This Brooklyn Chef Takes Comfort Food to a Whole New Level
Meatloaf with duck and homemade ketchup? Pigs in a blanket with pork belly? Chef Greg Baxtrom gives the food he grew up eating in Illinois a face lift.
“I’m going to eat this mustard with a spoon,” my friend Andrew says.
We’re at Patti Ann’s, the newest restaurant from chef and restaurateur Greg Baxtrom, and we’ve just begun diving into their Pig in a Blanket, a luscious hunk of pork belly enrobed in a potato roll. A house made savory honey mustard lines the plate. Both pig and blanket are gone before we know it.
Normally a pig in a blanket on a menu means some sort of hot dog-puff pastry thing, but at Patti Ann’s this and other comfort food classics are taken to another level. With a dining room that’s nostalgic and warm but not contrived, Patti Ann’s is inspired by Baxtrom’s mother, a former elementary school teacher, and many of his early food experiences growing up. A construction paper “Mr. Gallon” from his mother’s classroom is tacked to an actual chalkboard, his colorful limbs detailing the collective measurements of cups, pints and quarts. A shiny, pull-down map of the U.S. like the one in schools across America lines another wall. Yet on the plate, Patti Ann’s is a restaurant where salisbury steak means duck, where pot roast means short rib and where all the produce comes from the farmer’s market.
“Some things are things that I ate at home, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but we’re still in New York City,” Baxtrom says. So the meatloaf is made with duck and a ketchup house-made with cherries, a classic pairing with a comfort food spin. The mashed potatoes are Russet, a deviation from what Baxtrom calls the “cheffy” version with Yukons, because Russets are what moms use, “and they’re better,” he says. His mother also made the menu’s “goop” from scratch, cooking onions to make French onion dip instead of using a soup mix. The peanut butter squares and the lemon bars are her own recipes as well. “The bakery wanted to adjust, and I was like, ‘absolutely not,’” Baxtrom laughs.
The restaurant hearkens back to the family diners he went to with his actual family in Illinois. Waitstaff wear button-downs embroidered with the restaurant’s logo. Chairs in primary colors accent wooden tables. In the back, a general store serves soft serve, house-made condiments and snacks to go. It was in the Illinois city of Frankfort that Baxtrom’s relationship to cooking began — first with the Boy Scouts, in which he participated for 15 years. He recalls the campsite progression of first being given a bowl of beef stew, then being given a can of stew and a burner, and finally to bringing his own ingredients and cooking them over a fire. “You don’t want to be the person with the toughest meat or inedible stew and so it became competitive,” he says. He started competing in cooking competitions at campouts, and the idea of pursuing a career in food took hold. His first job was at a Wendy’s as a teenager.
This inauspicious start led to eventually being a James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant, with his Brooklyn venue Olmsted in 2017, with additional accolades awarded by The New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Esquire, among others. His restaurant Maison Yaki, a French-and-Japanese izakaya-style bar, opened on the same street, Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue, in 2019. But a restaurant like Patti Ann’s wasn’t always in the cards. The original plan was inspired by Miami’s beloved Joe’s Stone Crab seafood bar, but he realized during the pandemic, when everything was closed and the rent was still due on the space where Patti Ann’s currently exists, that the neighborhood didn’t really need another big bar. What he saw, rather, were strollers. Families with children of ages in both single and double digits. He wanted a place where they’d feel welcome, but where a young couple could also sit at the bar, where friends could gather for a meal together, or a place where you could bring your parents if they were visiting from out of town. “A writer friend of mine, his daughter is going to school today, college for the first time, and her last request was to eat at Patti Ann’s last night,” he says. “That’s exactly what it was for.”
And indeed, the night I visit, all of these groups are represented — a circle of friends in their 20s, a group of older folks ordering all manner of entrees, a couple at the bar, and Andrew and I in our 30s, all of us probably wondering the last time we had pot roast so good, so buttery and soft and juicy it falls apart in your mouth in the best way possible (the answer is possibly never). The peach cobbler is mind-expanding, crumbly, buttery and fruity and topped with Van Leeuwen vanilla ice cream. The Spirit Week cocktail (they’re all cheekily named after school activities like Field Trip, Ditch Day and Summer Break) is also killer, a smoky, sweet blend of mezcal, hibiscus, plum, lime and aperitivo. The creamed corn is borrowed from Alice Waters, box-grated corn with butter and cream, which elicits a “wow” from both of us.
So where Olmstead is the “fancy one,” Baxtrom says, and Maison Yaki is the bar with “a lot of Tinder dates,” Patti Ann’s is the one for everyone, and they’re all down the block from each other. And where more conceptual or experimental places like Olmstead and Maison Yaki have been thriving since before the pandemic, the comfort food of Patti Ann’s has found space for itself in a world changed by a distinct lack of comfort. It was a time when so many people couldn’t visit their families, so now there’s a place for them to come together, no matter what that family looks like, if it’s made up of friends or relatives or whoever they choose. “I worry about how much of that stuff is just like Greg Baxtrom’s memory, childhood, you know?” he says. “But I had a great childhood so why not make that memory?”
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