A cafe grows in Brooklyn: Former Six Penn chef opens a honey of a restaurant

NEW YORK -- Just as passionate Steelers fans still follow the career of wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, devoted Pittsburgh diners-out don't lose interest in talented chefs just because they move to more distant kitchens. Fans of Chris Jackson were sad to see him leave Six Penn Kitchen, but he's not forgotten -- and he can be tracked down easily at his new cafe in Brooklyn, New York, the fulfillment of a long-time dream that he shared with his sister, Michelle.

"My sister called me and said the best spot in the world opened up. She called on Monday and we had to make up our minds by Friday," recalled Jackson.

He gave notice, tied up loose ends and moved himself and his family to Brooklyn, at the same time that he and his sister began to navigate the complex bureaucracy that accompanies opening a restaurant in any city, along with all the special difficulties of a city as dense and as restaurant-loving as New York. Just about three months later, in late June of this year, Ted and Honey opened its doors.

With its fire-engine red facade, the cafe is easy to spot from blocks away. And though it stands out from the adjacent brownstones, Ted and Honey also fits right into the Cobble Hill neighborhood. Inside, the atmosphere is a cozy mix of DIY and articulated design. Bookshelves lining one wall hold novels and magazines. Children's books and a few toys are on the lowest shelves, so as to be easily reached. During my visit, the cafe was decked out in full Halloween regalia, with paper bats swooping and fuzzy spiders climbing and a black crow peering down from a corner.

The Jacksons got help from several designers, but they and their friends provided much of the labor, cutting and piecing the tables together from raw wood, coloring them with pastels and staining them with shoe polish. They painted chalkboards and mounted them on the wall, where they write up the seasonally shifting menu.

Between the cinematically perfect, hand-made decorations, the chalkboards, and the pleasantly child-friendly, even child-like atmosphere, I felt as if I'd been transported to a magical elementary school where the only classes were "SNACK" and "LUNCH." And a magical lunchroom this would be, where one would surely methodically work one's way through the menu, striving to try everything at least once before the season shifted.

At first glance, the menu might not seem so special. Breakfast offerings include egg sandwiches, wraps and granola with milk or yogurt; then there are a variety of lunch sandwiches and pasta and vegetable sides. Baked goods, especially cookies, coffee, tea and espresso drinks (including a killer dark chocolate mocha) round out the menu. But Ted and Honey serves as a reminder of how hard it is to get a really good sandwich, and what a miraculous thing a really good sandwich is.

Even a simple turkey sandwich was remarkable for its superior flavor and texture, thanks to turkey that was brined before roasting. On the most recent menu this sandwich is all dressed up for Thanksgiving, with cranberry bread stuffing, brie and cranberry sauce. My favorite sandwich when I stopped by for lunch was a chicken salad made from chicken that had been shredded, rather than cubed, giving it a light, airy texture. Just the right amount of house-made walnut aioli had been mixed into the chicken, along with celery and mustard. The piquant flavors were balanced by the tart, sweet accents of sliced apple and roasted beets -- a clever mix of an American dish with the classic French trio of beets, apples and walnuts.

Excellent pasta side dishes could have made a light meal, especially the lemon chicken lo mein with its subtle sesame flavor and perfectly cooked and dressed pasta. And words cannot express the perfection of the house specialty, a chewy, chocolate chip oatmeal cookie -- a cookie that would be my personal downfall if I didn't live so far away.

Though one brief visit just allowed me to scratch the surface of the offerings, my experience, as well as florid online compliments, suggest that Chris Jackson is pouring all of his talent and passion into this cafe, with marvelous results. Other delectable-sounding dishes include the Redneck ($5.50), a breakfast wrap of hominy grits, farmhouse cheddar, smoked ham and scrambled eggs; as well as the breakfast crostini, whose toppings change frequently but currently include a wild mushroom compote made from Pennsylvania mushrooms, with fines herbes and goat cheese; and another with blue cheese, La Quercia prosciutto and local honey ($3.50 each; 3 for $8). At lunch, the fall/winter menu includes a BLT made with house-cured bacon and roma tomatoes roasted overnight in a slow oven.

Jackson also has started to can his own pickles and preserves, which are displayed for sale on the bookshelf along with a few of his favorite products, such as Brooklyn-based "Rick's Picks" jars of Phat Beets and Mean Beans. Though they have no desire to become a corner bodega, and he thinks it unlikely they'll make a profit from the foodstuffs, "If we can get these great local products from the farmer and pickle them and have those products on the shelves, why not?" said Jackson......

New Yorkers have what he describes as an "I need it now, I need it great" attitude, and Jackson seems to relish this intensity. "I like it because I like to cater to people who like good things and to be able to do that."

And it doesn't hurt that customers seem appreciative of the Jacksons' efforts. "I've had so many people say, 'It's so great what you guys did, we love this spot.' We've been welcomed so open-armed that sometimes I'm shocked," he said.

So does Chef Jackson miss running a busy fine dining restaurant?

"I pine a little for those nights and weekends cranking out the covers and being able to have the crew, the space, that vibe," he admits.

But for now, he's content getting to know his regular customers, refining his pastry skills (he was baking sticky buns as we spoke on the phone) and settling into the neighborhood.

Ted and Honey is at 264 Clinton St., Brooklyn, N.Y. ; 1-718-852-2212; www.tedandhoney.com

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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