When I was sixteen I lived with a family in Segovia, Spain. The dad was like the Spanish Roberto Benigni; his two young sons, Iñaki and Javier, taught me how to say a whole bunch of phrases related to soccer in Spanish; and the mother, Rosa, made me sandwiches out of baguettes, cured ham, and egg frittata. For one month in the summer of 2000 I learned something very important: Life is actually beautiful.
When made of long midday meals, naps, and light pilsners and olives shared with neighbors at your local bar every night after work, life can be an easy-paced delight rather than a daily slog. And so, at the end of June when I boarded a plane to fly back home I cried a lot and wondered: How did we get this so wrong?
Luckily, Maria Rebrikova feels the same way. And one month ago yesterday, she opened a Spanish-style tapas bar in South Williamsburg that restores this order to things. Naive sits at the especially charming tree-lined intersection of South 4th and Rodney Streets across from the Rodney Street playground. And if, one day after work, you take yourself there and sit at the bar—whose two facades open completely to the street—and feel the light breeze on your face, and hear kids playing across the street as Anatoly serves you small rounds of crispy chorizo with shallots in a red wine sauce and a cold cocktail, just as a friend saunters in to join you, then you, too, might believe: Yes, life is pretty beautiful.
Rebrikova is not, however, Spanish. She grew up in the cold; in a town in the north of Russia. But talking with us from behind her bar yesterday, she said she has always felt like a New Yorker, and moved here a decade ago. She also loves Spain, and tapas. So when she decided to open a bar, she envisioned a place not only where she could display the work of all of her artistic friends, and host live music (as a writer, she knows how hard it is to get her work seen and published), but also a place that served the food she knew and loved most.
“I just decided, why not do something that I cook myself? And I love this style and I love Spain,” Rebrikova said. “You just have to do what you love—you just have to go for it.”
In the kitchen, Chef Emilio Pillajo worked with Rebrikova to create a menu with a wide variety of small dishes made of tartines, meat skewers, tapas, sliced jamon Iberico, shipped from Spain, and a perfectly cooked falafel burger, which manages to retains its moisture, rather than become a dry, crumbly mess.
As we sat at the bar and took in the charm of the corner, we nibbled a selection of the tartines: fig purée with rosmary and goat cheese, another with housemade ricotta with anchovies, and, my favorite, featuring a nice, plump Spanish sardine. My friend gobbled smoked shrimp with paprika and garlic, and, in addition to the wine-sauced chorizo rounds, the zucchini patties were excellent: crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, and given a salty zip with ham and olive toppings.
The bar is stocked with a selection of Spanish (and also some French and Italian) red and white wines; but the list of signature cocktails is pretty out of the ordinary and worth a taste. Several use absinthe (the Vincent Van Gogh is simply absinthe and prosecco; and the Al Green, absinthe, lime and muddled cucumber); while the Janis Joplin comprises vodka, Chambord, creme de cassis, prosecco, and raspberries. My favorite was the Clockwork Orange (gin, St. Germain, orange bitters, with a slice of grapefruit) and my friend enjoyed the Dali’s Elephants made of gin, Grand Marnier, and muddled mint.
Brunch is served on the weekend, and the menu features a traditional potato frittata, a Spinach and onion tortilla, and baked egg with tomato sauce, spinach, and burrata—and, of course, the requisite mimosas, bellinis and Kir Royals are served.
As we nibbled and sipped, Rebrikova lamented that the sun wasn’t out; the bar looked so pretty—so open to the street—when all that natural daylight shined in, she said. But we assured her we were quite comfortable anyway. Small groups of friends sidled up to the handsome wooden bar, while others came and sat solo, only to be joined by a friend who just happened to be walking by. This was that dream I had left behind in Spain.
“We feel like [the neighborhood] wanted us to be here, you know?” said Rebrikova. For seven years, the space had been empty. Most recently it was a liquor store and a Mexican restaurant. So when Rebrikova took over the lease in September, she completed the renovations in three months, but then waited an additional three months to receive a final building permit, even though the buildout was complete. “People were knocking on the door and asking, ‘Why doesn’t it open? Do you need help?’” she recounted. “We are so lucky to be in this neighborhood, because people are so loyal and kind and friendly.”
299 South 4th Street, Williamsburg
All photos by Sasha Turrentine.