Executive chef Bria Downey is bringing a fresh spin to classic American fare at Clay Pigeon.
Walking into Clay Pigeon on a Tuesday evening, the atmosphere is quiet, with a group of businessmen at the bar enjoying after-work cocktails and a few couples dining at tables. I ask our server about the emptiness of the restaurant. “Don’t worry, it’ll be booming soon.” Apparently, I’ve become one of those senior diners that eats at 5:30, but I’m starving and thirsty. I order the house-made limoncello and a charcuterie board to tide me over until the main course. The limoncello is sweet and strong, a perfect sipper for a warm day. The charcuterie board is an impressive display of meats dispersed between small mounds of cheese, flavorful pickled vegetables and candied walnuts, with a side of homemade toasted bread. I especially enjoy the duck ham, a creamy cheese with a coffee ground crust, and another cheese rolled in fennel seeds and topped with honey.
As we wait for dinner, I eye the restaurant and admire its ambiance – low lights, dated brick walls, large white curtains and an impressive wall of wine. More and more people are idling in for dinner, and the place is starting to buzz.
Our server brings out our main courses: an 8-ounce ribeye for my date and the house pasta special for me. I can’t help but sneak a bite of the ribeye, which is salty, buttery, herby, and cooked to perfection with a beautiful, crunchy crust from a pan sear. It’s served with a small cast iron dish of whipped mashed potatoes, which has me envious for not ordering it myself. My pasta is equally as delicious though – tagliatelle with peas, cheese, bacon, and a dry shaved egg over the top. It’s reminiscent of carbonara, and pairs wonderfully with the glass of pinot noir I ordered.
Although we’re full, we can’t help but order dessert: a strawberry rhubarb tart topped with vanilla ice cream. The tart is bursting with freshness and is the perfect sharing size for two.
As we head out, I realized our server was right. The Clay Pigeon is booming now, with every seat at the bar taken and a dining room full of happy customers. I decided to chat with executive chef Bria Downey, who joined Clay Pigeon in January from owner Marcus Paslay’s other restaurant, Piatello Italian Kitchen.
You’ve been cooking professionally since you were 15 years old. How does that happen?
My whole life I’ve always worked in a kitchen. My first job at 15 was working in a mom-and-pop Greek/Italian place. I remember the first time I made lasagna there, which was one of their best sellers, and oh my goodness, what a labor of love. I was falling in love with food—without realizing. I had never thought growing up that I would become a chef. Slowly, but surely that is where I ended up, though. I have worked everywhere — from bakeries to donut shops to a burger joint to gastro pubs, wine bars, Italian restaurants, and now I am doing from-scratch cuisine at Clay Pigeon.
How are you changing up the menu at Clay Pigeon?
We have chef specials every day and I change dishes on the menu about every 2-3 weeks. It’s all about what kind of product I can get my hands on. Menu planning starts with the season; I try to cook based on what is available. I sit and think, “What is the best way to make asparagus?” We do ours over an open flame with garlic butter, salt and pepper, and then hit it with Parmigiano-Reggiano before it goes to the table. That, in my opinion, is the best way to eat asparagus. I take that same process and apply it to all of the product I bring in to the restaurant to create my ever-changing menus.
How has it been so far being at Clay Pigeon?
It’s awesome. I literally have almost everything that I could want: A pasta maker, an ice cream machine, a huge walk-in and a big smoker out back. I love it. I get to do all of the fun stuff like breaking down proteins, baking all of our bread, curing, pickling, and making jams and preserves. I always have a hundred projects running through my head.
What are your plans for the wine and cocktail menus? Are you rotating out seasonal cocktails and wines?
The cocktail list evolves from me bringing in seasonal produce to the kitchen, followed by a menu change, and the ideas end up spilling out into the bar. For example, I recently brought in rhubarb for a dessert. While breaking it down, Tia—my twin sister who is also the bartender at Clay Pigeon—asked if she could experiment with some… It’s currently featured in our cocktail called the Pink Collins. I have started a pickle program, plan on brandying cherries once they are in season, and continually produce preserves and syrups — and don’t forget about the limoncello. That is one thing that I started at Piattello that I just had to bring with me here to Clay Pigeon.
Cover photo: Octopus salad. Photo Brian Huston