by Jacque Lynn Schiller
It was frigid in Carroll Gardens the night we visited Buttermilk Channel, so its warm glow as we walked down Court Street provided a welcome beacon. Despite temps below freezing, folks were patiently squeezing in to put their names down for a table, reassurance that the wait must be worth it.
The homey bistro known for its delicious and dependable comfort food has been a neighborhood favorite since opening over two years ago. I pulled up a bar stool and spoke with owner and front-of-house man Doug Crowell about nautical history, cheesy goodness and his ideal meal to combat the recent cold spell.
Tell us a bit about your background, both culinary and where you are from?
Off the bat – I’m not the chef – he’s (Ryan Angulo) back there in the kitchen. My background: I did start in the kitchen. I went to the Culinary Institute of America and got my first job in college cooking at a restaurant in Boston. Just as a side job but I liked it and ended up paying much more attention to cooking than my studies. After graduating I went to CIA and that was fun.
What was it about cooking or the kitchen that you responded to – and kept you from your BU studies?
I’d only had retail jobs up until that point, Stand Bookstore, but then you get a job in the kitchen and it’s just fun. Time flies and everyone is having a good time. You’re not staring at the clock waiting for the end of the night. I went to college to study Journalism and as soon as I got there realized whatever my fantasy about journalism, it was not that. “What am I doing here, anyway?” And for some reason I got obsessed with cooking. I remember calling my parents and telling them about recipes that I tried out that day and they were like, “What are you doing? Why are you spending so much time cooking?” (laughs) But they were very supportive. So I got a job in a kitchen, fortunately at a place where they let me learn a lot of stuff and try a lot of things.
What kind of restaurant was it?
French influenced, fine dining – considerably fancier than this.
Ah, but as a Southerner, I’m always excited to find hushpuppies on a menu!
While we don’t really consider ourselves as Southern, we do have a few things on the menu that cue people: fried pork chicken, grits, the hushpuppies.
Grits too? You don’t find them very often either.
And these are good grits – from Falls Mill in Tennessee. It’s an actual, old school, water-powered mill.
So from Culinary School, what led you here to Brooklyn?
I really enjoyed working in restaurants, the camaraderie of it, food and just the overall spirit of it. I eventually—in the interest of making more money—got a job as a waiter and thought, “Hey, this is fun. This is where I belong.” I love cooking but cooking in restaurants kind of also stressed me out and I didn’t think I’d necessarily be really great at it. I didn’t love the cooking, per se, but I really did love restaurants in general.
You’re a front-of-the-house guy?
Being at the front of the house, this is fun. This is where I belong. I got several waiter jobs then one with Stephen Hanson. I was hired to open Blue Fin then became General Manager of this huge, 400-seat seafood restaurant in the middle of Times Square. That was exciting. And then I moved over to Blue Water Grill, which is another 400-seat seafood restaurant, but in Union Square.
So did the size of those restaurants influence the design here, which is more intimate and cozy?
Because that was so enormous? There’s no question. I wish I could open a Blue Water Grill – if I did that I could retire! After that, there’s no bigger restaurant to run, I didn’t necessarily think I’d run my own place, but here we are. It’s a great neighborhood. Coming from a corporate world I sort of reacted in the opposite direction. “I felt like, I’m going to open a sausage stand and sell really good sausage on the street.” Gradually I came back to my senses. I like service, greeting people as they are sitting down. So eventually I came around to opening a real restaurant.
Are you responsible for the concept of Buttermilk Channel?
I found the space and looked around and thought about what it needed, and basically it’s a bistro. Which is what we essentially are. Then I met Ryan and I said that to him and showed him cookbooks that I like and he came back and said, “Great, here’s a menu.” Several chefs showed me ideas that were wonderful but we had a tasting, and now he’s been with me since day one. It’s absolutely his menu.
You’ve got to tell us about the unusual name.
I’ll show you a map (also on the website) It’s the water that runs between Brooklyn and Governor’s Island. There are a few stories that all relate to the dairy farmers who used to be around here. One is contributed to Walt Whitman in the Daily Eagle, where he said that it’s called that because the dairy farmers used to walk their cattle across the channel at low tide. Which might have been possible before they dredged the channel for shipping uses. There are other stories about how dairy farmers were taking their milk in boats to Manhattan and the currents would rock the boats so much it would churn the milk. Even less likely but always it’s something to do with cows or milk crossing the water.
