“We’re not the first place tourists call for a reservation when they come to New York,” John Tucker says of Rose Water, his small, sun-filled restaurant on a residential stretch of Union Street. Sitting in the calm, welcoming dining room on a chilly weekday afternoon waiting for a winemaker to show up for a tasting, he shrugs contentedly.
You don’t need to chat long with the affable father of three to discover that he prefers locals—be they Park Slopers or potatoes.
Over the past eight years, residents of the brownstone-lined streets surrounding the restaurant have returned the preferential treatment. They jump to name Rose Water whenever the topic of best brunch comes up; they book tables as soon as Tucker announces special events like the restaurant’s annual pig roast; and they treat the bright, high-ceilinged dining room and leafy all-weather patio as an extension of their kitchen tables—a place to have a late-morning meal with the family on Saturday (one where you can order a side of slow-cooked Heritage pork with your Honeycrisp apple pancakes), to catch up with friends over a great bottle of wine, or to transform a really well-roasted chicken into a plate of clean bones.
Of course, you won’t taste such velvet-smooth turnip soup, bobbing with mouth-pleasing tapioca pearls and drizzled with fragrant hazelnut oil, in most domestic kitchens. It’s the rare home cook who gently cold-smokes his own duck breast, sears it into crispskinned lusciousness, then serves it atop a sublime pumpkin puree with a fuchsia sprinkle of earthy-sweet beet powder. And while your girlfriend might go gaga for the pink-tinged, apple-lemon-rose-hip ice cream, chances are there’s none in your freezer. Tucker, whose dining room hosts the full spectrum of the neighborhood’s food lovers, from bifocalled empty-nesters to tattooed 20-somethings to his own three sons (aged 11, 8 and 7), considers the fare down-to-earth.
“We’re not striving to be groundbreaking in terms of creativity,” he says of the seasonal American cuisine. The menu, revised each day for the past decade, emphasizes the restaurant’s dedication to local, organic and sustainably raised ingredients. But this is no bandwagon-hopping. Way back when they opened, New York magazine concluded that “If Brooklyn is our Berkeley, perhaps Rose Water is our Chez Panisse.”
While Tucker’s core commitments—and therefore many of Rose Water’s suppliers and ingredients—have remained constant, the kitchen has hosted a few chefs over the years. Each toque has a different take, but every chef who has been through the tiny, opendoor kitchen embraces what Tucker calls “a never-ending chase for product.” During all but the coldest months, a piece of slate on the front of the restaurant bears the names of some of the day’s ingredients from Hudson Valley farmer Guy Jones; “Morels, Peas, Strawberries,” for example, or “Sweet Corn, Lavender, Peaches.” (You won’t see the sign this time of year, since apparently not everyone brakes for “Parsnips, Cauliflower, Potatoes.”)
It’s hardly surprising to hear that before opening Rose Water in 2000 Tucker learned the trade as general manager at Peter Hoffman’s seasonally attuned, ingredient-driven Savoy in SoHo (though you might be surprised to learn that prior to that gig he was a regional sales supervisor for Wonder Bread). Tucker passionately seeks area farms that reliably deliver pastured chickens, or a fish monger who can hook him up with sustainable Hawaiian kampachi (rather than, say, local yet over-fished striped bass from Montauk).
The menu (with apps from $8 to $12, mains from $20 to $25, and a weeknight three-course prix fixe for $29) is always in tune with what’s best from here, whether it’s kohlrabi or collards, monkfish or mushrooms. But the dishes bound over borders, from the ubersatisfying duck báhn mi at brunch to a coolly sophisticated yuzu custard for dessert. The same approach shapes the wine list, where organic practices and artisanal production are in the majority and value-conscious bottles from the Loire rub shoulders with earthy reds from the Finger Lakes and flinty whites from Long Island.
An avid oenophile, Tucker updates the wine list almost as often as the dinner menu. And his family shares their South Slope home with a climate-controlled wine room. Designed to hold 90 cases, the space currently runneth over with closer to 150. Presumably, the family is used to that exuberance. It’s what allows Tucker to keep the restaurant open seven nights a week plus weekend brunch. It gives him the energy—barely—to attend his sons’ five different sports games on Saturday mornings (two of which he coaches). And it drives him to volunteer with local food education initiatives including Days of Taste, a program that pairs him with a fourth-grade class each fall.
“I always try to make sure there’s a whole pig hanging in the walk-in to freak the kids out when they come tour the restaurant,” he says with a laugh. “Then we talk about how we honor the whole animal, and where it comes from.” A natural teacher, he obviously relishes the opportunity to showcase his values in all their deliciousness.
While you can stop in for nothing more than a plate of potato pancakes and still come away with a memorable taste of what Rose Water is all about—the golden latkes are accompanied by za’atar-spiced labneh and quince—the Chef’s Tasting Menu is the immersion course. “I’m not sure we make any money on the tasting menu,” Tucker sighs, “but we feel like it shows off the restaurant.” He has the same tone in his voice when you get him on the subject of square footage.
“The restaurant is a painfully small space. Back in 2000, I knew the earning potential would never make me a rich man.” He leased it regardless, because it had a great feel. “I thought, ‘I could come here every day and I’ll always love coming in.'” As it turns out, he has, and he does. And so do we.
Poached Egg on Parsnip Puree with Fancy Mushrooms
By Rose Water Chef Marcellus Coleman
We love this recipe in winter when just about all that’s left of local farmers’ harvests is what’s in their root cellars. Add a fresh egg and some mushrooms and you’ve got an earthy, warming belly filler. A good egg is key—try to use eggs from the Greenmarket, the fresher the better!
2 large parsnips, peeled and diced
1 c. plus 2 T. heavy cream
1⁄2 c. water
1 t. unsalted butter
pinch of salt
Simmer all ingredients in a saucepan until parsnips are completely tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, transfer to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth.
2 lbs. mix of Maitakes, Black Trumpets, Honshimejis, Trumpet Royale or other flavorful mushrooms
2 T. vegetable oil
pinch of salt
2 c. vegetable stock
2 T. unsalted butter
3 sprigs fresh thyme
fine herbs to garnish (such as parsley, chives, chervil or tarragon)
Sauté mushrooms in oil and salt over medium-high heat until mushrooms start to brown and soften, about 4 minutes. Add stock, butter and thyme; cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid reduces to a glossy, stew-like consistency, about 4 more minutes. Remove thyme sprigs. Add herbs.
optional garnish: torn anise hyssop leaves, salad burnet or fennel seeds
Bring a pot of water to a simmer and add vinegar. Carefully crack eggs into water and cook approximately 3 minutes for soft eggs, 4 for harder eggs. (We like them soft with this dish.)
Zoe Singer is a native Brooklynite, freelance food writer and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Though she has already given birth, she still blogs for FitPregnancy.com and eats for two.