It’s hard to attract people over to West Street. For one, it feels as if you’re in an active construction site—and on many of the blocks, you are. Second, you’re so far out of the heart of Greenpoint, in such desolation, it feels like a whole different neighborhood, or like how the neighborhood once was. Anyone who’s walked through this hushed territory at night has come upon the corner of West and Green and heard the mysterious revelry happening behind the screen door for Achilles Heel (180 West St).
Restaurateur Andrew Tarlow is no stranger to North Brooklyn. Chances are you’ve eaten at one of his places: Reynard in the Wythe Hotel, Marlow & Sons, Diner, and Roman’s are just some of them. In January 2013, he opened Achilles Heel, a former longshoremen’s tavern renovated up to code but kept rustic and rough around the edges. For the first two years, small bites and sandwiches from his other establishments were offered, but the bar didn’t really have a “full kitchen,” just a couple of induction burners. That seems to be all the challenge Chef Lee Desrosiers needed. Desrosiers, previously the butcher at Reynard though he’s also done stints at Diner and Marlow & Sons as well as San Francisco’s Bar Tartine and Plum Beach in Martha’s Vineyard, still runs the entire food program off of induction burners, rice cookers, and the fireplace. His sous chef, Desiree, helps with the daily dance and even takes lead on the dessert part of the menu.
When you don’t have a full oven, or hell, even a full stove, you’re forced to get creative. For every dish, Desrosiers has to “think of a different way of doing it than normal.” For instance, this winter they had a leg of lamb dish pop up every now and then. But there isn’t the room to roast a whole leg of lamb. Instead, they debone and skillfully butcher the meat before searing one side of a slice in a hot pan. This way, you still have the essence of the classic winter dish—flavorful lamb served rare over comforting white butter beans—but its journey to your plate was unique to Achilles. You’ll see this kind of cleverness every time you visit. Steaks are done in the embers, vegetables are grilled over a hot flame, cuts of meat are tied and hung and left to slowly cook in front of the fire. With a menu that changes daily, it’s hard to keep a theme going, but they do. “We try to kiss everything with smoke.”
Speaking of smoke, warmer months mean being able to grill. Achilles came with a small outdoor space that’s not really useful as an extension of the bar so it’s become an extension of the kitchen. Last year, in wanting to offer some sort of Sunday chicken dinner, Desrosiers dry brined a few chickens, spatchcocked them, and over the slightly modified grill they went. “Hell Chicken” had been born. Of course, throwing dining events is nothing new for Achilles. When chef friends come to town, Desrosiers often hosts them, allowing patrons a taste of the visiting restaurant, often a famous one. These visits also allow the Achilles kitchen to restock their pantry with exceptional ingredients you can’t find in the States, and they can see how another chef would handle their limitations.
Desrosiers’ “keep it simple” philosophy has also affected the bar. The cocktail menu is constantly evolving as new and/or seasonal ingredients come through the kitchen, each addition strengthening an already respectable drinks list. The two sides play off of one another; recently, limited-season Cara Cara oranges found their way into dishes while the rinds were candied into garnishes. Nothing is wasted if it can be avoided, and the bartenders are encouraged to experiment.
Even though Achilles Heel has caught the eye of such luminaries like Pete Wells of The New York Times, it remains at heart a neighborhood joint. They acknowledge the reputation now as a destination spot for gourmands and tourists, but they aren’t looking for the fame and glory. As Desrosiers says, “We really just try to keep the good vibez,” something many of their neighborhood regulars can appreciate.
Achilles Heel is located at 180 West Street. It opens Monday to Friday at 4pm; Saturday and Sunday at noon. Be sure to check their Instagram often as the menu changes daily and it’s really the best way to know about upcoming events. Hell Chicken happens on Sundays when the weather feels like cooperating.