After a long wait, a Brooklyn landmark is back.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
In a city filled with ancient and venerable catering institutions, Gage & Tollner, which began life as an oyster house near the Brooklyn waterfront in 1879, is one of the oldest and most venerable. The dark-toned brasserie-style dining room on Fulton Street was also one of the city’s first iconic interiors (only the New York Public Library and Grant’s Tomb came before it). The original owners sold in 1911, which is a good run for any restaurateur, but according to the restaurant’s informative and museum-quality website, Eugene Tollner continued his daily tours for years before he died on his way to the work at the age of 85. Edna Lewis ran the kitchen there in the late 1980s, and thanks to a series of diligent owners, the rituals of the place have survived – oysters and grilled clams, steaks with all the trimmings, ice cream for dessert – the way they do in an old church as the neighborhood changes around it.
For a decade or so at the start of the years the space went through rough times (the long railroad room was occupied by an Arby’s at one point), but a few years ago a confederation of local restaurateurs Seasoned – St. John Frizell from Red Hook Bar Fort Defiance, and Ben Schneider and chef Sohui Kim, who run Insa to Gowanus – decided to bring the room and its rituals back to life. With the help of an eclectic collection of investors (mustache cocktail specialist David Wondrich is one of them), they polished the vintage gas chandeliers and giant hat hooks and replaced the ceiling with Venetian plaster. They restored the old revolving door to the front, brightened up the spaces between the cherry-wood-trimmed mirrors with an embroidered pattern of golden fruit on the golden age wall, and installed rows of mahogany tables. and dark rattan furniture, as in the old days.
Set in an old brownstone building on a largely empty stretch of Fulton Street, the meticulously crafted result, which was finally unveiled in April after a long COVID delay, looks like something of a marvel. In a time when so many of the city’s great restaurants and bars have closed for good, here’s one that has returned from the dead, and though it’s filled with quirky and heartwarming echoes of the past (you’ll find a 1970s salary (phone next to the bar), the friendly room is animated by a sense of promise and even innovation. I’m pretty sure there weren’t seven styles of martini available at the original restaurant, nor a mellow version of the classic Rob Roy (Frizell and his team mix it up with a Glenlivet slug), and if you call for an order of Chef Kimsino’s signature clams, you’ll find that the baked clams are brightened up, not unpleasantly, with chunks of chopped kimchee.
Kim does a shrewd job of mixing those postmodern touches into a traditional chophouse menu that’s filled, as someone at my table pointed out, with all kinds of things that look good to eat. For the big spenders, these include a variety of frozen seafood options to start with (chilled lobster, caviar, oysters by the dozen), platters of mossy green oysters that Rockefeller served five to a plate for 24. $ and an excellent crab cake in a pool of lemon aioli with the yolk of a single barely poached egg. There are also several well-constructed salads to choose from (get the creamy, anchovy-rich Caesar), a nice pot of folded chicken liver pate with nuts, raisins and lots of schmaltz, and an opulent bowl of that old man. Favorite Low Country is the crab soup, topped with crab roe and cream and served with a small boat of sherry on the side.
Edna Lewis favored a brand of slightly more classic country food during her time at Gage & Tollner (seared quail, bowls of catfish stew), which is perhaps why you can get a good basket of fried chicken. here (brined milk and sprinkled with cornmeal), as well as more traditional comfort foods, such as portions of roasted chicken breast (with buttermilk mashed potatoes), baked sea bass with head, and a pie saucer-sized pork large enough to feed a family of four. The required steaks and chops are also super big, and if you fancy splurging on any of them, I recommend the grandiose, well-charred rib eye, which is priced by the ounce but always ends up. by cost about a third. less than the obsessively aged gourmet prime rib that is all the rage in big palates dining across the river.
Like the older versions of Gage & Tollner, the new one has a pleasantly local flavor. On the evenings I spent the room was filled with people chatting in the Brooklyn newspapers, lonely gentlemen enjoying their chicken dinners at the bar, and groups of alte kakers crawling around in giant orthopedic sneakers with their crumpled paper masks still hanging from their chins. The artfully enjoyable, no-frills desserts from famed Kings County pastry chef Caroline Schiff seem designed with this clientele in mind. You can order simple scoops of ice cream stacked in frozen bowls and assorted cheeses served with “seasonal” jams. There are some great, ready-made cakes and pies (get the chocolate pie with caramel), and if you’re in the party mood, there’s a robust, non-flammable version of that old 19th-century favorite, Baked Alaska. oven, which is as big as a hat box and crusted large waves of meringue.