While we here at Epicure & Culture love farm-to-table ventures, there’s no denying the concept has been talked about to death. That’s why it’s always exciting to find delicious venues taking the “eat local” philosophy above and beyond what most are doing, immersing their guests in a world of delicious sustainability — from the food to the drinks to the furniture — and executing it in a way that makes their guests think beyond what’s on their plates.
This was my experience during a recent dinner at Black Tree, a conscious eatery sourcing all ingredients from within 300 miles (483 kilometers) located in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood. As soon as I sit down at the table — crafted from wood reclaimed from a 1920s bowling alley and held up by poles made from a recycled car axle — and begin perusing the menu, I know this isn’t your type eatery.
The first section of the regularly rotating menu that catches my eye is the “Featured Whole Animal.” Each week, Black Tree features a different whole animal, killed about a week or less prior, trying to use every part of the body and not letting anything go to waste. This means at any given time you may find whole pig head terrine or tongue and kidney tacos on the menu. While to some this may sound odd, we suggest you give it a try, as you’re not only doing your part to let nothing go to waste, you also may discover a new favorite dish.
Explains Sandy Hall, one of the co-founders of Black Tree along with Macnair Sillick, “I decided to just use whole foods, nothing hidden. I wouldn’t say the recipes are simple as most have many layers, but I wanted to focus on the taste of whatever the person was eating and not on how done up you can make something.”
The next thing I noticed was the drink menu, specifically the Pickle Back list.
“I pickle a lot of things at Black Tree in order to balance out a lot of dishes, and so I have a lot of brine left over,” says Hall. “The Pickle Back menu kind of created itself, and I thought it would be fun to feature some of our local liquors paired with different pickle flavors.”
Some pairing examples include the “Red Beer & Industry Standard Vodka,” “Apricot & Suerte Blanco Tequila,” “Pear & Barr Hill Gin” and “Watermelon & Due North Rum,” to name a few. This is listed over a seasonal selection of house-made bitters like Green Coffee Bean, Vineyard Concord Grape, Rhubard, Oak Grove Scotch Bonnet and Strawberry that can be added to soda or infused into a modern “Old Fashioned” cocktail — all served in a recycled wine bottle bottom.
This isn’t the only cocktail on the menu, as there is a list of drinks infused with local spirits — almost all of the beer, wine and spirits are sourced from New York, and all are domestic. This includes a “Dulce Vida Organic” tequila from Texas and a “Suerte” tequila from Colorado. One way to experience this unique variety of tequila is through their “Camp Chippewa Margarita” on the rocks, featuring “Dulce Vida Blanco Tequila,” Bittermans Citron Sauvage, P&H Grapefruit and garden lemon verbana. And for those who like a twist of lemon or a garnish of lime with their drinks, understand Black Tree doesn’t serve citrus and it’s not grown within their 300 mile radius.
While many restaurants focus on pairing food with wine, Black Tree decided to take a different approach — although you will find a selection of about five wines on tap, some of which include “Gotham Project Rose,” “Bridge Lane Red Blend” and “Sparkling White.” Instead, they focus on beer and how that can work well with your meal.
“The large format beer serves as our wine list because there are myriad beers that only get bottled and they are just as diverse as wines are,” explains Hall. “So we figured with there being many more local breweries making so many great things, we should feature those.”
With all of these drink offerings, it’s interesting to note that Black Tree began as a pop-up shop in Brooklyn‘s Crown Heights neighborhood serving farm-to-fork sandwiches. The venue was started by Sandy Hall and Macnair Sillick, whose friendship bloomed when living in the same apartment building and sharing their love of basketball. Eventually, they both realized they also shared a love of food, as well as experience in the culinary industry. While they loved dine dining, they also appreciated good food served at an affordable price, which is how the sandwich concept came to be.
The Brooklyn outpost was in operation from April 2012 to September 2013, at which point they decided to expand into their very own full-service restaurant — complete with a well-stocked bar and dishes that go beyond takeaway sandwiches.
My dining companion for the night is my boyfriend, Chris. We’re seated near to the entrance, which opens up to completely remove one wall of the restaurant and let in fresh air. Black Tree is small, with about 35 to 40 seats across seven tables total. I soon learn this is a positive thing if you’re looking to make new friends, as we quickly become pals with the couple sitting next to us (and even get some drink recommendations, as they’re regulars).
It’s hard to choose between delicious-sounding dishes like “Dipalo Burrata” featuring burrata sourced from the local Italian specialty store, DiPalo’s, and served with toasted cibatta bread, olive oil and sea salt, and a “Summer Pig Farm-to-Sandwich” entree made with Rushing Duck Brewing Co. Honey Seeker-braised pork belly, cherry preserves, pickle blueberries, cheddar, and apple and chocolate mint. In the end, I order seven plates of food for a well-rounded dining experience (all in the name of research, of course!). Appetizers range from about $7 to $13, while entrees vary from around $10 to $17 — although the steaks are more like $29 to $48 — so it’s possible for even those on a budget to try a variety of dishes.
