Clinton Hill, Brooklyn may not be the first destination that comes to mind when hit with a hankering for locally grown and seasonal American cuisine, but thanks to restaurateurs Chef Jon Wallace and partner and fiancée Jessica Soule’s The Wallace restaurant, the fast-developing Fulton Street is now home to a great addition that has been leading the charge to revitalize this corner deli and Chinese take-out-dominated area into a foodie hot-spot.
“What we liked about it here is that it’s a place that is very diverse,” explains Wallace. “There is an influx of new residents and people who have been here for a long time. The possibility to serve everyone was very exciting to us.” Setting up here also meant much lower rent than in the much-gentrified and bustling culinary haven of Fort Greene, which neighbors Clinton Hill to the west. Wallace and Soule jumped at the chance to stand out with their selection of refined American gastronomy. Since opening The Wallace’s doors back in September, a couple of new restaurants have followed suit by opening shop on Fulton. “We both have this great passion for all things New York, Brooklyn and American,” reveals Soule, who along with Wallace resides in Flatbush. “It’s the amalgamation of cultures in Brooklyn we love. Everyone can find a home here.”
Having made a name for himself cooking scrumptious comfort food at Buttermilk Channel and gastro-pub fare at Thistle Hill Tavern, Wallace was ready to indulge in his own interpretation of American cooking which has very little to do with comfort or bar food. “A lot of the American restaurants that have been opening recently are based on comfort food. I love it and it’s something I cook for myself, but what we wanted to be is different. There are plenty of places that cook mac and cheese and do it very well, but I was pretty much finish with doing comfort food. I wanted to do something that reflected my culinary experience growing up,” says Wallace, who describes a childhood exposed to a mélange of flavors which included Southern, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Portuguese.
Before embarking on his culinary journey, Wallace worked as an executive in the publishing world for ten years. An unexpected lay-off from his post as Director of Publishing at The Source magazine back in 2006 was the catalyst for a career change. “After some soul searching, a friend, who I had cooked for several times, suggested I get in touch with her friend who owned Lamb & Jaffy in Greeenpoint to see if they needed any help,” recalls Wallace, who went from working at the top of the corporate ladder to being assigned to washing dishes and taking out the garbage. “Walking into a professional kitchen for the first time and despite my, at the time, extremely high opinion of my cooking skills and being told and that I really wasn’t qualified to touch food was humbling and changes one’s perspective very quickly.” Forgoing culinary school training, Wallace chose instead to learn on the job from “a number of great chefs.” His hands-on training consisted of basic French culinary techniques with a focus on American cuisine. He quickly excelled and became a sous chef at Buttermilk Channel and later a chef at Thistle Hill Tavern.
“Working with American food allows you to take the influences of all the numerous culinary cultures of the world and throw them together in a melting pot similar to America,” Wallace says. “If I feel like I want to use curry, miso or chimmy churry in any of my dishes, I can pretty much sell it as American food—as far as using American ingredients and making things that are familiar to an American audience.”
His refined American “farm-to-table” menu boasts appetite-rousing dishes such as a mouth-watering duck breast served with fingerling potatoes, baby turnips, and shaved brussels sprouts. There are the much-loved scallops with hazelnut cauliflower purée, onion jam, and brown butter appetizer. For their burger with garlic aioli, they grind their own beef, make their own buns and pickles, and hand-cut their fries turning the classic burger into something brilliantly delightful. They also make their own cheeses, jams, and seasonal flatbread with caramelized onion, olives, and egg in the center. The braised oxtails accompanied with creamy polenta, toasted breadcrumbs, and crispy garlic have become The Wallace’s quintessential and by far the most raved-about dish on the menu.“A very unthought-of piece of meat but elevated to be something really fancy and beautiful,” says Soule.
Locavores Wallace and Soule have also expanded their celebration of all things American to their extensive wine selections. The wine menu is all-American and seasonal here, with a concentration on New York State and Long Island; all of the featured cocktails are all made with Brooklyn spirits. “We are really trying to keep it as local as possible,” says Soule, who honed her American wine chops, along with her hospitality expertise, whie working the front-of-the-house at Manhattan restaurants like Zoe and Chubo, where service was paramount. “I think attentive and knowledgeable service is essential to being a good restaurant,” she explains. “You don’t have to be stuffy to be efficient. Being friendly is another part of it. We are not trying to be too cool for school.” On the topic of service, Wallace adds, “One of my biggest problems with restaurants, old and new, in Brooklyn is hipster service. The idea of ‘Ugh, I’m here, you’re here, let’s just get through this.’ When you are dealing with that type of attitude from a server, it just makes you feel like you are an imposition to them.”
The modest décor at The Wallace is warm and inviting with dark wood tables, chairs, and banquette. Vintage mirrors of all shapes cover the wall to add depth to the long and narrow space. “We wanted it to look like a cross between a French bistro and a steak house,” says Soule. Modern industrial-looking chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The lighting is dimmed, and candles are lit on each table for dinner. It’s both romantic for date nights and just chill enough for an easy dinner with friends and family.
While Wallace had been conceiving his initial opening menu five years prior to opening The Wallace and loves to share unconventional flavors and dishes with his customers, it quickly became apparent that there could be such a thing as “too cute of a menu,” at least at their present location. “In the short month that we opened, I might have gone too far with some things,” he says. “We’ve changed the menu to reflect what our customers want to eat.” Take for instance the charcuterie plate that included duck liver pate and testa headcheese. Wallace, a huge fan of testa, noticed the plate just wasn’t selling. “To a lot of people the idea of eating something called headcheese, even if you try to disguise it with the Italian name testa, wasn’t appealing,” he explains. The duck liver pate has a strong irony taste and gamey-ness to it which made their pate much stronger in taste than people were accustomed to. So they did away with the headcheese and replaced the duck liver with chicken, and now the plate sells. “When you fall in love with a particular flavor or dish, especially if it’s something that is rare or different, you want to share it. Unfortunately sometimes those dishes, no matter how much you love don’t sell,” says Wallace before adding that his “primary responsibility is to serve my customers.”
But there is a line that must be drawn between catering to the masses and creating the type of food that inspires and fulfills you as a chef. His eclectic menu and concerted effort to stray away from comfort and soul food have some residents in the neighborhood accusing him of pandering to white customers. “I’m proud of being a black chef,” Wallace declares. “There are far too few of us, and those of us in this industry get pigeonholed into making comfort food or Southern food. All of which I believe are noble pursuits. Nevertheless, if I want to make a menu that is contemporary then I feel there is a burden on me that I am somehow leaving our culinary traditions behind.” It’s an issue about which Wallace feels very strongly. “Hearing from black people that I don’t cook a certain way so they won’t come here… It’s ridiculous, scary, reductive, and backward-ass thinking. If you’re not inclined to give my restaurant a fair shake ’cause there is no fried chicken on the menu, then up yours. Seriously.”
Word-of-mouth has been essential in The Wallace’s growth and so has residents’ support of the local restaurant. Their customers are made up of Brooklyn locals and diners making the trek from Manhattan. “We definitely benefit from the Barclays Center,” Soule says. “When there are big events or concerts, we get more people from outside the area for dinner.” The restaurant is still at its early stages (having only been open for five months), so landing a table for dinner or brunch doesn’t require a long wait. Although that may soon change with Fulton becoming the new up-and-coming restaurant row Soule and Wallace predicted it would be. “The challenge is getting people to think of Fulton as a place to get great food and dining and not just take out,” Soule says. “We’ve had a good feeling about this area from the start, and now it’s changing in the right direction.”