Written and photographed by Caitlin Thornton
My relationship with The Morgan in Brooklyn began with what may or may not have been a guerilla marketing technique. “Black Lips are playing at the new bar down the block!” someone told me in the overpriced organic grocery store near my place (situated in a pocket in Bushwick that’s lovingly referred to as “Morgantown” for its location off the L, or “East Williamsburg” for people who cannot come to terms with the fact that they live in Bushwick). So my friends and I strolled over to the corner of Bogart and Varet Street with high hopes.
Maybe we were gullible, but Jeff Mangum did play at a pop-up venue nearby a few months before, and the Black Lips were in fact in town. Nevertheless, a few bands that weren’t the Black Lips put on a fun show, beer and wine were only five bucks, and it was nice to see another hopeful hotspot call my strange ‘hood home. Little did anyone know during The Morgan’s so-called soft opening that this restaurant could rile so many people up, mainly because of its menu that didn’t yet exist.
Last year, when I moved to New York from the Midwest in a daze, I didn’t expect to live in the Mecca of creative-class gentrification, which seems to revolve almost entirely around food. My new Craigslist roommates told me I had to go to this pizza place around the corner, Roberta’s, as soon as I put down my luggage. “Oh cool, another pizza place I ‘have to try’ in New York,” I thought and shrugged it off.
But upon my first visit, I got it: artisan-crafted food, a well-deserved always-an-hour-and-a-half wait (they don’t take reservations), and a truly impressive rooftop garden where they grow a lot of their own ingredients. So I kept going back, even though I was scoffed at by the hostess on more than one occasion. Sure, there were a few other places to get your grub, but Roberta’s was the only destination spot. People actually left Manhattan to eat amidst a land of factories—some still loudly operating, some abandoned and being converted into the restaurants in question—and a place where cab drivers frequently inquire if I feel safe getting dropped off here.
Then came The Morgan. It’s interior designer Richard Guillard’s first stab at owning a restaurant, and he’s enlisted Executive Chef Kyle McClelland, an FCI grad formerly of Caviar Russe, to help him out. His adoration for the East Coast is reflected in his affinity for featuring clams, oysters, and other “catches” on the menu. Also featured: Kobe burgers, Berkshire pork chops, a variety of flatbreads, and more, all printed on a piece of 8 1/2″ x 11″ computer paper.
McClelland’s high-level ingredients certainly show in the price. It’s not break-the-bank, why-oh-why-did-I-take-my-date-here style. But it’s not cheap. “I tried to create this menu so you can get an appetizer, an entrée, and a glass of wine for around $40,” McClelland says. But it’s the prices, the Manhattan-esque presentation, and basically the “fancy-ness” that’s caused this place to be called “swanky,” “snooty,” and incite some pretty harsh commenting from those who are familiar with Morgantown.
Last night, I finally got a taste of what The Morgan had to offer. It’s still bare-bones décor, letting the wood floors and other features like the brick wall in the rear dining room really shine, and still offering only beer and wine—though the selection’s good, with 14 beers on tap and a nice price range of wines, all influenced by bar manager Nathan Rice’s frequent trips to Portland, Oregon.
Fried blowfish tails—and their hefty side of fries—were salty and delightfully crispy, with the meat pulling easily from the bone. I can’t eat shellfish (it sucks), but my friend gobbled up a handful of clams from the raw bar in seconds flat. The Morgan’s Bibb lettuce salad could almost serve as its own entrée; unexpectedly huge and hearty it’s got a ton of thick-cut bacon and a creamy but still light dressing.
I went whole-hog (food pun!) and got the pork belly, crispy outside and soft, fatty, and meaty inside served on top of fresh Georgia peaches. I wished the peaches were less tampered with—they seemed too saucy, if you catch my drift—but the sweet and salty combo was divine. It was incredibly rich, and I was full after a few bites. But since I was with a man, of course it ended up being polished off.
Even if Brooklynites pass up eating at The Morgan, they’ll still want to check the spot out for entertainment. The basement is decked out for shows and DJs. Behind the restaurant, through a pair of solid wood doors puncturing a brick wall, is a massive stage and floor that’s been hosting live music and comedy nights. Even further back, behind the stage, a door leads to a lot across from a Boar’s Head distribution warehouse. They’re hoping to clean and fence this space for events soon. Including, you guessed it: clambakes.
Despite criticisms from those wishing to keep the neighborhood as is, The Morgan has definite destination potential for attracting more visitors—and thus, venues for food (in varying price ranges) and nightlife. Plus, it’s a place I won’t mind spending my paycheck, and where I’ll feel comfortable taking my mom in the near future so she isn’t too afraid of my neighborhood.
Caitlin Thornton is a writer living in Los Angeles. In her so-called free time, the Chicago native rides her bike around in six-inch heels, writes about dating and relationships, and eats and drinks a little too decadently. Thornton specializes in killer goat cheese omelettes and perfectly poured gin-and-juices. Follow her on Twitter: @caitlinthornton.