A Smith Street Switcheroo: Inside Nightingale 9 and Wilma Jean
By Sarah Zorn
photos by Austin McAllister
Prolific Brooklyn restaurateur Rob Newton is truly a jack-of-all-trades, skillfully spearheading southern-styled restaurants, Vietnamese street food spots, and local and sustainably minded cafes alike. But one thing he never had any real intention of becoming was a short-order fried chicken chef. “It got to the point when fried chicken comprised at least 40% of our orders at Seersucker,” Newton explains, of his original, acclaimed Smith Street eatery. “And while it was obvious that the borough was crying out for fried chicken, and while I knew I might eventually be the one to give it to them, I simply didn’t want to go that route at the restaurant.”
The chicken conundrum eventually proved the tipping point for a recent Smith Street shakeup, which involved shuttering Seersucker (total shocker!), moving Nightingale 9 into the considerably larger space, and using the Southeast Asian location’s diminutive digs to house a brand new concept called Wilma Jean. Named after Newton’s grandmother, the casual comfort food canteen seems as apt a landing spot as any for his justifiably admired fried bird, brined to juicy, tender submission and coated in a clinging, caramel-colored crust. But (as with Seersucker), it’s merely a gateway drug to the rest of the universally appealing items on offer, some resolutely Southern — pimento cheese, Surry sausage and grits, cornmeal-dusted Virginia oysters — others borrowing liberally from the larger retro Americana canon, such as an unapologetically calorific fried bologna sandwich, formerly a working class staple of the Midwest, and Cali-style double burgers, crosshatched with rashers of wobbly bacon and smeared with special sauce.
With crowd-pleasing, guilty pleasure staples out of the way (capably executed by his longtime sous, Morgan Jarrett), Newton is able to turn his attention to chef-ier pursuits over at Nightingale 9, born of his lifelong love for Asian cuisine, and more recent travels throughout Vietnam. Seersucker’s signature mosaic of vibrantly-colored pickle bottles has been removed, so patrons can now peer directly into the kitchen, to watch Newton sauté toothsome handfuls of Jersey chicken hearts with green and purple long beans (ever the conscientious sourcer, the veggies hail from Clinton Hill), or ladle glass noodles into a supremely delicate coconut and ginger-based broth, fragrant with dill and dotted with steamed Virginia clams (a number of dishes playfully hint at his proudly southern sensibilities). Gone are the banh mi (at least for now) at the dinner-only spot, which effectively raises the late night stakes for creative cocktails such as the Flor De Cana, a summery concoction of rum, passion fruit and lime. It’s ideally paired with a wonderfully refreshing watermelon salad, topped with an oversized rice cracker that you crush, crème-brulee style, with your chopsticks, allowing it to slowly disintegrate into the funky, crab paste-laden jumble of fruit, fried shallots and Thai basil. And the almond milk and coconut vinegar-based Dutch’s Moonshine (saved from eggnoggy sweetness by a generous pour of whiskey) is an excellent foil for a hearty grilled pork chop, finished with an aromatic crown of lemongrass, chili and cucumber.
Newton may undoubtedly make a mean fried chicken, but as his ever-expanding and evolving restaurant dynasty has consistently proven, he’s anything but a one-trick-pony.