Explains Hall about how the concept of Black Tree came to be, “The inspiration comes from wanting to be able to eat local and fresh, and for good food to be accessible. Most farm to table restaurants are expensive and we wanted to have that same thing, but in a way that was affordable. So, we came up with a sandwich concept. It was a way to use the same ingredients of the high end places, but in a manner that wasn’t over extracted and with less overhead involved to keep the price point down.”
First comes the above-mentioned burrata, a delicious semi-soft mozzarella and cream combination drenched in olive oil. Once you bite into the mozzarella, the cream oozes out in a decadent fashion, quickly enhanced by the contrasting salt. It’s so buttery — not surprisingly, “burrata” means “buttery” in Italian — I can almost slurp the flavor-filled starter.
I soon realize I’m eating too quickly as our second appetizer arrives, a “Baby Artichoke Dip.” While I was sort of expecting your everyday spinach artichoke dip, this was something completely different, void of spinach and enhanced by Cabot Creamery cheddar, garlic and the locally-baked ciabatta.
As a spicy-food lover, I am delighted when a long cutting board topped with blistered shishito peppers comes out. They’re sprinkled with smoked sea salt, which adds a fuller taste, as well as olive oil.
And for the final appetizer, the “Black Caesar Salad” showcases purple curly kale, house Caesar dressing and croutons topped with a crispy fried egg. It is hands down the most interesting Cesar Salad I’d ever tasted.
After eating the appetizers, two things become apparent. One, Black Tree seriously knows how to make a few ingredients taste like an explosion of flavors. Take the burrata for instance. I would have sworn there was some kind of spice mixture infused inside; however, the dish was three uber fresh ingredients — burrata, olive oil and sea salt — served fresh with bread from the local Caputo’s Bake Shop, open since 1904. Despite this being the first dish that came out — and I still had six more to go — we still finished every bite.
Two, this food is messy! These guys don’t skimp on the oil, salt and butter — although you can feel good knowing it’s from the high-quality Cabot Creamery dairy cooperative — so I would suggest leaving your best shirt at home and swapping that for a big appetite (portions are hearty!).
When the entrees come I’m definitely full, but not too full to savor some summer pig and the whole animal of the moment, cow, served in burger form. While Chris favors the “Summer Pig” and it’s melt-in-your-mouth pork belly — one item, along with short rib, that’s always on the menu but changes accompaniments with the seasons — I love the “Beef Burger” topped with melted cheddar, house-made ketchup and pickled cherry tomatoes, which give the dish a refreshing yet slightly sour taste. The burger is served rare, which is the temperature Black Tree tries to serve all their burgers as the meat is so fresh. In fact, don’t ask for your burger well done, as the highest they’ll go is medium well, and even that is not recommended as you lose the fresh flavors.
For anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating for the sake of the article, know this: the girl sitting next to me at Black Tree was a vegan, who, after coming in after work a few times for happy hour, was swayed by the sight of the beautifully presented food, the savory scents and the ethical philosophy to have a cheat day…with a 32-ounce Porterhouse Steak.
“If you’re going to ban veganism for a few hours this is the place to do it,” she laughed, as Chris and I gaped wide-eyed at her steak, which was literally the size of a frisbee. “I really don’t regret this right now.”
For dessert I ordered the home-made bread pudding, partially because it’s one of my favorite desserts and partially because it’s topped with olive oil ice cream from my favorite ice cream shop on the planet, Brooklyn-based OddFellows. The dish has an interesting salty-yet-sweet flavor, and is so filling it could be a meal in itself.
My meal at Black Tree not only nourishes, but also provides an education into the world of meat. I’ll admit I’m one to order rare burgers made by trained chefs, but freak out if anything cooked at home isn’t well-done for fear of salmonella poisoning; however, I learn that in reality it’s possible to eat even chicken raw if it’s clean enough.
“Most sickness that comes from meat is derived from cross contamination of other things. If you have an animal that is raised correctly, clean and processed in a good manner you can eat any meat raw,” says Hall.
It’s interesting to note that Black Tree is extremely dedicated to their initial patrons who helped them to succeed when they opened in May 2013, as well as their regular patrons. Adorning walls accented with reclaimed barn wood are antique mirrors holding small black and white snapshots of their most devoted patrons. Moreover, they offer a Mug Club, which, for $125 per year gets you a signature glass, happy hour prices at all times and 20% off all large format beers.
Have you eaten at Black Tree? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.
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