Where cool is concerned, the center cannot hold. No place can establish itself as the cool place to be for too long; establishment, by its very definition, counters the concept of cool. Cool is evasive, it is edgy, and it leads its devotees to surprising places.
Most recently, cool set up shop in an unassuming storefront on Penn Avenue at the juncture of Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. At least, it was unassuming until perhaps the city's most distinctive sign nine lower-case letters spelling out "brillobox" on oversized old-fashioned typewriter keys went up, suggesting that here was a bar that would serve up a well-designed dose of retro chic with its whiskey and beer. And indeed, the eponymous box is on display in the front window, along with a Buddha head, behind curtains seemingly plucked from the set of The Sound of Music.
On the interior, far from being a jumble of vintage consumer kitsch, Brillobox's style is as sophisticated as its sign. From your seat in a lipstick-red, semi-circular, patent-pleather booth, you can admire the way that cultural tokens from your parents' attic (fiber-optic lamps, anyone?) mix it up ingeniously with contemporary paintings and sculpture. Or you can allow yourself to be mesmerized by the movies one a black-and-white classic, the other an oceanic documentary projected onto two screens on the walls in sort of an artistic adaptation of the typical bar TV. Your choice.
Also your choice will be whether to feed on bar staples (wings, burger, fries), vintage diner fare (cole slaw, grilled cheese) or one of Brillobox's unique specialties, such as a vegetarian creation called the Gouda Buddha Reuben. The menu isn't lengthy, but it's broad, with a selection of casual dishes designed, like everything else at Brillobox, with thoughtfulness and care. Traditionalists and adventurers, carnivores and vegetarians alike should be able to find something to tempt their palates. The appetizer list, in particular, offers many options, from Andy's can of tomato soup to Mandarin orange coleslaw and eggplant caviar.
We had to see what, precisely, they meant by that last one. We got a russet scoop of ground, roasted eggplant at the center of a large platter, with stripes of brilliant green basil, summery red tomato and pale green tapenade radiating out to the edges. Grilled flatbread wedges completed the beautiful presentation and, more importantly, offered the means for savoring this clever blend that touched every taste bud we possessed.
Good as the eggplant was, the black bean empanadas were better. Instead of the traditional, pierogie-looking pastries, Brillobox's empanadas are small, triangular, fluffy-crisp pillows of beany goodness, balanced with subtle seasoning and brightened by fresh salsa and cool sour cream. We could have eaten them all night.
But then we would have missed the gazpacho, offered as a seasonal alternative to Warhol's tomato soup. Chunky and garlicky, with unconventional ingredients like carrots, this unusually assertive vegetable blend was garnished with crunchy herbed croutons.
Everything, including a big basket of tender-crisp homemade potato chips, had been nearly perfect up until now, when the arrival of Jason's steak sandwich signaled a little bit of a letdown. On it were strips of tender beef marinated in soy, sesame and honey, but all that Asian flavor couldn't stand up to the enormous roll which engulfed the filling. The standard pepper-and-onion steak sandwich topping was adequate but uninspired. Why not a little bok choy to complete the thought?
Angelique ordered the aforementioned Gouda Buddha Reuben to satisfy her curiosity as much as her hunger. Billed as a "vegetarian version of the classic reuben," the substitutions were actually so completely different that the end result hardly resembled a reuben at all. But the gouda Buddha version had plenty of hearty veggie appeal, piled high with zucchini strips, spiced cabbage, a thick slather of red pepper hummus and plenty of melted gouda on grilled rye.
Cool means looking like you're not even trying, but cool also means breaking the rules. At Brillobox, careful arrangements of objects, of art, of ingredients add up to a level of casual sophistication that's so cool, it's hot.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars