Fort Defiance Red Hook
eat: Chicken Liver, Tapenade, Grilled Baby Octopus, Roast Venison, Roast Chicken, Shrimp & Grits, Cauliflower Gratin, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Bourbon & Brown Butter Apple Tart
sip: Hot Apple Pie, Morris, Mezcal Old-Fashioned, Sazerac, Marconi Wireless, Sixpoint Otis, Angiolino Maule I Massieri Garganena/Trebbiano
I have fallen hard for Fort Defiance. Like all good love stories, it began with a crush; in this case, it was on the affable owner , St. John Frizell, who was holding court behind the bar my first night there. Sporting a traditional English, chalk-stripe apron, he crafted liquorous concoctions with the precision of a scientist, but without the brazen showmanship of Tom Cruise. This wasn’t your typical, carnal crush; while St. John is a handsome fellow, my affection stemmed more from what he had created. After hearing his tale of How Fort Defiance Was Made, I realized he was living a dream uncannily similar to mine: running a cozy restaurant/bar/café/community hub while writing about food and travel (All that was missing was my fantasy's B&B upstairs).
Fort Defiance is a neighborhood joint fit for whatever mood you fancy, whether a lazy weekend brunch, a filling weeknight meal, or, like in our case, a night of boozing. Where the menu, with just enough choices to accommodate any culinary craving, is full of affordably, delicious fare. This is the kind of place where you get to know the staff by name, where ordering isn’t a command, but a conversation about history, mezcal, or Red Hook. Where everyone is a regular or is welcomed as one. After my first encounter, I was hooked, vowing to return as often as possible. After numerous visits, I am officially smitten.
My first night at Fort Defiance, and in Red Hook for that matter, began after an adventurous walk across the BQE and traipsing through streets of slippery ice and snow. Like British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, we were on a mission, but in search of cocktails rather than conquering New York. Inside, we found a convivial space with Robin-egg blue walls, black & white checkered floors, and tables made from colorful, floral Latin-American fabric.
We took a seat at the zinc bar and perused the impressive cocktail menu, which features classic libations inspired by recipes from around the country. It was a bone-chilling night, so I was delighted to find a whopping SEVEN hot drinks on menu.
I opted for Hanny's Hot Apple Toddy, a steaming mug of fresh apple cider, amaretto, whipped cream, and a dusting of nutmeg. Imagine a liquid version of the best homemade apple pie you've ever had - equally delicious, warming and comforting even without the flaky crust.
Next, I had the Morris, a mix of bourbon, Cocchi Americano, Amaro Nocino, and bitters created by by Seattle bartender Jamie BoudreauServed in a vintage cocktail glass, the copper-hued quaff warmed without the syrupy sweetness of my previous beverage. It was smoky, yet still dainty enough for this recent bourbon convert.
Since we were still stuffed from brunch, we ordered Chicken Liver Pâté and Olive Tapenade for a nosh. The pâté was rich, gamey, and whipped just enough to still have some meaty heft. Combined with the briny and salty tapenade, the two made for a lovely bar-snack marriage. Buttery, crispy traditional toasts were addictive on their own or slathered with dips.
My next visit to Fort "D" was with a garrulous group of fellow gourmands. It was a staggered meal, so we arrived as their main course was being devoured. Eager to sample yet another cocktail, I chose the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, a potent mix of reposado tequila, artisanal mezcal, and bitters. This heady concoction was too intense and smoky to pair with dinner, but on a subsequent, booze-only visit, it was perfect. Erik had a Sazerac with cognac, which we learned was the drink's original liquor before being replaced by the easier-to-obtain, American rye whiskey. As our waiter, Drubo, so aptly stated, it was a "handsome" cocktail, complete with a giant ice cube--the sign of a devout mixologist.
On menus around town, octopus has trumped squid as the Cephalapod du Jour. Here, Grilled Baby Octopus was charred exquisitely, elevating the seafood to meaty heights. Shaved fennel added complimentary crisp and black olive butter highlighted the briny salt of the octopus' oceanic origin.
As a novice griller, I'm always impressed when meat arrives cooked to perfection. The Roast Venison was Medium Rare Illustrated - bright red flesh encased in blackened char. Its gamey juices pooled under a creamy, earthy sunchoke puree. The warm salad of Brussel Sprout leaves, chopped walnuts, bacon cubes, and diced carrots was so tasty that I have made it part of my home-cooking repertoire.
Cauliflower Gratin was comfort in a cast iron pan. While I can't think of anything that doesn't go well with the winning trio of cheese, butter, and cream, cauliflower is one of the best contenders. The toasted bread crumb topping gave good crunch to the velvety soft cauliflower.
True to my English roots, Sticky Toffee Pudding has always been a fave of mine, yet I'm often disappointed by dry Stateside versions. Here, a moist, molasses-brown cake is lacquered with a rich, shimmering toffee sauce. Upon viewing our fellow diners ferociously pounce upon the dessert, Erik likened them to "wild animals". My only request would be to ask for a family-size portion, please, so as to avoid table-side tussles.
My third eve at Fort Defiance confirmed the cliche that good things do indeed "Come In Threes". I began with a Marconi Wireless, an elegant mélange of New Jersey apple brandy, bitters and vermouth. Its a lady's Manhattan, with more sweet than smack and hued a most sumptuous ruby red
Alyce chose a Sixpoint Otis, a robust, oatmeal stout brewed a few blocks away. Thanks to Drubo's enthusiasm and spot-on description of the Angiolino Maule I Massieri Garganega/Trebbiano, I have found my new favorite, "funky and unique" white wine.
Usually, I avoid chicken at restaurants since it is easy to cook myself and other fuller fat animals tempt me further. However, after tasting this Roast Plymouth Rock Chicken, I will eat a generous hunk of humble pie. Not only did this succulent chicken blow mine out of the coop, but with it's crispy skin and juicy flesh, it was anything but bland. Served with bitter greens, whipped mashed potatoes, and pan gravy, this was better-than-home cooked goodness.
Since the chef, Bobby Duncan, hails from Georgia, it's no surprise that the Shrimp and Grits were delicious, southern comfort. The shrimp were grilled and served shells-on, which kept them juicy and plump and encouraged finger-licking feasting. Piled atop a fluffy, creamy mound of Anson Mills grits, they were surrounded by red eye gravy, cubes of country ham, wild mushrooms, and scallions. This Lowcountry warmer was a welcome break from the meat-laden winter I've had.
The Bourbon and Brown Butter Apple Tart drew from both sides of the Atlantic. From the French, the filling--a gooey, caramelized mess of sautéed apples--was reminiscent of the classic tarte tatin and the crust was fluted in fine, French pastry style. The added oomph of bourbon and the heft of the buttery crust was pure Americana. Truly one of the best I've ever tasted--and as an Apple Pie aficionado, I have gobbled up hundreds of pies.
As the pièce de résistance, Drubo brought us an Angostura aged rum to pair with our pie. Normally not a rum drinker, we adored this rich liquor loaded with vanilla and molasses that complimented our dessert perfectly. This libation education is partly what makes Fort Defiance more than just an eating & drinking establishment. In an interview with Edible Brooklyn, St. John lauds the "Third Place", the sociological concept of a neighborhood gathering spot different from home (First Place) and work (Second Place). It is a place where old and new friends meet, where all people are welcome, essentially an anchor of community life. In Red Hook, it is Fort Defiance.