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Atlantic Avenue chef hopes to put Mid-Atlantic cuisine on the map

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Amid all the Middle Eastern shops and cafes on Atlantic Avenue, a new restaurant is introducing diners to the flavors of the middle-eastern seaboard.

Until recently, the section of Atlantic Avenue between Flatbush Avenue and Henry Street has consisted predominantly of Middle Eastern markets and restaurants, antique stores, book stores and clothing boutiques. In January, a bright young chef with a flair for contemporary American cuisine opened the MidAtlantic Cafe, an elegant little restaurant with a mission: to explore and define the flavors of the Mid-Atlantic States.

Chef-owner Forrest Shirkey was drawn to the kitchen at an early age. At 14, he was washing pots in restaurant kitchens. Later, he worked in the elegant Pavilion restaurant in Cincinnati, but found that he was more profoundly influenced by some of the more homegrown places he had experienced.

"I learned many of the basics from a very talented chef at a little restaurant I worked at in Cincinnati. I learned about clean, fresh flavors and allowing them to speak for themselves," explained Shirkey.

After Cincinnati, Shirkey enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY to further his culinary education.

"The school is in an old monastery on a Revolutionary War battleground. It’s a monastic way of life, too - and very hard work." He worked his way through school at a vineyard across the Hudson and at restaurants in Manhattan, including an internship at the Rainbow Room.

Since moving to New York 15 years ago, Shirkey has fallen in love with the produce and flavors of the Mid-Atlantic region. "This is my home now. I want to explore everything that is available here using the freshest and the best." He defines Mid-Atlantic cuisine to be dishes made from fresh, locally available ingredients.

Shirkey has a vegetable garden behind the restaurant where he grows corn, peas, squash and herbs. Examples of the foods featured on his Mid-Atlantic menu include duck, sea bass and strawberries from Long Island, heirloom tomatoes from New Jersey, Maryland soft-shell crab and lamb from upstate New York.

Shirkey, who extends the definition of Mid-Atlantic to as far north as southern Maine, said, "I think the area should have its own recognized cuisine just the way different countries in Europe do, as well as certain areas of the United States - like California and different regions of the South." (The double entendre name of the restaurant also refers to its location in the middle of a block on Atlantic Avenue.)

When we arrived at MidAtlantic Cafe, Shirkey presented us with a tasting menu he had created to give The Brooklyn Papers’ readers an overall sampling of his style and talents.

We started with pan-roasted Maryland soft-shell crab with grilled asparagus, fig vinaigrette and lemon. The crab, very lightly battered and fried, lay on a bed of slightly crunchy, perfectly steamed asparagus, the whole topped with a thin, sweet vinaigrette. The dish was as pleasing to the eye as it was tasty, with the pale, golden crab and bright, green asparagus framed by a rich, brown sauce. The piquancy of the vinaigrette was beautifully tempered by the sweetness of the fig, and the delicacy of the crab flavor joined pleasingly with that of the asparagus.

Next we were served pulled pork toast points with dandelion greens (another "in" dish just now). Handsomely piled in the middle of the plate, with toast points carefully placed on either side, and with dandelion greens all around, this version was an elegant revival of an American classic. Again, Shirkey used a vinegar base - a tad too much vinegar - for his sauce, and again he succeeded in presenting rich, distinctive flavors.

Raspberry sorbet came next - a deep-pink hiatus in the meal. It’s been years since I’ve had a sorbet interlude, an interruption I always resented in the mid-’80s, the height of the sorbet palate-cleansing phase. This, however, was superior sorbet - smooth, not too sweet and very flavorful - and I welcomed the pause and the cleansing effect. Little did I know that I really needed both, as the best of the meal was yet to come.

Potato-encrusted sea bass with portobello mushroom and baby beets was one of the best-tasting, and best-looking, dishes I’ve ever tasted - a thick, bright-white chunk of bass sat atop a brilliant array of red beet slices with a large slice of portobello between the two. Again, Shirkey managed to bring together unexpected flavors and colors in a harmonious union. The fish had the fresh flavor of one caught that morning, and the beets screamed the fresh sweetness of baby vegetables.

If it was possible to top this dish, Shirkey did it with the lamb sirloin with potato-vegetable gratin. The lamb was tender, succulent, cooked to pink perfection and very thinly sliced. The meat was served atop the gratin - a dense layering of sliced onions, squash and potato baked in a pie pan and cut into triangles.

I was amazed and pleased after this great feast to discover that I was not too full to contemplate dessert. Shirkey explained that his use of little to no fat in his savory cooking was both a way to enhance flavors and spare diners the aftereffects of overindulgence.

"Fat is a flavor neutralizer," he explained. "On the one hand, it tends to dull the flavors you are trying to intensify. On the other hand, fat settles the stomach.

"I have no problem at all with using it in desserts," he added.

Indeed. Shirkey’s chocolate tart was about as rich as a chocolate dessert can be - dense, yet heavenly. A thin tart with a basic flour crust, the emphasis was on the fine flavor of the chocolate.

"I use Valrhona, dark chocolate," said Shirkey. "It’s the best."

Sipping my coffee with this fine dessert, I took in the tasteful surroundings of MidAtlantic Cafe. Elegant, black, lacquered chairs with pale-pink upholstered seats surround white linen-draped, rectangular tables. Small arrangements of pink lilies in little glass vases adorn each table, and backlit, unbleached muslin drapes around the room give the impression of windows beyond. The front windows, also lavishly draped, are fitted with handsomely cushioned seats in soft, muted colors. The overall effect is peaceful and inviting, an excellent choice for a romantic night out or an evening with friends.

Prices are reasonable (appetizers range from $4 to $11; entrees from $11 to $19) and the service is superb. It seems Brooklyn is blessed with another fine addition to its burgeoning restaurant scene.

 

The MidAtlantic Cafe (148 Atlantic Ave. between Clinton and Henry streets in Cobble Hill (718) 834-7300) serves brunch from 11 am to 4 pm, Saturday and Sunday, dinner Wednesday through Monday and is closed Tuesday. On Wednesday nights, from 9 pm to 11:30 pm, the cafe also offers a light supper with live music. Call for lunch times. The MidAtlantic Cafe accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

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