As cooking methods go, grilling may be the ultimate American art form. But New York restaurants, hamstrung by tight urban quarters (and by the Building and Fire Departments), rarely explore its smoky, greaseless, flame-licked potential. St. Anselm in Williamsburg may be the city's most impressive exception.
A few months back, the restaurant morphed from New Jersey--style burger-and-dog shack to upmarket grill house. Owner Joe Carroll, who runs Spuyten Duyvil next door and Fette Sau across the street, had struggled without a liquor license to make the first concept work.
Its new incarnation---finally greenlit for beer and wine---looks much like the old one, the dust-bowl collection of rusty saw blades on the walls and light fixtures supplemented now with banners from an old Masonic temple. But the food these days is much more ambitious than cheese fries and artisanal brats.
Carroll, who swapped out the griddle and fryer for a blazing gas grill, has taken to calling the place a "blue-collar steakhouse," but that's not quite right. There are just two steaks on the menu, and while the charred hanger has great earthy flavor, the more eclectic offerings are much more the draw.
The well-rounded menu, heavy on veggies, combines Mediterranean, Asian and all-American flavors---the cooking method ties it all together. Head chef Yvon de Tassigny (also the pit master at Carroll's barbecue joint) has given the grill here a starring role. Among the many delicate "smalls from the grill," as the menu describes them, are charred fresh sardines with ponzu and pickled lotus root, littleneck clams drizzled in rich garlic butter, and miniature fire-roasted eggplants with fried goat cheese and honey. It's all smart and sophisticated but soulful, too.
The grill touches nearly every hot dish, and many cold ones, too---even the most unlikely ingredients benefit from at least a quick sear. A big, bracing salad of pea greens and long beans comes with delicious, smoky slabs of grilled halloumi. A bright spin on caprese combines creamy burrata with Greenmarket tomatoes kissed by the flames.
The main-event proteins, meanwhile, are just gilded enough to be interesting but not so encumbered you can't taste the grill. There's cool, minty yogurt enhancing a beautiful thick-cut lamb saddle, and garlic-steeped butter on a gorgeous whole trout. The super-succulent sweet-tea--brined chicken is just as straightforward, despite the provocative presence of its head and feet---the golden, butterflied bird is splayed all by itself on a plate. The steakhouse idiom is most evident here in the la carte setup: The cheesy creamed spinach gratin, panfried mashed potatoes, and cauliflower grilled with balsamic and soy are all separate orders.
The single-minded focus on grilling, so effective elsewhere, is taken a step too far when it comes to dessert. Don't be tempted by the amateur-hour deconstructed strawberry s'more---grilled fruit and marshmallows with chocolate sauce and graham-cracker crumbs---or by the grilled Nutella and robiola cheese sandwich. There's no pastry chef here, and it shows.
De Tassigny may be a klutz with the sweet stuff, but he sure is an ace on the grill, adding wood chips like seasoning, moderating heat so the sear is always right for the job. St. Anselm, as a result, is something brand new in New York: a serious modern restaurant where grilling comes first.
Eat this: Eggplants with fried goat cheese, grilled tomato and burrata, grilled sardines, tea-brined chicken, grilled trout, lamb saddle
Drink this: There are just a handful of beers on tap here---try the light and floral saison from Pretty Things brewery ($7). The more-substantial wine list includes draft glasses like a funky, fruity Gotham Projects ros ($7), along with an impressive, offbeat collection of whole and half bottles. The Over & Over ($48) from Channing Daughters on the North Fork is a beautiful, velvety red---and a great match for meat, fish and fowl.
Sit here: While there are counter stools offering a view of the chefs at the grill, the communal fare is much better suited to an actual table. The best seats are at the biggest tables, with room to spread out up front near the windows.
Conversation piece: The restaurant tried out three grills before settling on the gas model that works in this space. The first, a wood-fired one, filled the whole room with smoke (as well as the apartments upstairs). The second, with charcoal, got a thumbs-down from the Department of Health.