Everything about this new Warren eatery is welcoming.
54 State St., Warren, 694-0727, bywaterrestaurant.com. Open for dinner Monday-Saturday, late night Friday-Saturday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessibility is a challenge in the seashell parking lot. Cuisine Contemporary American with a dash of Southern charm. Capacity Thirty-two. vibe Nautical minimalism. Prices Appetizers: $3-$15; entrees: $18–$28; dessert: $3-$7. Karen’s picks Pickled shrimp, beef tartare, seasonal salads, ricotta gnocchi, ice cream and cookies. If you’re at a bar seat, order a platter of pickled shrimp and stay awhile.
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"Remember the brown bread that they used to serve in a can?” asks the man sitting next to me. “That’s what this reminds me of,” he continues, pointing to a wooden board of sliced sweet bread. The comparison is loose, of course. The version of our youth was slick and sweet; this one is earthy, mature and sitting alongside a collection of seasonings. But it’s not a stretch to say that Katie and Brian O’Donnell are going for something evocative with bywater, their new restaurant on Warren’s State Street.
The O’Donnells aren’t new to the world of food or sales: he’s manned the kitchen at Café Nuovo and she’s a staple in town, outfitting residences through her Water Street shop, the Wooden Midshipman, and previously tending bar at Persimmon, down the road in Bristol. But taking the helm of a restaurant is clearly a riskier voyage and the desire to please the locals is apparent from the first swing of the door.
Owners Katie and Brian O’Donnell. The beef tartare served Pittsburgh rare. Ricotta gnocchi and salty chorizo.
Hosts — and there is often a pair — are close to the community, quick to recognize familiar faces and eager to memorize new ones. “It’s been months,” says one to my companion, remembering not only names but food orders and golf handicaps. Other servers are hard to distinguish, not because they’re slacking but because they communicate effortlessly, almost intimately, with the crowd. “Dooo it,” urges one waitress to a diner hesitant to order two appetizers. Then, lowering her voice to a whisper: “Welcome to my world.”
The space is also warm and in a subtle way, eclectic. The somewhat sterile surroundings that once held the Cheese Plate have been washed in midnight blue paint and nautical imagery, the kitchen just barely visible through a horizontal peep-hole. Its dominant aesthetic is homey though difficult to categorize as any one style: Swedish sleek at the bar, Amish farmhouse in the dining room spindle chairs and eco-friendly by way of a terrarium collection. Just enough of everything seems to be bywater’s only creed.
Though the restaurant’s name — a district in New Orleans, among other cities — suggests seafood, the menu doesn’t submit to much categorization other than seasonal and, when possible, local. What it is ruled by, however, is an enthusiastic sense of abandon. Flavors are strong, portions are large, presentations are unabashed. Perhaps it’s a first-restaurant response: O’Donnell puts everything out there, almost without filter, so that the diner can see the totality of his range in a single dish.
Pickled shrimp paired with assorted “shucker’s choice“ oysters.
The result is often a carnival; theatrical, engaging and satisfying. Smoky roasted corn paired with fresh tomatoes might be a simple ode to the season but O’Donnell drapes the dish ($9) in quesocotija, morphing farm fare and street food into a hybrid of hipster produce. The same applies to the kitchen’s beef tartare ($12), a mash-up of French tradition and American ingenuity. Served “Pittsburgh rare,” or what Europeans call “blue,” the loosely packed puck of chopped steak is blasted with heat, creating a ring of char with a raw interior. Topped with a quivering yolk dusted in mild chili pepper, the presentation is concerned with one thing: conveying the spirit of meat. Simultaneously rugged and delicate, it’s a Wonka bite, one that gets every version of meat into a mouthful.
This kind of aggressiveness will inevitably skip off track when it comes to ingredients that thrive on simplicity. A composed crab salad with cured watermelon, pickled rind and pea tendrils ($12), a one time offering, falls just over the line of indulgent. There’s a freshness to the fruit and the crisp bite of acidity but the mountain of creamy dressed crab reads heavy rather than sweet. It’s smart in conception but even the best ideas fumble on the first steps of their evolutionary path.
The challenge for O’Donnell is negotiating the space between Southern charm, evident in the sweet tea soda and stellar pickled shrimp, and the showmanship that Café Nuovo instills in its kitchen staff. While first courses lean toward the dramatic, entrees tend to be more rustic, less about construct than congeniality. Roasted chicken ($26) is modest, served alongside bacon and vinegar based German potato salad; an assortment of grilled vegetables is paired with cheesy corn pudding ($18); ricotta gnocchi and salty chorizo ($22) rest in a bowl of mustard thyme broth ample enough to evoke soup. Even the house frites are a collection of large wedges that conjure campfires more readily than a brasserie.
No surprise that the local audience is receptive to bywater’s casual air. The small bar is often full with a diverse mix of drinkers tangentially connected to the young owners. People walking by frequently rap on windows and join their top-knotted, skinny jeaned friends, already sipping on warm weather shrubs or straight whiskeys. And while the dominant demographic may be modish and androgynous, the restaurant is always half full of Barrington transports and Warren families willing to commit to a full bottle of wine rather than a slow graze through the cocktail list.
The ability to live between two convergent worlds — tattoos and reading glasses — is not so much an affect here as the restaurant’s foundation. Servers span at least two generations in age, some with Midwestern sweetness, others with urbane attitude but all charmingly enthusiastic about their new community. One thing Katie O’Donnell knows how to assemble is warmth: in the lighting, in the colloquial banter and in the handful of desserts that all go for memories of grandma.
Cookies are brought in from north Bakery, clearly a kindred spirit when it comes to making cool feel comfortable. They’re served warm with a glass of milk but it’s the marriage of sugar and salt (the ratio leans in salt’s favor) that makes them something more than retro. Fruit-filled hand pies are almost entirely savory though — if you get the chance — anything paired with the rich house-made basil ice cream falls into balance. Not that equilibrium is what bywater is after. The goal is nothing more than a good time and a tight-knit group of regulars. And though it’s a small space that doesn’t allow décor to dictate the mood, there’s ample good will, even in its infancy.