Behind the Toque: Vincent Fraissange of Williamsburg Mediterranean Restaurant Pheasant
Pheasant (445 Graham Ave.) is on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg offering spectacular dishes inspired by the Mediterranean coast. I recently stopped by to sample the restaurant’s newly updated winter menu, and to talk with Chef-Owner Vincent Fraissange, who also shared his recipe for wild gulf shrimp.
Greenpointers: Pheasant opened in November 2017, after you had been at Isa for a time. Was it straight from one restaurant to the next?
Chef Vincent Fraissange: I started at Isa as a regular old line cook and worked my way up to the chef position. I left there, a few months before it closed, in order to pursue something my wife and I wanted to do together, which was a catering company.
GP: Little Pheasant?
VF: Little Pheasant. We ran that for a year and a half out of Brooklyn Foodworks before we started looking for spaces. We used to live two blocks away from here — we realized that the old Graham Avenue Meats was up for lease. We met the landlords, who are sweethearts, and here we are.
GP: Between Little Pheasant and Pheasant, operationally they’re probably very separate.
VF: They are, but we do everything out of this space.
GP: And menu-wise?
VF: We’re always farm-to-table, as far as catering goes, and there is definitely a Mediterranean influence, like we have here at Pheasant. But ultimately catering is about what people want — some people want Asian food for their catering, and we can do that. It depends on who the client is. The core part of the catering business is on-set catering, a lot of photoshoots, for breakfast and lunch. That’s why it works with the restaurant — Little Pheasant is here at 4:30 in the morning and out by noon, and then our Pheasant cooks come in. It’s constantly running. Little Pheasant also does events at night — weddings, all that kind of stuff — but that only makes up about 20% of the catering business.
GP: How about your pre-Isa days, how did you end up there?
VF: Originally I’m Canadian, born and raised in Vancouver. There, I kind of did the classic route. I did an apprenticeship at a restaurant 21 years ago, so I’m classically French trained. I worked in restaurants around Vancouver and then I took a little break, moved to French Polynesia. My father’s French, so I’m half French — my whole family is in France, really, I don’t really have a lot of family in Canada. I spent a lot of my summers on my grandparent’s farm in France. Because I have a French passport, I was able to go to French Polynesia and work.
After that I worked a lot on private yachts, so I traveled around the world a little bit, cooking for the rich and famous, whatever.
GP: Anybody notable that you’re allowed to talk about?
VF: Yea. Rick Rubin, Jack Dorsey, Sean Penn, Queen Latifah.
Anyway, I took the money I had saved working on the yachts and I bought a little restaurant in a small town called Tofino on Vancouver Island. I lived there for four and a half, five years, before I came here on vacation to see some friends. I met my wife-to-be [now wife, Cat Alexander], fell in love, sold the restaurant, and moved here right away.
I needed a sponsor and a friend of ours worked at Isa, and I got a sponsorship through the restaurant.
GP: What was your intent opening Pheasant?
VF: Because we lived in the neighborhood, we thought “Okay, what do we want to eat as a neighborhood diner?” Not a diner [restaurant], but somebody who goes out and dines. We felt like there was a little bit of what Pheasant is missing in the neighborhood, and we really wanted to do that on Graham Avenue. We love Graham Avenue.
We wanted to have a nice neighborhood restaurant with a non-pretentious setting, but with good food. Ethical, happy, feel-good-about-what-we’re-doing food.
GP: Ethical how?
VF: The sourcing of our products, and generally making sure that we take care in everything we do. Cat with the wines [Pheasant maintains an extensive list of natural wines, curated by Alexander], me sourcing our ingredients, and all that kind of stuff.
But also trying to sell it at a value. Which is not easy, you know, but we try. That was what we wanted to do, and here we are two and a half years later.
GP: If you had to reduce the entire ethos or philosophy down to one or a couple words…
VF: I think its coastal Mediterranean food sourced in a local, sustainable manner.
GP: Ok, so, I’m glad you brought up “Mediterranean”. That encompasses a huge —
VF: A huge area
GP: So many things. I wanted to ask about that, was that conscious?
