Superfine

One of the borough’s best-kept secrets.

That Superfine doesn’t get the foodie hype it deserves isn’t so much a bummer for those who love it as it is a blessing: Fans of the eight-year-old restaurant get this super cheap, seasonally sourced great grub all to themselves.

Regulars here are well aware that a deep bowl of meatballs— made with buttermilk, mixed by hand that morning and topped with a spicy roasted red tomato sauce flecked with mint, oregano, leeks and buttery bites of good Gorgonzola—are arguably just as good as those made at Marlow & Sons (which made the cover of Saveur this spring), or Saul (which scored a Michelin star), or even the perpetually packed Al di Lá (which gets eternal love from the Times’s outgoing critic Frank Bruni).

Unlike those crowd-crushed scenes, Superfine isn’t always on the tip of everyone’s tongues—or in their BlackBerries for a Friday night. Maybe it’s the location: in an artsy warehouse of a restaurant tucked under the base of the Manhattan Bridge, a neighborhood whose food scene is sparse compared to Smith Street. It might be its lack of PR power: This a business that just launched its Web site for the first time this summer. Or it might be that when Superfine opened in the fall of 2001—just weeks after the Twin Towers came down across the river—the city’s fledgling blogosphere was otherwise occupied.

Whatever the reason, Superfine has happily remained one of those awesomely off-the-radar restaurants, despite its long-standing—and currently cool—mantra to cook as seasonally as possible and totally from scratch; prices that have only been raised a buck or two in years; an art-filled dining room complete with a rowdy bar scene, cushy chairs and an orange pool table; and a chef with serious street cred from sources most New York chefs can’t claim.

That’s Laura Taylor, Superfine’s 40-something cook and coowner with tattoos up her strong arms—she once worked a fish stall at a waterfront town near Boston, and it shows—a short crop of spiky white hair and one of those straight-to-the-point demeanors that gets the job done without a lot of drama.

Taylor’s kitchen team—a young crowd with mohawks and passion for good food—seems to like her style: “It’s not like a job,” says sous-chef Tami Bernard of the sprawling, semi-open Superfine kitchen. “It’s like a social club.”

Especially since Taylor is apt to do nearly any task herself: You’ll just as often catch her filling in for Otto at the dishwashing station as breaking down a whole fish, cleaning the mushrooms from the forager or flattening out chicken paillards between a couple of plastic garbage bags with a beaten-up mallet. “That’s my alternate title,” she jokes with Bernard, “executive dishwasher.”

“Laura’s totally salt of the earth,” says Laura Rynd, one of Taylor’s two co-conspirators in the space, “salt of the earth to the max.”

That’s basically her style on the plate, too: Taylor describes her approach as “fresh and clear,” and that’s true. Here, humble ingredients are sourced with care and cooked simply and lovingly, maybe dressed with good olive oil and in-season herbs, a bit of the green from Rynd’s early morning trips to the Borough Hall Greenmarket or from an upstate farmer who came to their door when they opened and now wanders in with whatever he has on Wednesdays, often during dinner service. Think organic chicken livers from a nearby butcher, grilled rare and served with a warm oyster mushroom salad and a mix of red-tipped scallions, tubby olive oil-poached golden beets and a sprinkle of salty ricotta salata. A fat, fatty pork chop seared and served with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and grilled zucchini, or calamari with greens, fresh beans and an anchovy vinaigrette made with tiny fishes Taylor has been sourcing from Sahadi’s for years.

If you get a sense of the Mediterranean here—Italy, say, or country French—you should: Taylor’s sensibility was formed on her first fling with good cooking during a collegiate summer studying art (and eating) in Rome, Florence, Siena, Venice and the south of France. “That’s when the deal was sealed,” says Taylor, “all these things, I had no idea that these things could be so delicious.”

Later—after seasonal summer stints cooking and working with fishmongers outside of Boston—she ended up in the high-end restaurants that supported the chi-chi Southwestern creative scene in Sante Fe. There she worked as a pastry chef at Escalera, whose desserts were created by a young Deborah Madison, and cooked with part-time Chez Panisse chef David Tanis. A disciple of Alice Waters—if you don’t know Tanis’s name, you should—he’s a devotee of local sourcing: everything from free-range eggs (then not so easy to find) to the stripey artisanal beans grown by a guru in northern New Mexico.

