Despite recent alarms rung by the CDC, the city of New York is quaking with eagerness to wriggle out of COVID’s constrictive yoke. Spring is upon the land, vaccines have been found and bars closed for the winter have reopened. One of these is the Rookery, a Bushwick bar that has Britain and the West Indies in its DNA, Premier/Champions league soccer beaming from the TV and a menu of humbly-priced, well-executed pub food stocking its larder.
The West Indies influence comes from Shana Schmitz, who, along with Jamie Schmitz, owns the Rookery with a few other partners. Shana was born in New York to a Jamaican mother and a father from Dominica, an English-speaking Caribbean island not to be confused with the Dominican Republic. Her’s is one of many cultural fibers woven together when the pair first opened the Rookery eight years ago.
Jamie’s own heritage provides another: the son of a British mother and American father, his Scottish maternal grandfather served in the Royal Navy — a few nautical touches and several flags, Scottish, English and the union jack, attest to this varied heritage.
“It took us five years to find a spot,” Jamie remembered, speaking to me from his bar’s leafy, sun-dappled front patio, newly equipped with wooden booths. “We didn’t want to take over an existing space; we didn’t want to be a part [of gentrification].”
Searching for a name with which to christen their bar, Shana and Jamie chose one that, like most other things in the bar, evoked the British Isles.
“[The Rookery] was an East London neighborhood, called that because it was packed by ‘noisy’ Irish immigrants,” explained Schmitz. “And then the idea of a bunch of ravens meeting in the tree and having fun together seemed to fit.”
Riding shotgun on The Rookery’s rebirth is chef Cesar Botello, a former sous at the Spotted Pig, the now-infamous West Village gastropub that shuttered following a wide-reaching sexual harassment scandal just two months shy of the pandemic’s onset.
You can see the Pig’s influence on Botello‘s updated menu, which he says has been paired down to scale better with the cramped kitchen, which can only comfortably fit two cooks. There are two burgers on the menu, one of which (“The Blues Burger,” $19) features roquefort cheese, once the centerpiece of Spotted Pig-chef April Bloomfield’s flagship entree. (Similarities end there, though — Bloomfield’s take was a spartan affair, whereas Botello adds lettuce, tomato, aioli and bacon to his.)
But I decided to forgo the blue cheeseburger and opted instead for “the Rookery burger” ($18), which Botello has enhanced with pickled green tomatoes and an herbed aioli that has almost narcotic powers. It’s a delicious bruiser completed by an ever-so-slightly buttery brioche bun, sourced locally from Grimaldi’s, right around the corner in Ridgewood. Both it and the blue cheese burger come with golden fries like fat thumbs, a far cry from the impossibly thin shoestring fries constantly underfoot in the West Village.
Any other overlaps with Bloomfield’s extinct institution are merely instances of parallel evolution due to a shared fondness for the British Isles. For inspiration, the Rookery looks almost as much to the Caribbean as it does to the U.K.
The West Indies is repped by, among other items, an oxtail Sloppy Joe. Where the iteration on the Rookery’s old menu was braised in stock, Botello lends the dish a more burgundian flare with the addition of red wine. Then he nukes the whole kit-and-kaboodle, lightly, with scotch bonnet peppers.
Another dish with even stronger island overtones is the curried lamb, a staple of Jamaican cuisine which would have normally featured goat if not for Botello’s executive decision favoring a different protein.
Other Botello creations include a burrata salad armed with mission figs, cherry tomatoes, basil and pistachio (expect those accompaniments to change seasonally), and an appetizer of deviled eggs topped with fresh tongues of bright orange uni.
Fashioning the drink menu at the Rookery are the Miceala Cimino (wine, primarily) and Carles Velez (cocktails), both of whom have been with the Rookery for years. In what seems not like just a cost-cutting strategy but an ethical choice, Velez takes a “snout-to-tail” approach to drink preparation, although maybe “root-to-branch” is more appropriate.
“We have a ‘limoncello’ spritz where we use every part of the clementine,” said Velez, who stood with wine director Cimino, owner Schmitz and me at the stainless steel, horseshoe-shaped bar. “We even infuse the gin with clementine leaf.”
“We also do a housemade gin and tonic,” chimed in Cimino.
Velez nodded: ”With our own tonic water. We also have a spritz with a banana leaf-infused rum and a homemade banana liqueur. It’s a different flavor, the [banana] leaf, it has a grassier, peppery taste.”
The Barcelona native shrugged and smiled, adding, “But we have our Tecate and shot for 6 bucks, too.”
The cocktails themselves aren’t expensive either, at least for Brooklyn: between $10-13, while well drinks go for around $7. Glasses of wine go for $8 or $9 and bottles range from $32-$44.
Maintaining an egalitarian price point is at the core of what Schmitz considers his establishment’s founding ethos: fostering as wide a swath as the Bushwick community as possible.
“We’re a pub where anybody can come in and get something that makes them happy, whether it’s a tecate and a shot, a scotch, a beautiful cocktail, a burger or some elevated pub grub,” said Schmitz. “It’s that thing of New York: where a banker can sit next to a starving artist. The common places are where that happens and it’s important to curate that.”
Like so many other bars and restaurants in New York during the pandemic, the Rookery almost didn’t weather last year’s storm and this past winter. But, partly thanks to a flexible landlord, they have, albeit with ruffled feathers.
“Everything was piling up, I was terrified, and the only way to manage it was to look forward and do what makes me feel really good,” said Schmitz. “I wanted to have the feeling I had when I first opened the Rookery.”
“We had this beautiful old birch that had been here since we opened. It died last year. It was almost a metaphor for what was happening. It was really sad. So we planted this cherry tree. It’s going to flower soon, the buds are already starting to come out.”
Top photo credit: Matt Fink.
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