For restaurant reviews in New York, the road ahead is often hard to discern, but in the winter of 2020-21, visibility was so poor that it felt like driving in a blizzard at times. New restaurants were opening, but not in the usual sense; indoor dining has been banned for the second time since the start of the pandemic.
This month of January, for example, Rolo’s began doing business in a corner of the Ridgewood section of Queens as a grocery store, bakery, sandwich shop, and daily slice focaccia joint, with an abbreviated dinner menu for takeout and delivery. Then like now, three chefs, the pastry chef and the general manager had all worked at Gramercy Tavern, which is a lot of power for a restaurant where you couldn’t sit.
The weather was hostile to eating sandwiches on the sidewalk, so one evening in February I had dinner and a bottle of wine was brought to my door. There was wilted cabbage, still flavored with smoke from Rolo’s wood-burning grill, and tender duck confit with mustard spaetzle. I also ordered a bottle of Slovak Riesling – honey-scented, grown on the banks of the Danube and costing only $17 during that brief but glorious period of knotless liquor laws.
The meal helped me imagine this restaurant I hadn’t yet seen as a tribute to Ridgewood’s declining past as a haven for German-speaking and other Central European exiles, a legacy that lives on in the neighborhood. pork stores selling logs of Tyrolean sausage and slices of conifer-smoked Black Forest bacon.
It turned out that I had, at best, a partial view of Rolo. Now that I’ve seen that the place is in full swing, with more than 100 seats at the tables in its bar, another dining room facing the open kitchen and a third in a closed shed on the street, I have to find that Central Europe is minor influence. The pandemic short menu caused me to underestimate the range of the cuisine. It would stand out anywhere, but really stands out in a Ridgewood restaurant which, with its green canvas awnings and Venetian blinds, looks at first glance like a corner tavern where you could come for wings and a pint while watching the Mets.
Howard Kalachnikoff, Rafiq Salim and Paul Wetzel are in charge of the kitchen, preparing dishes that travel the world at will but most often hover over Italy.
Rolo’s contribution to the tradition of Ridgewood pork products is a homemade bologna. What the restaurant calls wood-fired polenta bread turns out to be a wheel of flatbread about six inches in diameter. The polenta gives the inside a creamy sweetness you won’t find in many pizzas, but the crust arrives with the puffy outer lip and charred blisters you expect from a Neapolitan pizza.
The toppings can also look like pizza, as in the model that glistens with a firefighter red layer of Calabrian chili butter. Again, they may not be; the wonderfully fragrant round of bread coated in sesame seeds and ground and dried oregano in olive oil obviously descends from manaeesh, a bread from another corner of the Mediterranean.
In fact, it may be more helpful to think that the polenta bread at Rolo is basically Middle Eastern. A loaf or two could become the centerpiece of a mezze course: boiled chickpeas on a puddle of garlicky tahini, for example, or, more excitingly, crispy half-moons of spicy carrot pickles, crunchy with crushed cilantro and a bowl of milky stracciatella sprinkled with sumac and Turkish silk peppers. (It’s the same chile that was one of Aleppo’s top exports before that city was devastated by Syria’s civil war.)
Pasta is always on the menu, such as rigatoni in a crunchy red and green pesto of tomatoes and chopped pistachios. There’s an admirable attempt at lasagne bolognese made with two long, thin boards of green pasta that the wood-fired oven sears in some places and leaves tender in others. The night I got it, only the insufficiently seasoned meat stew inside kept the whole package from being a complete success.
That’s not a complaint anyone will make about much of Rolo’s cooking, which tends toward bright, punchy flavors. The dry-style Szechuan cabbage – fried, grilled, and sprinkled with powdered Szechuan peppercorns and other spices – is convincing exactly as I imagine the Mala Doritos sold in Asia must be. Grilled chicken stacked on garlic bread gets an enticing layer of sweet heat from a pepper relish made with Fresno peppers.
The most interesting thing to come out of the kitchen, oddly enough, may be a side dish of potatoes. The starting point is the Dutch treatment of french fries called patatje oorlog, which translates to “war fries”. Rolo’s uses fried potato wedges with the skin on instead of regular fries, and while they’re very crispy and great on their own, you might not remember them if they weren’t buried under raw onions, an Indonesian peanut sauce and an amount of mayonnaise you rarely see outside of a jar.
By day, Rolo’s pastry chef and baker, Kelly Mencin, makes sticky, lightly caramelized Zeeuwse bolusses, Dutch cinnamon rolls and other treats, as well as the focaccias that have helped Rolo through the pandemic. In the evening, his desserts are simple, sensible and neat: a pie with a brown butter crust and filled with cherries, or a cross between a sundae and a pavlova that serves as a showcase for winter citrus fruits.
Some first impressions I got from the Slovak Riesling that Rolo delivered were unwarranted. The list is not an ode to the Danube, and nothing is still as cheap as $17. (About half of the roughly 100 bottles cost between $50 and $70.) I wasn’t wrong, however, to think that someone with an eye for value and remote areas was in charge. Ben Howell, the general manager, rounded up all the cool appellations, and a few just waiting to be left in the club, before handing the keys to the cellar to Harrison Weiss.
Of course, a $44 Muscat won’t seem cheap to everyone. As Chris Crowley reported last year in Grub Street, Rolo’s has been a flashpoint for neighbors who fear that it and other new businesses will help push rents in Ridgewood out of reach for working-class and middle-class families.
One of Rolo’s owners, Stephen Maharam, is a partner in local property development firm Kermit Westergaard. The two men own the building in Rolo, along with Mr. Kalashnikoff, Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Salim. Mr Westergaard, who owns a number of other buildings nearby, including the one where he lives, is following a pattern familiar in many cities: buying, renovating and installing ground-floor businesses that make the area more attractive for people who can afford the new rents.
We are used to chefs and restaurateurs opening in neighborhoods where rents are cheaper; it’s one of the secrets of longevity in business. But a growing number are putting their reputation, talent and workforce at the service of developers whose idea of building a neighborhood might conflict with the desire of the people who live there to continue living there.
In his defense, any business that manages to be as busy and popular as Rolo can be a boon to street life, making the area safer than a vacant storefront. But as more developers call, restaurants should keep in mind that they risk being complicit in the negative aspects of gentrification — more than that, they also risk making their customers complicit. You can have a full house and lose sight of the entire community, just as you can eat a delicious meal and only have a partial view of a restaurant.
What do the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not rated by stars.