You know the old adage that says it’s not the fight in the dog but the dog in the fight? Well, when it comes to the restaurant Black Tree in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood, there might not be a better motto to describe this spot.
Not the largest space—featuring just a handful of tables and a narrow bar area—the food that chef and owner Sandy Dee Hall makes every day makes up for what the outside appearance may lack.
That’s not to say that the location doesn’t have charm and character. The interior makes you feel like you’re in a rustic old building, with exposed brick and solid wood accents.
But what makes Black Tree as unique and competitive in the popular New York City food scene is Sandy, who uses his self-taught love for food to whip up open face sandwiches that are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Anytime a chef is as fixated on getting the freshest ingredients as Dee Hall is, like sticking to a 300-mile radius for all of his food components, it’s easy to see why the restaurant was featured on the popular Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with host Guy Fieri amazed at the way Dee Hall prepares and serves his dishes.
Cooking up his popular Pork Winter sandwich that uses Caffe Vita coffee as a dry rub, Fieri’s taste buds were blown away by the strong taste that came from the complex sandwich.
I had the chance to sit down with Sandy during a recent trip to New York, and he gave me the skinny on how the concept for Black Tree came to be, and where he developed a passion for using local and fresh ingredients for all of his dishes.
How does coffee as a dry rub add to a dish?
“I think it just stands out a little bit more. When you first taste green coffee; it’s just a little tannic and sour. But, with meats especially, I think that coffee does a lot with our profile because it adds an acidity that’s missing when you don’t use something like a lemon. Just using the dry rub with the coffee, I think that’s really cool.”
Can you talk about the 300-mile radius you use to get your food?
“From New York City, we only go as far as 300 miles around, so I don’t have any citrus at the bar, or anything. All my liquor is beer or wine, and all the food comes from within that 300 miles. But, for instance, with Vita, I understand that the coffee beans themselves aren’t from around here, but they roast them right around the corner, (in Vita’s Lower East Side café).”
What drew you to Caffe Vita?
“I think you guys have an outstanding product. Since it’s such small batch stuff, I really like that it’s a nine-pound roast, and that’s it. The fact that you guys supply all of New York with your coffee by using just those nine-pound batches, I think that’s pretty exceptional and is a cool concept. I can really appreciate what you’re doing; it adds a special quality that you can tell makes a difference. It’s some of the little things that you’re doing that people come to appreciate.
How did you get to know about Caffe Vita?
“I’ve actually liked your guys’ brand for a long time. I opened up The Meatball Shop in Williamsburg, which is the first time I was introduced to Caffe Vita. And I always liked the coffee and the roast profile. It wasn’t particularly sour, which I like, since I prefer a dark, bold taste.”
Where did the idea for Black Tree’s unique menu come from?
“I’m just basically insane, I guess? We wanted our menu to show things that people would normally get on a plate, but that we could do as a sandwich. When you get something as a sandwich, it can look messy, and doesn’t have to be exactly plated; which takes out a lot of labor since things don’t have to be peeled a certain way. All the meat doesn’t have to be formed in a certain way. And I thought that the only way to do that was by doing a sandwich. So lots of my original ideas were things that would normally be plated, but I can prepare as a sandwich. I can do a lot of these things on a plate, but it would cost me about twice as much because I would have to put so much effort into the entire process. But because it’s on a sandwich, the flavor stays the same, but it doesn’t matter how it looks because it’s not on a plate anymore.”
What separates Black Tree from some other restaurants in New York City?
“It’s the concept of a farm-to-table that’s accessible. It’s the price point being really low that continues to drive back regulars each week. I used to work at these really high-end restaurants, and when I started Black Tree, I knew that I couldn’t afford a $34 pork dish, even though it might be good and fresh. I could do the same thing at a lower price, though, because of the plating concept; which is really our main difference.”
How did you get the idea to use Vita coffee as a dry rub?
“I actually use your guys’ coffee in almost every piece of meat. The duck leg, it has coffee on it, but I just don’t advertise it on the menu like I do with the pork. Coffee, in a sense, can be difficult to use in certain things when cooking because of the texture, and because I’m using different braises and stuff, it almost dissipates into the liquid to make it a gritty texture. But it hits something in your mouth that just tastes good.”
Where did you get the name Black Tree?
“It’s like an old concept that came from something I thought up a long time ago, which I knew would probably never happen. I just wanted this tree that would be growing in the center of the restaurant, and a floor that showed the root system underneath. So when I opened this place, people were wondering what I would name it, and I thought Black Tree, and my friends just thought it was cooler than Sandy’s Sandwiches or something.”
What made you decide on this location?
“I knew that I wanted to be on the Lower East Side. You get scared, because you don’t want to open up anything too big, but I feel like, even though we’re in a tiny area and get overwhelmed at times, the vibe’s good and we’re staying busy, so that’s always good.”
How do you deal with so much food competition in New York?
“You know, I’m really self-conscious with my cooking because I wasn’t classically trained. There are lots of people who went to culinary school and then traveled around to some of the better restaurants in the world, but just seeing people’s reaction to our food, it kind of changes my mind on things, and proves that our dishes are at the same level as some of the higher end places in the city. We might get a bad wrap because people think we’re just sandwiches or whatever, but if they want great food at a great price point, I always tell people to come here over spending $80 somewhere else.”