There is a dish you can eat in a cellar in Brooklyn that is a work of art, and also soulful. It costs $12, and will fill you up.
That dish is Mekelburg’s salt-baked potato with crème fraîche, black caviar, and smoked black cod.
You may think it’s not for you because caviar is a token of luxury, in a city where you finally understand you cannot afford luxury. You may assume the roe must be inferior and the dish somehow a sham, because the really good stuff wouldn’t cost $12, not even as a dollop on top of a potato. Ignore your thoughts, though, and just eat the thing: a huge potato completely covering a small plate, with unctuous, salty bits of smoked fish around it (and, you will discover, thoroughly veined in a little network inside it, like eggs or seeds, as well).
That fish is smoked sable, what “black cod” is called when it’s at home. Ashkenazi Jews of a certain age know sable as the best thing to put on a bagel, so much better than lox it’s not funny. On top of the potato is a creamy mound of crème fraîche with a huge load of unusually buttery, unsalty, even fruity-tasting caviar on it. There is softened butter with dill (and more bits of sable) around the edges of the plate. Together, the potato and sable and only-slightly-sour cream and caviar make up a food that mixes Jewish and Gentile, the feeling of being cared for by one’s mother and the delights you can get when you go out on your own into the world. How that plate brought together salt, sweet, fat, sophisticated, homey almost made me cry.
It’s an odd time for eating out in New York. The places most likely to be reviewed by critics are restaurants where entrées cost $30 and tasting menus cost $100 and more. They are tiny food-temples and shiny mega-boîtes where most of us can’t go even if, by normal US standards, we are “upper income” — little palaces where, we, reader, certainly can’t eat if we are what the government calls either low income or middle class. (Note that $55,575 is the median household income in the United States; median household income in the city is $67,201.)
Reading the reviews has become an exercise in tantalized frustration: breathing in paragon writer Pete Wells’ description, in the New York Times, of the grated frozen foie gras appetizer at Momofuku Ko, you could be forgiven for feeling like the orphan cousin not invited to the party. “A cook behind the counter would rub a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure.” (The liver is part of the $195 tasting menu for lunch or dinner, the only way that you can eat at Ko.) The other spots in critics’ reviews — restaurants like Cosme and Blue Hill and even Contra and the Spotted Pig —are not for us, either, unless we’re in the top five percent, or interested in acquiring a load of debt that will cripple us.
Yet we read the weekly takes from Wells and New York magazine and Eater, salivating. We tweet photos of other dishes from slightly less expensive glory spots we can barely afford (hot honey! hot fried chicken! poké!) so that we, too, can participate in the glorious culture of eating.
CS Lewis once presciently remarked that “if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips,” an observer would conclude that they “were starving.” So are we starving? Well, 1.36 million of us are hungry in New York and don’t know where our next meal is coming from, according to Barbara Turk, a progressive lesbian policy wonk who directs the mayor’s Office of Food Policy. One million, three hundred sixty thousand out of the 8.4 million people in the city, which translates into one in six of all the people that you see every day, a fraction so high it astounded me.
As for the rest of us, are we afraid of becoming them? I think so. I also believe that we, too, tweeting about fennel with orange pulp and A.1.-sauced cauliflower steak and pickled ramps, are also starving, just not for food. We are starving for fulfilling work, starving for stimulation strong enough to make it okay that we’re tired all the time or have to work three jobs just to stay here, and are afraid we’re never going to be able to afford to stay here permanently. Starving for beauty and intimacy at a time when we have to be available constantly to the breathless interwebs to keep our jobs or further our ambitions, craving endless something — food? sex? Facebook likes? — to keep us going as we jockey for relative status, on a ladder that has millions of rungs and millions of shaky places to fall.
So, Mekelburg’s. Is it a savior in this den of $96-chicken iniquity? Definitely not. I’m very aware that to some of you, it will be too expensive. Sandwiches — very filling and wonderful sandwiches, but still sandwiches — are $9 to $17. Most are $14. (The lone $17 one is a bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato, and soft shell crab nonpareil.) Whether something is “affordable” or not is always relative, depending on where exactly we are on that rollercoaster ladder. But you can eat dinner here, an exquisite dinner, for $20 ($30 if you get a 16-ounce glass of beer from one of the terrific breweries on their list, or share an appetizer if you want to stagger home in a food coma).
The venue is odd, a small beer-restaurant in the back of a subterranean high-end grocery store in Clinton Hill, a gentrified neighborhood that includes Pratt and NYCHA housing, like the Lafayette Gardens houses two blocks away. The groceries are interesting, but mostly too expensive (some of the produce is well-priced, like $1.95-a-pound minimally-treated local apples or butternut squash.) What you want to come for are one of the two potato dishes, or the porchetta. All of them made me emotional, which I haven’t felt from pricey food, I have to say, in years.
The other salt-baked potato is topped with slab bacon (a smoked, cured, solid piece of pork) and sour cream ($10), surrounded on the plate by scallions and more of that softened butter. In the middle of the potato, you will find a stash (too small, but delicious) of oozy raclette, the French cheese made for melting. The whole thing tasted like what hobbits eat when they get to choose the fare, the bacon (so much better and more substantial than the sliced kind) combining with the sour cream and salty potato and very slightly funky, gooey cheese to make bites that all felt generous and nurturing, so that I felt very, very well-cared-for, as though the person who made this really wanted to feed me in more than one way. One of the bacon potatoes will do you for dinner.
A couple of dishes were imperfect, like the roasted acorn squash with fantastic burrata cheese and pepita seeds which became too salty when mixed with the accompanying bagna cauda sauce ($14), and a meatloaf sandwich with ricotta and red gravy (also $14), which, strangely, only tasted delicious when eaten so hot that it burned my tongue, and wasn’t nearly as good when it had cooled down enough to eat safely. And a wild dandelion salad with lemon, anchovies, and Parmesan was just bad, the lemon dressing so overpoweringly acid I couldn’t eat the leaves at all ($12).
The porchetta, which dominates a sandwich made with broccoli rabe and Parmesan ($14), is tender and lyrical. I love porchetta in general — boneless suckling pig rolled up in layers of stuffing, fat, and skin and spit-roasted, like a kind of cousin to shawarma — but theirs, unusually garlicky, also made me melt a little inside, like I’d seen a beloved relative (my mother, say) after 15 years.
That caviar on the first potato? It’s American paddlefish, but tastes much better than any version of that fish’s roe (it’s a cousin of sturgeon) I have had to date. Alicia Mekelburg, who owns the shop and restaurant with her husband, Daniel, probably knew where to get the good stuff because she had a long career as a sourcer of fancy food for several chain stores. She won’t say which purveyor of paddlefish it comes from.
Mekelburg’s, 293 Grand Avenue between Clifton Place and Greene Avenue (mekelburgs.com, 718-399-2337) is open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m.-2 a.m.; Friday, 8 a.m.-4 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Most fruits and vegetables served are pesticide-free; all house meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free and pasture-raised. The extraordinary cheeses and creams served come from Lioni Latticini. The grocery and restaurant are down one flight of stairs, and an automated wheelchair lift is available though it must be operated by a Mekelburg’s staff member. The scrupulously clean bathroom is accessible and has a lovely chalkboard covering the walls, with multicolored chalk provided. On recent visits, there was lesbian love graffiti, anti-rape chants, and Black Lives Matter annotations on the walls.