If you were awarded a trophy for surviving the last year, what would it look like? Instead of a golden athletic figurine, might it be adorned with a golden sofa, a mischievous cat, a loaf of homemade bread, or a thriving houseplant?
For me, the prize I’ve been awaiting after a year of soggy takeout isn’t a medal or trophy, but a ceramic bowl overflowing with French fries–pomme frites, if you’re fancy–shimmering with the perfect dusting of salt, crisp on the outside, creamy within. I knew I’d somehow made it through when this was presented to me at Victor, the fittingly named new Gowanus restaurant located in the old Freek’s Mill space on the corner Nevins and Sackett.
The restaurant, with its candy-pink doorway on an industrial corner, shined like a rainbow in a gray sky. On a mural by local artist Caty Wooly that stretches along the side-street seating area, egrets take flight amid geometric ramblings, abstract greenery, and pastel pom-poms in creamy shades of coral, lavender, and rose. Umbrella tables line the sidewalk and out in the street, the “veranda,” a long and airy rain shelter, is lined with sunshades and parlor palms.
If you’ve similarly been avoiding restaurants for a year, it feels pretty weird to be dining out with friends again—and Victor’s palm fronds and avian mural, in contrast to the chain link fences and steel window grates securing the industrial buildings across the street, really add to the surrealism of the experience. So, cocktails, anyone?
The first signature drink on the list is called a Byrrh Me!—which is basically a spritz made with Contratto Bitter and an old-time French apéritif called Byrrh in lieu of Aperol. The result is more sweet than bitter, and I prefer my drinks the other way around. But perhaps I should’ve expected sweetness from a menu item punctuated with an explanation point. I clinked glasses with a my dining companions’ orders, a bold and earthy Spanish Rosado and the Birds-of-Paradise house cocktail, a juicy tropical number made with pineapple, dark rum, Cynar (pronounced chee-nar, a type of bitter in the amaro family), and agave. My first sip tasted like happiness.
Our whistles wetted, we moved quickly on to the menu. Victor’s small, Mediterranean-inspired, fresh-from-the-farmers’-market menu included 16 items (two of which involved asparagus), plus a special (also asparagus)—which amounts to exponentially more options than I’d get in a week at home. (And I look forward to seeing how the menu will evolve as more varied local produce comes into season.)
The springtime offerings were straight-ahead and simple. And piling a selection of shared appetizers onto my plate with a clean fork (welcome to germ-reduced dining!) brought layered flavors of saltiness, sweetness, acidity, umami, and spice. Batter-fried dates, stuffed with macadamias, and covered in a snowstorm of nutty Manchego cheese provided an almost dessert-like sweetness, while roasted oysters, with breadcrumbs and spicy merguez sausage, offered umami and just a touch of heat.
Our salad combined fresh asparagus with asparagus “conserva,” which held the flavors of an herby-vinegary marinade but kept the vegetable’s crispness, like a pickle. This dish cut through the sweetness and richness of the others with its bright acidity, and was topped with almonds, wide shavings of Manchego, and mint.
The entrée offerings were simple, too: a whole fish, a half chicken, a vegetarian cauliflower option, and a burger. Both my dining companions wanted the burger, which was topped with melted Comté cheese, a mild French cheese, and peppery caramelized onions. An assertive cornichon relish, thick with mustard seeds, was layered between the burger and the bottom bun, and the fantastic fries mentioned above, were served on the side.
Feeling vegetable-depleted, I ordered the cauliflower, which was served as a full roasted head, garnished with fried shallots and split to reveal a waterfall of sautéed ramps and chard, with a couple of plump lentils in the mix. The thoughtful presentation, the garlicky greens, and the seasoned and browned outer florets made it a fine option for the meat-adverse. The less-cooked inner stalks tasted more virtuous than scrumptious, but my plant-power felt thoroughly replenished.
Victor reminded me of how much I missed that new-restaurant buzz, and I felt actual joy in the clanging of plates being cleared from our table as I walked home to a clean kitchen. I have never felt more grateful to the dishwashers, the servers, the chefs, the line-cooks, and the bartenders making my meal possible. The world still has plenty of healing to do, but for a couple of hours on this quiet Gowanus corner, it felt like Brooklyn was in the pink again, flushed with the promise of new beginnings.
Victor is located at 285 Nevins St., Gowanus; (347) 889-6588. Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, as well as brunch on Sundays.