Today we stop by Williamsburg’s Diner, a place that needs no introduction, where owner Andrew Tarlow and founding chef Caroline Fidanza, however unintentionally, first codified the tenents of what’s become known as ‘new Brooklyn cuisine’ – delicious, accessible food rooted in regional traditions, made with refined technique and the highest quality, often local, ingredients. It’s the restaurant that launched a thousand restaurants.
We asked chef Matthew Greene and manager James O’Boyle to point us to something good on the always-changing menu. Their suggestion? Fried chicken and sweet potato pancakes.
So guys, what would you recommend today?
Matthew: I think you should try the sweet potato pancakes and fried chicken. It’s basically our take on the classic soul food dish of chicken and waffles.
I actually just recently found out about the history behind chicken and waffles. It started with jazz musicians in Harlem in the 1930’s, who would go out to eat at four or five o’clock in the morning after playing all night along. They’d go eat, and because of the super-late hour they wanted something that would combine breakfast and dinner in one dish. So somebody came up with the idea of serving fried chicken on waffles. There’s some controversy about whether it actually started in Harlem or L.A., but since we’re here in New York, I’m gonna go with Harlem.
For our version, we modified it a little bit. Instead of waffles, we do pancakes, and we make them with sweet potatoes. The local sweet potato crop this year is really, really nice. They’re super sweet without being too watery, which makes for really strong flavor, and the texture makes them really easy to incorporate into our pancake batter.
The sweet potatoes make the pancakes richer – their starch and sugars give them more body. They’re not as fluffy as regular pancakes, but they’re not heavy either. They’re smooth. The buttermilk combined with the sweet potato gives the pancakes an almost custardy feel, which is kind of cool.
For the chicken, we use really nice pastured birds from Lancaster County. We do them in a nice batter and fry them in a way that gives you really tender, juicy meat inside that crunchy, crispy, savory crust – just what you’re looking for with fried chicken.
We finish the whole thing with cilantro and chili maple syrup, to bring together the sweet and savory nature of the dish with a little spice. That little bit of heat from the chilis combined with the sweetness of the maple syrup really gives everything a little bit of depth. One of the things I really like about using chili in contexts like this is that it can provide heat where people don’t really expect it. It’s a fun way to add an unpredictable element to really familiar dishes, while adding some depth too.
The beauty of this dish is that it’s both sweet and savory. It’s the best of both worlds. You get the sweet from the sweet potato in the pancakes and the maple syrup. You get the savory aspect in the fried chicken. You get a nice mix of textures with the creamy, custardy pancakes and the crunchy, crispy fried chicken. And you get some added dimension from the cilantro and the chili. Who doesn’t love fried chicken? Who doesn’t love friggin’ pancakes? They’re two things that just about everybody loves.
James: For me, this dish feels like getting lucky a little bit. We serve a fried chicken sandwich here a lot, and we serve pancakes for breakfast a lot. Our menu changes all the time, so having both on the same menu, on the same day, in the same dish is like having the planets perfectly aligned. And I’m always happy when planets align. [laughter.]
It’s just good old fashioned comfort food done really well. It’s definitely one of my favorite dishes here.
I know Diner kind of pioneered the local sourcing thing in Brooklyn. What’s special about these sweet potatoes and this chicken?
Matthew: Yes, we do source our ingredients carefully, and they are special. We usually don’t talk about that stuff too much. It’s just how we do it and we’re in the fortunate position here to have been doing it that way since day one. We don’t necessarily feel like we need to toot any horns about it. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, and most importantly because doing it that way is what you need to do to get the best quality ingredients. Buying local wouldn’t do us any good if the produce we were buying wasn’t any good. But it is good. It’s the best we can get, and that’s ultimately why we get it.
In this dish? Both the sweet potatoes and the chicken come from farms in Lancaster County that we have pretty close relationships with. The buttermilk we use in the pancakes comes from a dairy farm up by the Finger Lakes. The maple syrup comes from a producer in Vermont, as does the flour we use to make the pancakes and to bread the chicken. Everything with the exception of things like salt and the dried chilis comes from around here.
So how did you guys end up here? What chain of events led you to Diner?
Matthew: I’m from a small town in Western Virginia. I wandered into a kitchen in high school looking for a dishwashing gig, just to make a little bit of money. They told me that if I learned how to cook they’d pay me more. So I learned how to cook. It was a couple of years before I really fell in love with it, but eventually I did.
I ended up cooking in Richmond, Virginia, for a long time. There’s a lot of comfort food and soul food there. Because it was the capitol of the Confederacy, there’s a lot of emphasis on traditional Southern cuisine but there’s also a lot of fine dining rooted in French cuisine. I learned a lot there – it gave me a pretty good foundation.
One of the beautiful things about Diner is that we often use French technique while playing on Southern flavor combinations. So the food is always approachable and familiar, but still a little refined. And that’s exactly the sort of food I love to eat and I love to make, and that I have been making for most of my career.
James: I’m originally from Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, a small town a couple of hours from the city. But I spent a lot of time living in the South. I went to high school and college in North Carolina – ate a lot of chicken, a lot of pancakes.
I moved to New York on a whim about nine years ago. I got a job working at a coffee shop in Greenpoint, called the Greenpoint Coffee House. It’s no longer around, but back in 2003 it was one of those little gems. It had leather booths, a wooden bar, tin ceilings, and really good coffee. Back then places like that were kind of rare. [laughter.]
I was there for six years, and eventually I started managing the place. During that time it changed a lot. We started doing brunch. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm opened up next door. We started buying our ingredients there, and the food started getting better and better. Ben Flanner, one of the farmers who opened Eagle Street before going on to found Brooklyn Grange, was working in the kitchen when he wasn’t farming. So this whole kind of community and culture developed around the place.
When it closed due to lease issues, I started working in other restaurants. About two years ago I ended up here. I work at both Diner and Marlow & Sons, managing things during the day. It’s crazy and it’s great and there’s nowhere I’d rather work and no place I’d rather represent. And I get to eat Matt’s chicken and pancakes. [laughter.]
Diner is located at 85 Broadway, at the corner of Berry, in Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.