In the end, the answer to the mystery sits out in the open, wrapped around Jeremy Kean’s neck. How else to explain the generous, good weird, occasionally plain weird spirit that courses through Jamaica Plain’s Brassica Kitchen + Cafe?
No surprise, he’s not the sort of chef-owner to wear crisp whites and demand a command-and-answer kitchen. His style runs skater punk, with a jaunty baseball cap riding on his head. Even if Kean ceaselessly roves his restaurant, ever fine-tuning the operation, what’s visible of him suggests he’s been dipped entirely in ink. Three simple, tattooed words loom just below his head: “ALL THE LOVE.”
So he’s a guy who wears his heart on his neck. The same could be said for Brassica’s co-owners — Kean’s sister, Rebecca, and his “co-chef,” Philip Kruta, who with his bare hands somehow managed to convert the wood from an old Arlington farmhouse into Brassica’s interior.
The food follows a similar line. In turn, Brassica’s dishes are surprising, outsize, giant-flavored, D.I.Y.-ish, and ever courting risk. If occasionally Kean and Kruta’s smash-mouth subtlety fails to pay off, very often it does. It’s not like this is new terrain for the duo. For five years they operated as a much-loved pop-up called Whisk, and before that logged hours in some of Boston’s finest kitchens, including L’Espalier, Rialto, No. 9 Park, and Aquitaine.
This Forest Hills space, wedged between a funeral parlor and the venerable Dogwood Cafe, has a loose, electric atmosphere. Several dozen small abstract canvases colorfully adorn the back wall. Rubber-stoppered medicine bottles line one end of the bar, filled with herbaceous tinctures. The front window is lipstick-scrawled with Brassica’s mission statement, calling itself “a neighborhood joint.” During the day, it functions as a thriving coffeehouse and lunch spot, what was formerly Fazenda Cafe.
Yet step through the door at night and it feels like you’ve joined a low-key party populated — on the evenings I was there, packed — with smartly clad millennials. The staff comes across as equally smart and upbeat; they could just as easily be the customers they serve.
A great and swift way to catch Brassica’s drift: Read over the cocktails menu. Go Figure. Dramamine. Fu Manchu. Gates of Hell. The Bones & Bourbon comes marrow-infused. Flavor forward, as they say. Bitters and water frozen around an angelica flower (otherwise known as herb ice) elbow right back. With these tasty crosscurrents set in motion, you never fall under the impression that you’re drinking meat.
Brassica offers a shifting rotation of toasts. Each guns for maximum effect, with satisfying results. First off, Kean’s house-made sourdough is superb, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous (albeit great) Iggy’s sourdough. With the bread grilled, a layer of seductive smokiness holds its own with, for example, minced salmon belly, which comes laced with pepper water and shallot crumbs, and liver mousse, which is impressively stalemated by fermented cabbage and duck honey.
You may be asking, as I did, what’s duck honey? Why, duck skins fried until they are burnt, then married — improbably? brilliantly? — with honey and thyme.
The Bolognese is another concoction perilously close to derailing. You could call this juggernaut an instance of love shown. Or you could posit the kitchen is trying to blow off the top of your head. Best bet — it’s both.
The chefs begin with homemade pancetta, then add and reduce large quantities of carrot juice and fermented pepper brine. Chicken stock, pork, and beef come later, and all of it cooks for hours. No surprise, the egg-yolk spaghetti is rolled in house. A hefty dollop of liver mousse and embedded kale amount to stages six and seven of one seriously heavy rocket launch.
Marcella Hazan, author of “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” and her legendary Bolognese recipe come to mind. It’s elemental — milk, wine, ground chuck, onions — and simmers for hours. Were the famously irascible Hazan still alive to sample Kean and Kruta’s version, she might try to put them in a double headlock.
It’s enough to leave one pondering: What culinary ethos is Brassica channeling? The window mission statement says “French/American comfort plates,” but the influences extend far beyond, from Italy to Spain, Vietnam to Korea, the American South to old New England. In the wrong light, this approach comes from everywhere and nowhere. More generously, it reflects a pair of chefs — and many young chefs like them — on the eternal hunt for new and formidable flavors and also looking to keep things creatively alive, unpredictable, subversive. Good or bad, it accounts for Brassica’s vital, counterculture vibe.
In the last three years, Kean has developed a zeitgeist-y obsession with fermentation. He and several fellow fermentos have even started a CSA offering up their concoctions. It’s the kind of “cooking” that requires time and a commitment that has little to do with turning a profit. His kimchi hits a true Brassica high-water mark. Napa cabbage and daikon radish combined with salted shrimp, pepper powder, and fish sauce may sound like more fare in need of a surge protector. But with kimchi and Kean’s other fermentations, that’s built in. A fizzing probiotic corrective acts as check on what in other dishes can veer into the realm of Way-Too-Muchness.
Take the Brussels sprouts with maple syrup, lemon, and miso. Though delectably charred and generously portioned, they’re also sweet enough to send you clamoring for a shot of bitters. But then both yams and beets benefit royally from Kean and Kruta’s swashbuckling. Local yams are crisped and caramelized via blanching, furnace-roasting, and frying, then spiked with sugar and Korean chiles and finally set atop clumps of spicy milk jam. Baby beets are swirled with homemade Greek yogurt, garlic confit, kale, pistachio powder, buttered panko crumbs, and parsley. Both are wonderful orchestrations of flavor, texture, heft, surprise.
The rabbit with brown bread, chile oil, and sour cream is a little like playing Twister with a Pilgrim and residents of France, China, and Ukraine; it’s a total blast, though too light on actual rabbit. I have a hard time finding fried chicken that I like, let alone love, and Brassica maintains the disappointment. Even if it’s accompanied by bright, crunchy slaw and homemade umeboshi (salted plums and maple), the breading wears like a suit of armor.
It will come as no surprise that Brassica’s desserts never approach anything like garden-variety. The spicy chocolate cremeux is grounded in luxuriant, dense chocolate-ness that’s brought to fiery life by a bold undercurrent of cayenne. The s’mores are made with house-made everything. Even the graham crackers? Of course the graham crackers. You don’t get some of the love at Brassica. You get all of it.
BRASSICA KITCHEN + CAFÉ
3710 Washington St., Jamaica Plain, 617-477-4519, www.fazendaboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Toasts/snacks $4-$11. Vegetables $6-$17. Meat $14-$26. Seafood $9-$16. Desserts $6-$9.
Hours Kitchen Tue-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. Cafe Mon-Fri 6 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Noise level Low-key party
What to order Liver mousse toast, salmon belly toast, Bolognese, rabbit, beets, yams, kimchi, s’mores creme brulee, spicy chocolate cremeux
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.