I’ll buy it. It’s a good name at any rate. How often does the menu change here?
Well, in the heart of the winter, not as much, but with the change of seasons the ingredients can change all the time. As it’s a bistro, most of the menu stays the same –there will always be fried chicken and a steak. There will always be a hamburger but the condiments might change. The linguini or scallops could change, most of the appetizers.
Is everything sourced locally for the most part?
Yeah, I mean, in the winter there are more limited ingredients. We’re not going to use a lot of tomatoes. A lot of things are seen in the cold season – kale, squash and apples that can be picked out in the early fall and can hang out for a while. You’re not going to see a lot of ingredients from far away on our menu. Our fish is all local, which is a challenge.
Not from the Buttermilk Channel?
No, but from New England, or Long Island Sound.
What about your wines?
We have an all-American wine list. It’s not the most important thing but it’s definitely a unique thing about the restaurant. We have a bunch of really great wines from Long Island and the Finger Lakes.
So…most exciting aspect of running your own place and the biggest challenge?
We’re fortunate we picked a great neighborhood. When we opened, everyone mostly was from the neighborhood. Now in addition, we have people from all over Brooklyn and even Manhattan. You need more than just people that live on your block – though all customers are wonderful.
What’s your favorite Brooklyn restaurant?
(no hesitation) Roman’s. It’s on Dekalb and is like my favorite restaurant on earth. I go there every Sunday night after my last shift of the week here. They have a really inventive, wonderful menu that changes every single day. It’s almost the opposite of ours, which is very broad and most things won’t change and theirs is small and constantly changing. They are friendly and have a really cool wine list.
It’s nice that you mention their service – I’d say the same about you, greeting everyone with a big smile.
That’s the name of the game.
Are you planning on another place eventually?
Yeah, yeah! Soon, I just have to find the right spot.
Would it be in a totally different direction?
I don’t think it would be in a completely different direction. Ryan wouldn’t likely have a Chinese restaurant and we’re a team. I think Brooklyn needs bistros. Places where you can come in and sit at the bar by yourself or if it’s your anniversary, a table’s there. Versatile.
What are you most excited about the Brooklyn food scene?
We have very exciting restaurants here. They often feel more personal. The stakes are so high in Manhattan and places tend to be physically bigger. Here, you’re much more likely to walk into a place and meet the owner.
What does this particular owner crave on a night (so cold!) like this?
Here? Hot rum punch, for sure. It will take all hint of cold from your body. It’s made with Navy strength Jamaican rum. It was used during war rations in the British Navy. They wanted rum that if it spilled, could catch stuff on fire. At home, as a family we like to do Raclette. It’s so fun and really draws a meal out.
And Chef Ryan Angulo weighs in on winter’s rewards before turning thoughts to spring:
A couple of my favorite winter items to use are winter greens like kale, mustard greens, and the tops of radishes and turnips. They are hearty and have a great, peppery bite. We use them in a number of dishes, like the grilled kale salad, as the veggie component to our current trout dish, on the skirt steak with anchovies, tossed in pasta, with the roasted turnips for the seared scallops. Almost 75% of the dishes on the menu have some form of these greens in them.
Anchovies are also a favorite of mine that I sneak into a lot of things. When they are available, we salt cure big batches of them ourselves. My dishwasher, Marvin, is always thrilled (not really) when 20 pounds of fresh anchovies walk in the door for him to gently pull the heads off of and clean the guts out before salting.
My favorite winter dish is chilled oysters followed by hot oysters. It’s the best time to eat them. Chilled oysters remind me of the holiday celebrations that just passed and the summer that will be here before we know it. And hot ones are a nice comfort when its 30 degrees out. I had a nice afternoon at the John Dory Oyster bar yesterday doing just that; chilled oysters followed by April’s pan roast. Awesome.
Spring equals ramps for me. I love how in New York every restaurant does something with ramps when they are in season. It’s such a great thing for them to be highlighted on so many menus since they are one of those super-seasonal items that only pop up for a couple months.
Meet the owner of Buttermilk at 524 Court Street or visit online.