Here’s a story you might have heard before: man comes to big city, gets a cool job in Manhattan, but wants to do his own thing, moves to Williamsburg. The rent proceeds to get too high (who would have known!) and now he’s sandwiched between a rock climbing gym and an empty high-rise, between the far end of Bushwick and the border of Queens. The man is Joaquin Baca and his latest venture is Teo.
Teo is an izakaya joint, a Japanese style pub. The new venue just opened inside a shoe box next to a tarped-over rent raiser in waiting. Teo follows Brooklyn Star, which Baca abandoned when the rent on Lorimer Street became too high. Brooklyn Star was Baca’s break from his long tenure as the “not-quite-equal partner” of Momofuku celebrity chef David Chang, who nowadays is making the noodle bar a Bourdain-esque food pundit.
Baca’s latest menu easily brings to mind Momofuku’s reputation. Baca updated his fusion combos, while keeping in mind small plate minimalism. If Brooklyn Star was a way for Baca to utilize the vulgarity of southern chic to distance himself from pork buns and fried cauliflower, Teo is a psychoanalytic reconciliation with the whirlwind of GQ interviews.
Ramen returns to Baca’s palette, available in three varieties (duck leg, pork shoulder and seaweed, $15), with his seaweed option making a serious and thick-leaved risposte to Chang’s old school anti-vegetarian agenda. Though these days, Chang has turned to Silicon Valley for meat alternatives. Cauliflower appears again in puree form and staked on a kabob ($5). Neo-Southern fixtures also register their own protest in his menu: Short ribs are accompanied by spam fried rice and cornmeal is fried over a plate of oysters.
The most eye-catching of these inventions is Baca’s take on an okonomiyaki pancake ($14), which arrives with the elegance of an ornamental crown that quickly collapses into an umami puddle once eagerly prodded at. Deposits of roe give it a fishy sensibility, but luxuriant mayonnaise and strips of ham make it feel almost like a sandwich. Things that look and sound that good are rarely as good as this. Prices are another route to Chang’s folksy style: you’ll find nothing at Teo over $20; though the selection of kabobs that can be consumed in a single breath feel paltry even for $5 per.
Baca’s return to fashionably inventive fusions gives Teo the feeling of being the latest outpost of a certain kind of Manhattan style Asian cuisine, one might associate with thanks to the neighboring Mission Chinese. However, Baca’s style is less explosive and more self-conscious: his cooks work as the servers.
The cramped space is anchored by a large communal table that takes up most of the seating area. Seating gets tough without a reservation.
Teo is unsure if it wants to be a restaurant or a bar, another callback to Manhattan. Although, we are not in Manhattan at all and maybe that makes all the difference in the world.
Teo is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and is located at 321 Starr Street, Brooklyn, NY 11237, right off the Jefferson L train stop.