VF: It was on purpose. Now, one day if I want to put a Greek dish on the menu, I can. If I want to do a Moroccan or an Italian dish… I can kind of run the gamut. It gives us a broad area to pick from.
But also we have a burger with kielbasa on it, because Greenpoint is right next door and there’s really good kielbasa, so why not, right? When you open a restaurant, you have to have some kind of vision or direction, and so we thought we would paint a broad stroke so we’d be able to kind of blur the lines a little bit if we needed.
GP: And it seems like you’ve done exactly that, blurred the lines.
VF: Yes, very much so. Especially now. In the beginning, I was really strict about it, but now — as it goes, I feel like we’re more of a European instead of strictly a Mediterranean. But the design of it and everything is still Mediterranean.
GP: You update your menu seasonally, correct?
VF: Yes. I’d say about 50% of the menu doesn’t change, because we are that neighborhood restaurant. We want people to be able to say “I want the chicken over rice, I want the hamburger, I want the chicken wings, I want the Caesar salad.” So there are a couple things that aren’t going anywhere.
Then there are other dishes that we bring back every year, like the endive salad on the menu right now — that’ll always come back every winter because people love it, but I’m not going to serve citrus and endive in March, that just doesn’t make any sense.
So yes, its seasonal, but its half and half, because I still want to have those staples for everybody, our regulars who come in once a week.
GP: Is there a dish that you’re most excited about or proud or right now?
VF: I’m really excited about the new carrot dish, but I also really like our go-to dish, our most popular dish that outsells everything, which is the octopus. I’m really proud of that one, it’ll never come off the menu.
GP: In certain ways, the food scene can be seen as increasingly becoming about what the next big thing is. Is what the next big fad may be something you keep your eye on?
VF: I don’t. I really just try to stay with honest food that I grew up eating. It’s classic, there’s nothing that’s going to be weird that’s unapproachable on the menu. I feel like that’s important. Fads come and go, but good, solid, honest food is going to be around for a while.
A Discussion of Natural Wines and Pairings with Pheasant General Manager Lola Sadai
GP: Tell me about the wine list.
GM Lola Sadai: Cat [Alexander] curated the wine list, its exclusively natural wine.
GP: And what, exactly, is natural wine?
LS: Natural wine is non-interventionist wine. Conventional wine often has additives and sulfur added to help create a universally recognizable flavor profile. Natural winemakers avoid additives.
GP: Earlier I asked Chef Vince which wines he’s pair with his new carrot dish and the octopus, and he directed me to you.
LS: With the carrots I’d suggest the Orsi Vigneto San Vito. It’s more of a cold weather white wine that goes nicely with the carrots. The Orsi has a little heft and character, and eventually some floral notes, that go well with the warm spices of the carrots.
For the octopus, I would go with the Villa Calicantus, which is a medium bodied red blend that has a little bit of a kick at the beginning, sometimes a slight effervescence, and some funkiness. I would either do that or the Cantina Margo, which is a pretty full-bodied orange wine.
Pheasant’s Wild Gulf Shrimp
2lb wild Gulf shrimp, peeled, split, and deveined (we get delicious shrimp from Greenpoint Fish and Lobster)
3 large shallots, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely diced
1 stick of European butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups dry white wine
Pinch of dried round Calabrian chilies
Chunk of bread, toasted (we use the sourdough rye from Bakeri)
- Place the shallots, garlic, and white wine in a thick-bottomed pan over medium heat. Reduce until almost all of the wine has evaporated. Meanwhile, season the shrimp with salt.
- Reduce heat to low, add shrimp to the pan, and slowly incorporate the butter. Stir continually to avoid burning and to ensure the butter stays emulsified in the wine. You should see small, mellow bubbles.
- Once the butter is melted and the shrimp are cooked though, add the Calabrian chili and lemon juice to taste.
- Transfer to a bowl for plating, top of fresh lemon zest, and serve with warm toasted bread.