An Accidental Chef Makes Magic on Metropolitan

Behind the scenes at Williamsburg’s Roebling Tea Room.

If I had to pick the best under-the-radar restaurant in the whole damn city, my vote would go to Roebling Tea Room, the soaring-ceilinged space with the brilliant neon sign and the funky fox trot wallpaper on the corner of Roebling Street and Metropolitan Avenue.

It’s not because the restaurant is unknown—it is the hangout where the neighborhood’s best cooks (the Meat Hook boys; the girls of Saltie) belly up after work at the green-tiled bar for $2 Cream Ales and steak tartare dotted with Kewpie mayonnaise and fried chickpeas slipping their papery skins.

And it’s not because the place is empty: Roebling’s plain wooden tables are filled with rotating regulars who come to see what chef Dennis Spina has on his relentlessly tweaked menu: tubby housemade ravioli filled with egg and dusty black beluga lentil puree on one night; with sunchoke, radicchio and ricotta on another. And on weekends it’s beyond chaotic, with brunchers downing salt cod hash and duck-sauce-dressed bittergreens, or chicken-fried steak with white gravy and Roebling’s beautifully browned buttery biscuits.

In fact, the wide-windowed place is filled with the ultrahip even on Tuesdays, diners drawn in by fat, salty grassfed Meat Hook burgers or orange-streaked crocks of mac and cheese, all washed back with a Crazy Owl, Roebling’s name for a martini garnished with whatever Spina is pickling that week.

No, the Roebling Tea Room isn’t wanting for love or lacking in company. It’s just that the food that comes out from this kitchen (comically small in a place that’s so large) is so righteously good we can’t imagine why the place isn’t on every frenzied foodie’s lips. It might be because Spina is a quiet, fuzzy-bearded guy from western New Jersey with an art degree and no real culinary experience before a former bandmate tapped him to help open the restaurant back in 2005. He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously—“our meat is on a program,” jokes his menu—but I sure do: As I see it, his (sometimes quirkily) wonderful food is worthy of travels not just from Park Slope or Carroll Gardens, but from Manhattan and beyond, too.

Spina would be the first to tell you his cooking—vaguely French or vaguely Italian, mostly farm-to-table and modern American—is similar in spirit to Diner’s, a place where he loved to eat, especially when it was run by founding chef Caroline Fidanza (who was also, it should be noted, the former girlfriend of the guy who originally hired him to cook). “She was so fucking incredible,” he says. “I’m just ripping off Fidanza, I’m just stealing from her.” Fidanza likely wouldn’t agree. “We were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” she once said of first tasting his food so many years ago: “He’s amazing.”

Fidanza wasn’t the only one to be surprised by Spina’s culinary artistry. In fact, the idea that Roebling is today considered a restaurant at all is still a shock to Syd Silver, a former riot-grrrl rock star who opened the place by herself six years ago. She had no restaurant experience—other than being fired from East Village dish-washing and hostess jobs—and no real business plan. A Brooklyn native and the former bassist for the Lunachicks (where she was known as Squid), she’d quit music to become a tattoo artist but wasn’t happy in the job. “I had to change my life,” she says. She was in her early 30s and living on South Fourth Street, just around the corner from Diner. And from her point of view, running some kind of business like that looked like it might be fulfilling.

Back then, she was originally envisioning a simple coffee shop-type place to serve the then still quiet Southside of Williamsburg, eventually settling on a selection of some of the world’s best teas because she realized she didn’t know anything about coffee. She started looking for a small storefront, losing one lease after the other on Bedford Avenue while simultaneously maxing out her credit cards and borrowing money from friends. So when a real estate agent showed her a “giant raw space with no toilet” on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue—then a long, lonely trek from the heart of hip Williamsburg—she took it, doing much of the sawing, spackling and grouting herself on the 1,800-square-foot space after a contractor fell through. (Bands still practice on the ground level, their works in progress providing the occasional vibrating massage beneath your table.)

All along Silver had been begging local chefs she didn’t then yet know—Caroline Fidanza among them—to come on and be her business partner, or at least help out in the kitchen. They’d all turned her down until Fidanza’s then-boyfriend, Stephen Tanner, walked in in the early days 2005, having quit her kitchens at Diner. He was in the process of planning the original incarnation of the now famous Pies-N-Thighs, and was looking for short-term work. Ever the slacker-chef, he brought his music buddies in to help him, Dennis Spina among them.

By then Silver had a small menu already planned with the assistance of a cook at Dumont down the road—a fig and ricotta crostini still remains, as does a salad Fidanza eventually donated—but Tanner had other plans.

“He gang-busted in and started cooking all this crazy food,” says Silver of his fried chicken dinners and herring sandwiches and braised meats, which immediately became more popular than Roebling’s lengthy list of teas. “I never realized they wanted it to be a restaurant,” Silver says of his customers. “The food just took off instantly.”

So when Tanner left to launch his fried chicken joint in the storage closet of a Williamsburg rock club after just a few months—he’s since left the business, cooking one block down at the Commodore—Silver wanted to keep the kitchen open. She frantically offered the job to the untrained Spina, then working the line. Though only, she remembers, after another line cook had already declined the job. It might seem like a crazy thing to have done, but back then, Spina and Silver recall, Roebling was a crazy place: There was no wait staff, there was no printed menu, there was no discussion of food costs, there was no real kitchen. “You’d call out a name when the food was ready,” says Spina, who then cooked with a panini press, two induction cooktops, a cutting board and some hot plates, setting up shop where bartenders now make drinks on the tile bar Silver grouted herself.

