February 2012

Dinner at the Castle

If you land an invitation to one of Zeb Stewart’s parties, be ready for an abrupt transition from the cold commotion of the street to the warm chaos of the Williamsburg bar owner’s Bushwick abode.

If you land an invitation to one of Zeb Stewart’s parties, be ready for an abrupt transition from the cold commotion of the street to the warm chaos of the Williamsburg bar owner’s Bushwick abode. One minute you’re walking on a shabby stretch of Broadway with elevated JMZ trains rumbling by overhead, plastic lawn chairs clustered in cement yards and a woman selling socks from a card table. The next, you turn onto a side street and step through his door into a remarkably large kitchen, which seems to exist specifically for the purpose of entertaining, and feeding, a crowd. That’s Zeb’s profession, and evidently his pastime, too.

Glittering light pours in through the windows that line this landmarked bright-orange brick 19th-century building. Everyone calls it the Castle, but the letter “U” and the word “office” built into the facade in foot-high letters give a clue to its true former identity: a hub for the now-defunct German brewery called William Ulmer. The Castle is a fitting home base for Stewart, a Williamsburg bar and restaurant owner who has had a literal hand in crafting that neighborhood’s literal and figurative scene—as a designer and builder, and as an owner of two of the neighborhood’s most successful bars, Union Pool and Hotel Delmano, as well as the restaurant Café Colette, where Erin Gerken, Stewart’s live-in girlfriend, is partner and general manager. Like those spots, the Castle is stunning—twice the size of most borough apartments, and awesomely vertical. But the real spectacle on this night—and many others—is out back, where three fires blaze on the brick-paved yard and a 20-pound piglet is held aloft over a bed of coals by the arms of a forklift.

This backyard has seen its share of parties. Some of tonight’s guests are clearly regulars—they describe Stewart and Gerken’s gatherings as “amazing,” “crazy” and “insane”—and food that requires a forklift is not out of place. That’s because their social circle includes a who’s who crew of Brooklyn cooks, and while the flavors they share here are the sort that you’d gladly book a reservation for, this experience is pure Zeb—and the Zagats are not invited. Friends who turned out tonight include staff from Café Colette, Hotel Delmano and Vinegar Hill House, and early in the evening the long, scarred wooden worktable in the Castle kitchen is surrounded by pros mincing parsley and trimming beets. Jean Adamson, a longtime friend of Stewart’s and the owner and founding chef of Vinegar Hill House (she’s since passed the apron to chef Brian Leth) sits perched on a stool, cutting salsify into matchsticks.
Charles Brassard, chef at Café Colette, folds plancha-roasted bone marrow into a huge bowl of butter headed for grilled flatbread. He usually makes his living cooking for strangers, and says that it’s a pleasure to cook for friends for a change. As those non-strangers stream through the kitchen into the backyard, the evening progresses from process—dicing, mincing and coal-arranging—into party. Talitha Whidbee, who owns Vine Wine, the Williamsburg wine store around the corner from Union Pool, starts up a conversation with a guest holding two bottles he’d just bought at her shop. Alex Allen, the wine manager at Hotel Delmano, the beloved cocktail and oyster lounge Stewart opened in 2008 on Berry Street, holds forth on the joys of the fizzy Italian red lambrusco—he calls it “purple beer.” Meanwhile his girlfriend, Bonnie Thornton, a DJ at Soho House—and former stylist with an amazing story involving JLo, a $40,000 pair of pants and a thong—stands in the courtyard trying to come up with aggressively non-sexy Halloween costumes: a breadstick and a St. Bernard make the cut. “Just dress as a giant carb,” says Thornton, “and bitches will be terrified.”

As conversations heat up, flames lick the food, but don’t picture your roommate’s Weber. In the Castle’s carriage house where Zeb works on restaurant and bar designs, he banged together a metal plancha—essentially a thick sheet of steel on stumpy legs set atop a worktable—and throughout the evening it does double duty as both oven and grill. The crew nonchalantly heaps glowing coals atop it, sliding in cast-iron pans full of clams, octopus and chorizo. Later they’ll grill head-on shrimp directly on its smoking-hot surface.

If you’ve ever made your way through the crush of aging coeds at Union Pool, you’ve already seen Stewart’s handiwork with wood and metal, not to mention his high-aptitude entertaining. He opened the place in 2000 on a then-desolate corner in a shuttered pool supply shop of the same name in the shadow of the highway. “People forget that when we opened Union Pool it was considered the middle of nowhere because it was the other side of the BQE,” Stewart says, “and that it was really slow at first.”

Those days are long gone. Since it opened, the amenities have grown with the crowd. He’s added ever-more wooden banquettes on the patio, a makeshift fire pit fashioned from an enormous wok bought on the Bowery, and a back room for bands whose picture-frame-like stage makes every act look like a portrait come to life. Stewart tricked out the outdoor bar with a frozen margarita machine and an on-site taco truck, a nod to his California roots. Beyond the ultra-hip flourishes of his own successful spaces—see also the sky-blue mural on the ceiling at Hotel Delmano, or the sweet takeout window for Stumptown at Café Colette—Stewart is responsible for many of the build-outs of many bars and restaurants around the city: He started out working on restaurants in the city for Keith McNally, then moved his focus back across the Williamsburg Bridge, building a now-defunct outdoor oven for Diner years ago and, more recently, offering friendly advice on the final touches at Rye. Right now at the Castle, miniature mountain ranges of wood and metal, a tangle of tools and a few motorcycles parked in the space await deployment. “I’ll sometimes set up full bars in here,” Stewart says, “to see how they feel.”

The party’s proportions seem scaled for giants. An enormous table bears an enormous bowl—a relic from an industrial baking operation—packed with ice and paved with a couple hundred oysters, ever replenished by the best shucker at Hotel Delmano. Guests wash them down with cold Tecates, or fill wine glasses with Cava or one of the eclectic French reds Allen’s picked out for the evening, along with a few of those lambruscos. But it’s not Stewart’s style to stop with just one bushel of bivalves. He’s devised an Asian-inflected sauce—tons of ginger and a touch of five-spice—for barbecued oysters, a staple from his Petaluma childhood. “No one here eats them this way,” Stewart says, “but they’re so good.” A dollop goes on before they’re loaded onto trays and skillets and placed over the open flames on all three fires—even directly under the roasting pig. The crowd devours the steaming shellfish, blowing them cool and hoping not to scald their tongues with so much feasting still to come.

That would be a serious setback, especially when Stewart stands at the table loaded down with the pig, its crispy strips of crackling skin still gleaming, surrounded by ash-roasted roots. Zeb thanks us for coming, and it’s clearly from the heart: “This is what makes living in Brooklyn possible.” Brassard and his Colette sous-chef Jenny Robie carve, and guests pile their plates and settle at the long table or perch on chairs near the still-glowing embers. Though this nose-to-tail feast isn’t the kind you can buy, you can taste some of the food in a DOH-inspected setting: They were so inspired by the grilled flatbread, the head-on shrimp, the charred octopus and clams with chorizo and cannellini beans that all of it came off the plancha and went right onto their menu, though they might not be as transporting as those that sizzled on the Castle’s open-air flames. Those, by the way, have heated the paved brick backyard, as well as the brick walls that border it on three sides. The smoky space reverberates with warmth, even under a chilly fall evening sky. “It’s like we’re being smoked,” laughs Stewart. “A few hours at 160 and we’re bacon.”