Rona Davis had a dream and left her dusty job as some kind of assistant in the city to pursue it. The child of Guyanese immigrants, Davis is a lifetime striver and sits pleasantly, amicially inside her debut creation: a now year-old, 60-seat bistro on Knickerbocker Avenue called, with relieving frankness, 191 Knickerbocker. It is, perhaps, this side of Bushwick’s only real major thoroughfare. The restaurant is situated a few blocks shy of Maria Hernandez Park, a little past the flurrying bustle of discount retailers and closer to the rarely occupied record store that also sells graphic novels.
The food comes courtesy of her business partner, husband and kitchen chief, the pleasant Jesse Davis, who is serious about food but permanently relaxed. The dream of Rona and Jesse had begun when they met while she was bartending at a now shuttered Astoria joint called Locale, where he helmed the kitchens. In a life before then, he was chief chef at a spot called Wild Blue, among the modestly-reviewed restaurants that made up Windows on the World, situated on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. “He was on his way to work that day,” Rona says.
The air of that decade’s FiDi wafts through 191 Knickerbocker’s menu. Baked underneath Davis’ take on “Chicken & Waffles” is a strip of bacon, both cunning and superciliously elegant. I hadn’t, in fact, noticed this addition until my friend pointed it out and I’ve been thinking about that bacon for days. The “Mac & Cheese” is another wholesomely-conceived highlight and comes topped with a crust of gruyere.
These staples, as Rona calls them, reflect her attitude toward food and toward life. “It’s something you know but with a twist,” she says.
Also preserved from his urban chef de cuisine days is the menu’s photogenic stylishness. A walnut-festooned beet salad, which delightfully provides as much salad as beet, is crowned with a breaded medallion of goat cheese. For brunch, mimosas come in herbal flavors that bubble graciously.
Rona says 191 Knickerbocker has regulars already and maybe it does, as she can be seen constantly leaving the kitchen in occasional bursts to hop from table to table to attend to them. Earlier this year, the restaurant made the top 20 ranked restaurants in the city based on Yelp reviews—a strange list mysteriously led by “a quaint cocktail bar” in East Williamsburg called Otis, but one that suggests a sincere fanbase in a neighborhood where places with even more established pedigrees are known to disappear randomly.
A large canvas by one of these returning customers, Julio Cotto Rivera, hangs imposingly over a dining table, part of a new program Rona has started to highlight the art of her restaurant’s fans. “That’s why we came to Bushwick, we wanted to have a place that feels like it is part of a community,” she says.
The stuff that 191 Knickerbocker does best might just be what speaks closest to itself. The “West Indian Fritters” are warm doughy balls of pholourie that are the size of chicken nuggets and come with a bowl of creamed spinach. A perfect treat for warm and crowded streets.
Tuesday – Thursday 4PM–12AM, Friday 4PM–2AM, Saturday 12PM–2AM, Sunday 11AM–9PM, Monday Closed.
Cover image courtesy of @Sharijoy.s.
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