Soon after my salad and dried-out meatballs arrived at Brik on York, I began to wonder: Had Elvis left the building? The thought persisted, buzzing about my head, on that night and others. I tried to shoo it away, looking for signs of greatness in the Neapolitan-style pizzas I’d heard so much about. When that didn’t work, I branched out with chicken and risotto and steak. But the buzzing grew louder, until another thought hit me: Had Elvis ever been in the building at all?
The Elvis in question wasn’t actually a singer in a gold lamé suit. I wanted to know if Shoshana Frost, the founding chef with a commitment to sourcing and a passion for Neapolitan pizza, was still the exec at Brik on York. According to the website, she was. And yet too many dishes were coming out overcooked, over-salted, over-oiled, with lengthy delays that suggested disorder in the back. Later, I asked Brik owner/sommelier Travis Gee if Frost was even in the kitchen. “She’s not,” he replied. “I’m actually cheffing now.”
It’s not uncommon for restaurant owners to wear many hats, from accountant to life coach. But the top toque on someone who was working in medical sales prior to opening Brik on York? “With Sho leaving, I’ve gotten back in the kitchen and taken ownership of my business,” said Gee, who isn’t entirely new to the industry, having worked at restaurants throughout high school and college. “It leaves me less vulnerable.” After Frost’s departure in August, Gee did hire a pizza chef to handle the restaurant’s wood-fired oven imported from Italy, but “I’m going to learn this, I’m going to do this,” he told me.
To Gee, Brik represents a lifelong dream, one rekindled after reconnecting with an old girlfriend a few years ago. As he recalled, “We started talking about life and said, ‘Why not just go for it?’” They agreed to travel the world and open a wine bar together, and while the relationship didn’t last, Gee is determined to see that Brik does. He handled most of the renovation himself, scraping off plaster to reveal the exposed brick that gives the restaurant its name. He oversaw the interior design, choosing everything from the relief columns that give the dining room a classic Italian feel to the homey couches, Oriental rugs and black-and-white picture of the Matinee theater that occupied the building a hundred years ago. The eight-page wine list is his, and Gee also books the musical acts that perform on weekends. “I left that dream,” he says, “but still wanted this dream.”
If Gee were up front about the change in the kitchen, diners might be more sympathetic to the challenges he now faces in realizing that dream. After all, who doesn’t love an underdog? But on my visits, there was a facade of business as usual, leaving me to feel sympathies of another sort: for my wallet. With steak priced at $32 and most pizzas hovering at $15 to $16, Brik’s prices set a certain level of expectation that just isn’t being met.
And charging full price for food that should’ve been part of R&D is one of the problems with learning as you go. Given Gee’s dedication to the restaurant, I have no doubt that if he’d planned on being the executive chef, he would have held a series of menu tastings prior to opening. During those tastings, someone would’ve pointed out that crusty is a better characteristic of flame-kissed pizza than of meatballs. Someone would’ve suggested pulling the crostini out of the oven a few minutes sooner, and using more rosemary and less balsamic and salt on the bistecca alla Fiorentina, which neared the sodium content of a salt-crusted branzino.
Gee, and others in the kitchen, would have been reminded that if anchovy salt is going to replace anchovies on the “reverse Caesar,” then the salt needs to taste like anchovies, not just salt. That prosciutto di parma should be sliced paper-thin, not cut in thick, jagged pieces. That a roast-chicken special should include a leg and/or thigh along with the tiny breast to live up to its name, or else simply be labeled a risotto special — not that there was anything special about the risotto, which resembled rice in runny cream sauce. And what about the Caprese? No one would’ve questioned its place on the menu, but someone would’ve surely noted that such salads are luxurious only with the ripest of tomatoes, the milkiest of mozzarella.
But it’s not too late to make these fixes, and a restaurateur with Gee’s heart and determination will surely address these flaws. And Brik is worth that effort, because the pizzas coming out of the prized oven have a lot going for them. Doughy edges were full of bubbles and charred just enough to offset the mozzarella. Bottom crusts were cooked all the way through, without the dampness that gives some people pause. Red sauce was as classic as a little black dress, unsullied by noticeable amounts of garlic, herbs or sugar. A verdura version was loaded with asparagus, microgreens and lemon. A bianca offered crumbly, fennel-spiked sausage and caramelized onions. A diavola grabbed the attention with its load of peppers as fiery as habaneros, with a side of crème fraîche to tame the heat. A simple margherita was dotted with fresh mozzarella and basil, with plenty of coveted open space in the form of red sauce.
True, some margheritas came out overly cheesy, as if topped by someone who’d forgotten he was in a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, not an American one. A few pies looked hurriedly stretched, with extra-wide margins that were all dough and no good stuff. And several came overloaded with truffle oil, an ingredient that — whether applied liberally or lightly — should’ve gone to its grave in the ’90s. But one bite of the dessert pizza, slathered with Nutella, dusted with powdered sugar and crisscrossed with chocolate syrup, was so good it nearly made us forget what needed improving.
Four months after Brik’s opening, Gee acknowledges that “the brand kind of got lost” when Frost left. Now he talks of the need to “reinvent ourselves a bit,” and has added daily lunch and discontinued brunch. But why not focus on Brik’s strengths? Given Gee’s sommelier training, why not scale back on the food, even temporarily, and make Brik a knockout wine bar, then build it into a restaurant and live-music venue? The lengthy wine list, with old- and new-world wines by the half-glass, glass, half-bottle and bottle — not to mention informative tidbits about each region — is a draw in and of itself, but servers currently aren’t doing it justice. It would be great to see Gee going from table to table in this role, but I never saw him do so; he’s probably too busy holding down the fort in the kitchen. With his knowledge and passion for wine, he would be a natural in the dining room.
So, yes, Elvis has left the building. If Brik on York can weather this transition, it may never become a show-stopper — but it could become the kind of unpretentious wine-lovers’ hangout that this neighborhood needs.
Brik on York
2223 East Colfax Avenue
3-item meat-and-cheese plate $14
Reverse Caesar $12
Bistecca alla Fiorentina $32
Poultry special $19
Nutella pie $9
Brik on York is open noon-midnight Tuesday-Sunday. Learn more at brik.bar.