Like Waters, Tanis was a fan of mandatory kitchen lessons in tradition, from cutting down whole animals to making pestos by hand for maximum flavor and supremely silky texture. “It was like being in school,” says Taylor of the experience. And now in New York—she followed her friend Rynd from the art scene of New Mexico to Dumbo in the 1990s—she passes those lessons on to her own staff. Garlic pastes are pounded by hand in a massive mortar; mashed potatoes are put through a food mill; pasta sauces are made to order, French fries cut by hand. “We cut ’em with a stupid mandoline,” Taylor laughs. “I think it makes everybody a better cook when they know how to do it themselves.”

Superfine specializes in super-slow food, really—appropriate, since the national offices of Slow Food are right around the corner (staffers can be spotted at Superfine’s lunch shift). The entrées are changed monthly, reworked weekly and tweaked daily, and servers write everything up each morning on one of two big chalkboards. In fact, they can only tell two tables at a time what’s on the menu, and aim to have only three orders go into the kitchen at any one time.

Beyond the dinner crowd in search of Taylor’s elegant entrées, plenty see Superfine as a local hangout—they come for the raucous bar scene, the monthly art openings (one wall is dedicated to ever-changing exhibits) and a game of pool on the tiny table. The multilevel bar pulls happy-hour pints of craft beer and infuses their own vodkas, pouring it out into custom cocktails like the spicy $10 El Cráneo, made with muddled upstate mint and Mexican pulle peppers. And then there’s the Bloody Mary–drinking group that hits the weekend bluegrass brunch, when bands play in the rear of the massive dining room and the breakfast menu is New Mexican–inspired. (A shipment of roasted Hatch chiles gets defrosted each week for the green chile sauce.)

A multi-culti crowd is fine by Taylor, Rynd and Cara Lee Sparry, the third partner in Superfine’s all-female-on-purpose power trio, all of whom still work in the restaurant on a daily basis: Taylor in the kitchen, Rynd in the office and the front of the house, and Sparry managing the art. The place, says Taylor, is meant to serve “every person, whether you want to spend $50 or $10 on your meal.” The women call Superfine a project, not a restaurant, and they mean that in the most artistic sense of the word.

A project is what they’ve always intended the restaurant to be. In the ’90s when Taylor and Rynd first met Sparry, a Pratt-trained industrial designer who is responsible for the space’s rustic, warehousey vibe, they were all living illegally in an old Dumbo warehouse on Jay Street. (They live there still, but now it’s legal.) Back then, Taylor had tired of the cutthroat competitiveness of New York City professional kitchens, and was hoping to work for herself and her friends. So the three hatched a plan to start an underground supper club, inviting 50 people who could each bring a guest. Taylor’s food was sourced from the farmers market, while Rynd and Sparry took care of live music, art installations and a midnight cabaret. The overall goal—beyond great food, says Rynd—was to get people talking.

That they did, and when the three were offered a chance to take over the grungy, neglected kitchen of the former neighborhood steelworkers’ bar called Between the Bridges, they took it, cleaning the space of its century-old fried-on grime, serving sandwiches and fries and hosting street fairs they called the Urban Cowgirl Cabaret Café.

But the goal was always to open a real restaurant—one with more than a fryer and a flat-top. And after a few years at the bar, they secured a small loan in 2001 and finally found a highceilinged old space that had once housed car parts and vacuum cleaners. To help raise money for its renovation—much of which they did themselves, especially once September 11 sucked away their construction crew—Rynd sold shares in the restaurant for $500 or $1,000, promising buyers they’d repay them with an event at the restaurant. “I’ve always thought of this restaurant,” she says, “as a barn-raising in a small town.”

Behind schedule, they decided to open anyway for the first-ever Dumbo Arts Festival that fall, bringing a motley assortment of tables and chairs in from their own kitchens and from city street corners the night before they opened.

Superfine has since gone from a few covers a night to several hundred, but eight years later those tables and chairs, maybe not surprisingly, are all still there . . . along with the beaded bathroom curtains, several long-time employees and dozens of truly-invested regulars, who, at least if they’re clever, aren’t giving up one of the best-kept secrets in Brooklyn.

Rachel Wharton is a deputy editor for Edible Brooklyn. She lives in Prospect Heights, was once hit by a flying cue ball from Superfine’s tiny pool table and always orders their Super Dark & Stormy.

They finally found a high-ceilinged space that had once housed car parts and vacuum cleaners. “I’ve always thought of this restaurant,” says Taylor, “as a barn-raising in a small town.”

Superfine has happily remained one of those off-the-radar restaurants, despite its long-standing mantra to cook as seasonally as possible and totally from scratch; prices that have only been raised a buck or two in years; an art-filled dining room complete with a rowdy bar scene and an orange pool table; and a chef with serious street cred from sources most New York chefs can’t claim.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.