New to Brooklyn since last month, Café Mars is self-billed as “an unusual Italian restaurant.” It should become the norm.
The Gowanus spot, which began simmering into existence on the Resident rotating chef circuit last summer, is the neighborhood destination to beat—near or far—replete with housewarming party hospitality, style, an excellent menu and more perspective than I’ve seen anywhere else this year. Café Mars is just tremendously itself.
Arrive a few minutes before your reservation and you might wait in the picture window seat with your back to Third Avenue, then be invited to order a drink; a clever gesture that everybody wins. Ahead, the bar is to the right and a row of booths is to the left, all a little retro-future spaceship-adjacent. A smaller room is farther back, brick-lined with a bouncy, cerulean, wall-to-wall banquette and a partial view of the even smaller backyard expected to open this summer. There’s room for 55 throughout.
My perpetual date and I were sat in that middle section on a recent evening, fast enough for the radioactive blue-hued Sonic Rickey ($15) that I’d ordered up front from the cocktail menu’s “new tails” section to meet us at the table. The vodka, gin and lime cordial means business listing “blue razz” as its first ingredient, and, though its freeze pop-reminiscent sweetness isn’t to my taste, its assertiveness is delightful. More standard sips like martinis and smartly listed wines recalibrate back to an elder palate.
The jell-olives ($11) are boozy, too: four Castelvetranos suspended in orange Negroni cubes. The textures and bittersweet notes are jubilantly paired. I’ll order the novel snack again for newcomers as a shorthand introduction to the place, though I’ll probably abstain from my own bite, as the dish pronounces itself the first time without beckoning return. But enough of the nompliments.
Café Mars’ housemade pastas are out of this world. The baked potato gnocchi’s ($26) flavors are giddily just what they sound like, the sum of baked spuds plated in a butter sauce with roasted garlic sour cream, charred broccoli, pickled pepperoncini, bacon bits, chives and mozzarella. Co-chef Paul D'Avino mentioned Wendy’s erstwhile form as a reference point in response to a fact-checking email—a citation as apt as it is nostalgic.
The “waves,” ($27) hearty, Slinky-like ridged curls, are perfectly firmly soft, served with plump, sea-fresh shrimp, slivers of asparagus and bright, thin Calabrian chile slices. None of Café Mars' four noodle plates are large, but this one is closest to an entrée.
A pork rib Parm ($36), however, appropriately listed among the menu’s “big” options, is as richly decadent as it is substantial. St. Louis-cut swine is cold-smoked, steamed and roasted, bread crumb-coated, fried to order, blanketed in red sauce and mozzarella, broiled and presented pierced with an upright steak knife alongside a tangle of cold spaghetti salad that all together evokes particularly delicious, and wonderfully unusual, picnics in the park.
The Vibe: Housewarming party in a stylish, retro-future space.
The Food: Unique snacks like Castelvetrano jell-olives, terrific, if petite, pastas, and bigger knockout swings like the smoked pork rib parm.
The Drinks: In an uncommon act of generosity, seated guests are welcomed with a presentation of fancy glasses soon poured with a complimentary drink, which might be prosecco or a zero-ABV alternative. Wine, beer, cocktails and sake are also available for purchase.
Cafe Mars is located at 272 Third Avenue in Brooklyn. It is open Wednesday-Thursday from 5:30pm to 9pm, Friday-Saturday from 5:30pm to 10pm and Sunday from 3pm to 6:30pm.