A Brooklyn Landmark Holds Its Head High Again (Published 2021) (2023)

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Restaurant Review

All buffed and polished from the gaslight-era chandeliers to the menu, Gage & Tollner is once again a compelling destination.

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Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Gage & Tollner
NYT Critic's Pick
American;Seafood;Steak Houses
$$$
372 Fulton Street
347-689-3677

Walk along Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn. Ignore the wig shop, the pawnshop, the tattoo parlor, the second-floor dentists, the cellphone stores. Look both ways, twice, and dart across the narrow street, keeping an eye on the double-length buses that shoot by just inches from the curb. You’ll pass sheets of plywood and for-lease signs. When you see two tall white columns holding up a porch, turn in and give the revolving door a shove. It will wheel around and deposit you in the 19th century.

Blink. It’s really true. Gage & Tollner is back.

The graceful chandeliers have gone electric, but their long, curling brass tendrils seem to glow more warmly than they did in the gaslight days, which lasted until the original Gage & Tollner closed in 2004.

Actually, everything about this reincarnation glows. The cherry-wood arches (original), the floorboards (new), the rows of tall mirrors reflecting one another on and on to the vanishing point — they all look better than they did in the 1990s and early 2000s, let alone over the past 17 years when a series of business, each less apt than the last, took over the space: first TGI Fridays, then Arby’s, and eventually a bazaar selling phone cases, plastic bracelets, bras and hair scrunchies. All the brass and woodwork stayed — they had to, because the whole 1892 interior has landmark protection — but toward the end every last detail looked as if it just wanted to be put out of its misery.

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A Brooklyn Landmark Holds Its Head High Again (Published 2021) (2)

It’s not just the interior that shines now, though. Under St. John Frizell, Ben Schneider and Sohui Kim, who took over the lease in 2018 and brought the space back as an oyster and chop house, the whole restaurant radiates confidence, capability and relevance.

The last quality was the most challenging of all. Previous owners seemed to conclude that a gaslit dining room had no place among the ragtag shops of Fulton Mall. The strip was more successful than many people realized, with reliably high rents and heavy foot traffic by day. At night, though, after the shops and offices closed, there were few reasons to visit the area.

An isolated restaurant in a downtown district will always struggle after dark unless it makes an unusually compelling case for itself as a destination. Gage & Tollner, around 2000, did not make that case. Today it does.

The bar used to be an afterthought. Now it shows off some of the things this restaurant does best. Were you thinking about starting with chilled shellfish on ice? You will be once you see all the people at the bar sharing littleneck clams, oysters, shrimp or chilled split lobsters laid out on pebble ice. The raw shellfish are as sparkling and cold as the water in Nova Scotia; the shrimp and lobster are juicy and pink, and delicious with or without the classic cocktail sauce.

Meanwhile, one of the jacketed bartenders will almost certainly be bending over a shaker or holding it in the air. The menu has seven variations on the martini, along with the Rob Roy, the Jack Rose and a dozen other drinks older than Joe Biden. The bar is Mr. Frizell’s department, and the drinks are as historically precise and sensitively proportioned as the ones he was known for mixing at his other business, Fort Defiance, in temporary hibernation in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

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Vintage cocktails seem essential to the historicist approach of Gage & Tollner. Once you have primed a roomful of people with gin bucks and brandy sours, you are halfway to selling them another period piece like devils on horseback (bacon wrapped around dates wrapped around smoked almonds that crackle when you bite into them) or even a thick broiled veal chop (rosy and beefy, though naturally not as beefy as the New York strip, one of the finest grass-fed steaks in the city).

Ms. Kim, the chef, and Adam Shepard, her executive chef, mine at least two eras of the restaurant’s history at once. The Gilded Age, when Gage & Tollner was founded, provides the menu’s backbone. There are Parker House rolls, basted in butter and so pillowy you’d want to stretch out and go to sleep on them if they weren’t served scalding hot.

There are the round bellies of soft-shell clams — the restaurant has always called these “soft clam bellies,” but almost everybody else in the Northeast knows them as steamers — in an intoxicatingly fragrant stew enriched by miso. Even though the torn croutons bobbing in it are too big and rough, the dish is still one of the best things anybody has done with clam broth since the invention of chowder.

The oysters Rockefeller are fairly modern in their lightness and herbaceousness; the dressing couldn’t be further from the typical dark carpet of Pernod-laced spinach purée. Clams casino have become clams Kimsino; the difference is a pinch of minced kimchi that’s as close to subtle as kimchi ever gets. It’s more at home with clams and bacon than it is in the slaw of coarsely chopped kale, which could use another trip through the wood chipper.

The slaw shows up if you order a plate of fried chicken and hush puppies. This dish represents the second major era the kitchen summons up: the period, from 1988 to 1992, when Edna Lewis was its chef.

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Lewis introduced the restaurant’s diners to her style of Black Southern cooking — nuanced, seasonal and deeply particular about freshness. The crab cake, tall and proud, made with perhaps half a pound of crab flesh and almost nothing else except the fried bread crumbs that form its impressively crisp shell, is very much in her spirit. Lewis didn’t send out a soft-cooked egg as a sauce, the way Ms. Kim does, but I think she would have appreciated the purity of it.

The current version of one of Lewis’s most talked-about specialties, a Charlestonian she-crab soup, doesn’t have the tiny dots of red crab roe demanded by old Carolina cooks. It is, however, undeniably rich in crab flavor and so creamy it makes you forget for a moment about friction, gravity and other earthly encumbrances.

The fried chicken is the kind that gets better the more of it you eat. As for the herbed hush puppies, they may remind you, not in a bad way, of falafel.

If you have not recklessly embarked on a tasting of all seven martinis, you can more or less trust-fall into Étienne Guérin’s wine list, which leans toward France and tradition but isn’t dogmatic about it either.

Caroline Schiff, the pastry chef, makes little attempt to unearth forgotten favorites of the Victorian dessert canon. But among the classics she revisits is an extremely compelling cheesecake — made from chèvre, it’s tart, a little salty and a wonderful backdrop for strawberries cloaked with balsamic syrup.

Almost every table seems to get the brown blob the size of a well-fed house cat. This is the baked alaska and chances are you will get it, too. It holds, at its core, chocolate, cherry and mint ice creams, all buried deep within what may be the world’s largest toasted marshmallow.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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