Despite the chaos, Spina proved to be surprisingly good, if not surprisingly fearless. Like Tanner, he started cooking what he wanted: perfecting his burger and mac and cheese at first, perhaps, but quickly expanding into crazy concoctions like his “chicken” dish, a delicious puzzle of bird in a bowl. It’s roasted breast sometimes artily pierced with a tiny drumstick served with a dark meat polpette and a bready dumpling in the chicken-leek broth aptly named “cockaleekie.’ Or there’s his “crayfish pie,” for which live Louisiana crawfish are smashed into a skillet with butter, garlic and Old Bay, covered with a yeast-risen dough and roasted till their shells turn red. Inverted onto a plate—“it looks like a fossil,” says Spina approvingly—it requires puzzled diners to pinch tail and suck head.

While Spina largely gets to do what he wants in the kitchen, over time he and Silver (who spent time away from the business to have two children) have learned how to run a restaurant along the way. Over the past six years they’ve added wait staff, a business manager, a gas line and moved the kitchen from the middle of the bar to behind closed doors, even though it’s still tiny. (Though the walk-ins still sit in what’s technically the backyard.) Spina, who these days wears chef’s whites, will soon become a real partner, and despite its name, the restaurant is in the process of dropping its massive list of teas to add more wine and cocktails, also Spina creations. And any day now the long-standing row of comfy brown leather couches in the back—perfect for a teahouse, but impractical for a dining room—will be replaced with a long communal table and a second bar. In many ways Spina and Silver have grown up with the neighborhood: Back when it was still nowheresville it made sense to lounge around drinking tea as some sweatshirted guy cooked off a hot plate on the counter; but now diners seeking real dinner service drop in from their half-million-dollar studio condos nearby.

Luckily for them, these days there’s also a very real menu: Each afternoon Spina sits at a picnic table in the back of the restaurant, scribbling on the previous night’s plain-typeface print-out, making changes based on what he has on hand or what did or didn’t work, sometimes tasting a dish in its updated form for the first time only after it’s actually ordered. (“We don’t really test things,” he shrugs.) Pickled carrots go from a side for the corned duck to a garnish for fried hake and hominy fritters paired with dark chile salsa and a dollop of Hellman’s; the leftover duck gets slivered into the scallops. (You can see how far Spina pushes the printing each day based on the time stamp at the top of the page: One recent Thursday’s read 5:12pm.)

In hotter weather there’s sometimes a tower of thick-cut multicolored tomatoes—some battered and fried, some fresh, some green, all drizzled with creamy remoulade—the Jenga-like mess collapsing under the poke of your fork. And if it’s summer you’re after, try a bowl of Spina-style panzanella when it’s on the menu—a craggy crater of toasted bread floating in a tomato and olive oil broth.

His other salads are also stellar: Purple beets and sprightly greens from Hudson Valley farmer Guy Jones, with blue cheese and a mix of nuts and seeds Spina calls “trail mix”; pink grapefruit with bitter feathery fronds of chicory with feta and super-sweet dates. His pastas are superb, too: spaghetti slathered with backyard-herb- and-almond pesto, potatoes and radicchio; fresh sheets cut into handkerchiefs and sauced in a puree of garlic and kale.

His “stone bass” is a slab of sweet flesh sourced from Pierless Fish down the street, served with a creamy Spanish-inflected bread, almond sauce and threads of saffron plucked from a battered old tin. It’s scattered with “cracked” olives (Spina pits them, marinates them with dried chiles and smashes them by hand) and “exploded” red cherry tomatoes, the fruits tossed into a sizzling cast-iron skillet so they burst, releasing their sweet juice. A fried fish hoagie, meanwhile, might be layered with battered porgy and whole skinny smelts that poke out from the bun at odd angles, the double-stacked sandwich topped with pickled peperoncini and shaved escarole.

If you ask this chef how he came to be so good without any training, he’ll likely just give you yet another shrug, saying something about always loving to cook. “Everyone in my family said I should go to culinary school,” says Spina, who grew up in a Sicilian clan in a “hoity-toity” semi-rural New Jersey town and claims he learned how to do what he does mainly from reading cookbooks and stealing ideas from other chefs he admires. “I think I found my niche,” he says with characteristic understatedness of his accidental career. “This is what I am meant to be doing.”

Rachel Wharton is Edible Brooklyn’s deputy editor. Funnily enough, she has never once ordered tea at Roebling Tea Room, but she will miss those couches.   

Each afternoon Spina sits at a picnic table in the back of the restaurant in his chef’s whites, scribbling on the previous night’s plain typeface print-out, making changes based on what he has on hand or what did or didn’t work, sometimes tasting a dish in its updated form for the first time only after it’s actually ordered. (“We don’t really test things,” he shrugs.)

Something’s Brewing. Roebling’s regulars came not for pots of Lapsang Souchong but for signatures like crawfish pie, chicken with dark meat meatballs and cockaleekie.

Spina specialty. For crayfish pie, the chef crushes live crustaceans into a skillet with butter, garlic and Old Bay, covers them in yeasted dough, and roasts them until the shells turn red.

Photo credit:  Michael Harlan Turkell.

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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.