photographer Daniel Krieger is a partner as well, all but assuring the Boerum Hill watering hole thousands of followers on its Instagram account, and regular mentions on Eater.

But when you consider how many Brooklyn restaurant bigwigs also have skin in the game, including Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff and Rucola’s Julian Brizzi, you’ll also know that there’s more to the food program than pub burgers and oysters—and we’re not talking the $1 Blue Points during happy hour kind. The second an establishment starts fleshing out its menu with uni, boquerones, and other fiddly, preciously priced plates of seafood, it becomes abundantly clear that it has much loftier aspirations than merely wooing the after-work beer crowd (although, it should be noted, there’s quite an interesting, sizeable selection of saisons and sours). Consider too that the executive chef is Jon Bignelli, who was last seen shaving pastrami onto mustard-sauced strands of rye pasta, and crafting oyster crackers from real oysters at Wylie Dufresne’s Alder. Which, actually, makes a post at Grand Army a bit of an odd choice for the master culinary manipulator—now primarily tasked with sourcing perfect shellfish.

Not that you don’t see bursts of barely harnessed creativity enlivening the mostly raw selections; they may not be dehydrated, formed into discs and strewn on top of chowder, but oysters are delivered with a sextet of tincture bottles filled with vibrantly colored sauces. Although once you’ve effectively drowned sweet, fleshy Moonstones or petite Peter’s Points with an overenthusiastic splash of green curry or jerk, you’ll know why most places draw the line at lemon slices, or a mist of mignonette.

Uni is also a casualty of gastronomic overreach; the prized nobs of urchin are reduced to mere texture among other assertive elements, including citrusy, peppery raw shiso leaves, and equally spicy, astringent rounds of pickled jalapeño. All that firepower could have better benefited a rather wan scoop of diced bay scallop and pineapple instead, as, incidentally, could a touch more time in the chiller (there’s little more off-putting than a room-temperature raw scallop). 

“Fancy Toasts,” on the other hand, are as satisfying as they are economical—at only $5 each, they’re bound to become everyone’s go-to bar snack at Grand Army. A paste of smoked shrimp with pickled ramps could totally stand up to the Glazen-Toren Saison d’erpe-Mere, or even a bottle of extra-dry cider, while the ricotta with artichokes and tomato jam on a hunk of pizza bianca makes a perfect playmate for Chateaux du Bloy rose. But if you’re bound and determined to edge back into dinner territory, the best bet by far is a gloriously wobbly poached egg, dripping yolk onto a brown butter-swathed, clam broth-enriched stew of favas. Oh, and it also just so happens to be Bignelli’s sole, actively cooked offering.

It’s hard to be overly enthused about Grand Army if you insist on looking at it as more than a bar—especially since, even after dropping $100 or more, it’s still entirely too easy to leave hungry. So until Bignelli chafes enough under the raw seafood constraints to truly let his freak flag fly, it’s probably prudent to simply stick with Boelte’s zippy cocktails, accompanied by an order of toasts and a half dozen oysters, and then head on to supper at a full-fledged nearby eatery, such as Rucola or Mile End.