What do you get when you combine childhood friends who have known each other since attending fifth grade at the same New York City prep school, an instant romance and experience working at one of the city’s finest restaurants? A one-year-old cheese and wine restaurant located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Denizen.
Denizen is run by Liam Seide, managing partner and creator of the concept; Chris Wilford, partner and wine director; Emily Lindh, wife of Liam; and John Poiarkoff, executive chef/consultant. It’s one block from the subway and the first stop in Brooklyn for the L Train. McCarran Park and Saturday’s farmers market is a few blocks away, as is the Brooklyn waterfront-facing Manhattan.
Seide and Wilford met in the fifth grade while attending the Walden School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They became best friends for many years, even playing in bands together. Seide moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Brown University in 1990 and eventually became Wilford’s best man at his wedding.
Wilford entered the wine business after a number of years as a professional drummer in New York. He started first in retail and eventually moved on to wholesale, where he worked for a prominent importer/distributor, T. Edward Wines, for 13 years. Wilford built strong relationships with not only some of the best wine directors and sommeliers in New York, but also some of the top reps and owners of other highly-regarded wine distribution companies through frequent dinner parties at his loft in the city. His English bulldog, Barolo, was well known among the area’s professional wine cognoscenti.
Seide returned to New York in 2006, when he moved in with Wilford and went to work at the well-known David Burke and Donatella restaurant on East 61st Street. From there, he moved on to Danny Meyer’s The Modern, where he met Emily Lindh, and a romance eventually led to a wedding. The Williamsburg soireé featured a New Orleans-style second line parade down Roebling Street to the after party at the newly-opened Denizen.
The other fortuitous event that came out of The Modern was that this was also where Seide not only met his chef, John Poiarkoff, but also his backer, Oliver Maier who was a client at the Modern and instigated the project. Maier was looking for an opportunity to invest in a wine bar on the Upper East Side. Seide had also studied at the Wine & Spirit Educational Trust, where he passed “With Distinction”, their advanced course in Wine & Spirits.
Early on, Seide realized that Manhattan was not going to be the best location for the project. He soon settled on Williamsburg, Brooklyn, achingly hip and a stone’s throw from the mainland; and jumped at the opportunity. Nick Reiner, another close friend and Walden classmate, also came on board as a partner. Finally, the team was in place.
The name ‘Denizen’ was chosen to represent the fact that this was to be a neighborhood restaurant. It denotes a place where the local “denizens” could come to hang out and one that is a reflection of its environment. Seide and Lindh chose a number of photographs that depict street scenes of people gathering in Williamsburg over many decades, including an old picture of the original building where Denizen now sits.
Wilford crafted the wine list around what essentially he felt was important to him when he went out to dine; delicious wines that didn’t make him feel like he was getting ripped off. Eventually, it became clear that his idea of good vino meant old world wines, with the inclusion of a number of thoughtful and well-made American wines and a strong emphasis on organic and bio-dynamic wine growing. More and more of the wines selected turned out to be organic, biodynamic or natural, such as Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot. Wilford also discovered the incredible quality of wines on tap. This was a movement just starting as they were creating their list. For the first time, there was a plethora of high-quality wines being “tanked” by some very reputable producers, such as Bruce Schneider and Charles Bieler’s Gotham Project.
At the other end of the spectrum, Wilford had long been a collector of fine wines, so he knew a number of other collectors. He took advantage of his own collection as well as close friends that were willing to consign a few cherries from their cellars. Since they do not pay up front, they have no cash sitting on the bottles. As such, Denizen can offer wine at substantially lower mark ups than most fine dining establishments. For example, a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 2006 costs $350-$400 at most establishments; at Denizen, it is $250.
John Poiarkoff graduated first in his class at the French Culinary Institute (now ICC). He joined Meyer’s The Modern right out of culinary school and recently was the executive chef at North in Armonk, NY along with The Pines & Willow in Brooklyn.
Poiarkoff’s cuisine has an emphasis on seasonality. Incorporating finer cheeses into the a la carte food menu sets them apart, as well. Some are plays on classic dishes, like the French Onion Toast with Timberdoodle from Woodcock Farm in Weston, VT. It is a twist on French onion soup and has a mustiness that compliments the braised oxtail and caramelized onions. The charred onion goat dip that is served with watermelon radishes uses a local Chèvre from R&G Cheese Makers in Troy, NY. Others are not as traditional, like the roasted broccoli topped with a house-made cheese sauce that uses the Chef Shred from Bend, VT’s Jasper Hill. It is a pre-shredded product made up of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and Alpha Tolman, an Alpine-style cheese. Of superior quality, it is made using the “seconds” of these two artisanal cheeses, yet still affordable. Lindh’s favorite cheese at the moment (it changes) is Ameribella from Jacob’s and Birchford, a washed rind from Indiana. She says the brothy aroma, fruity taste and gooey texture are best paired with roasted shiitake mushrooms tossed in olive oil and sherry vinegar along with draft Hill Farmstead Edward APA.
Lindh has always had a love affair with cheese. It was her go-to snack since childhood, as she never had much of a sweet tooth. While working in fine dining restaurants in her hometown of Newport, RI, the cheese plate was always her favorite, along with the regional fare of New England, which sparked her curiosity into the wide world of fine cheeses.
When Emily moved to New York City in 2011 and began work at The Modern, she inherited the cheese program with 20 artisanal cheeses as well as a classic French-style cart that was wheeled around the dining room taking cheeses plates tableside. She worked at Casellula Cheese and Wine Café from 2013-2016 as the head fromager in charge of selecting over 40 kinds of cheeses sourced directly from farmers and cheesemakers.
After she attended several American Cheese Society conferences, Lindh passed the Certified Cheese Professional Exam in 2015. While creating the cheese program for Denizen, she was inspired by her past experiences, not necessarily wanting to create something new, but taking what she had learned, evolving it and doing it right with integrity and thoughtfulness. There are between eight and 12 cheese selections at Denizen that offer fun, creative pairings that can really be conversation points, encouraging guests to explore the many different flavor and texture combinations of a simple cheese plate. Lindh sources from small distributors and cheesemakers, supporting local businesses. The entire front of house staff makes the cheese plates because it is great hands-on education for them and enables them to appreciate the cheeses, which in turn makes them easier to sell to inquiring guests. This method has been successful, as Denizen is thriving. The vast majority of its clientele are repeat customers who have become regulars, or denizens, living up to the restaurant’s name.