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Alicia’s food and modest prices continue to reap loyal, repeat customers

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In June 2002, I reviewed Alicia’s, a cafe in Brooklyn Heights. Alicia’s had opened several months before my visit there settling into a comfortable spot as the neighborhood’s "charming little place around the corner."

Minor problems existed - the ceiling was unfinished, with random blobs of paint, and a dish would emerge from the kitchen that was just so-so. But there was a certain something about Alicia’s (pronounced ah-LEE-see-ahs, named for owner Wayne Anderson’s youngest sister) that made the glitches forgivable.

Anderson’s presence in the small room turned customers into friends; one-named chef Sijbe (pronounced SEE-ba) produced plates of food with big, lusty flavors at prices that never topped $10; and the room, with its ocher walls and bamboo place mats, had a certain low-rent sophistication. No one seemed to mind the unfinished ceiling.

I returned to Alicia’s this month, curious to see - and taste - how it had evolved. Several restaurants I’ve reviewed during the same period - some that were hyped in New York magazine and the Zagat Survey - have either folded, or closed and reopened with a new name and gimmick.

The restaurant I revisited had changed in superficial ways. As the cafe has matured, its decor, while still minimalist, has sharpened. In the evening, tiny candles reflect their glow on the now pale-sea green walls making the room shimmer like lights on a swimming pool. During the day, the walls soften the warm sunlight that streams through large picture windows. A two-seat bar serves as the focal point of the room. Crisp, white paper covers the tables, and the food is consistently good.

Anderson’s success may be attributed to a very simple concept.

"My goal was, and still is, to serve the kind of food the neighborhood enjoys in better Manhattan restaurants at prices that make cooking at home pointless," he said. While costs have climbed slightly (standard entrees are $8-$13; a special entree is $15), customers know that Alicia’s prices are on a par with Brooklyn diners, and are pleased to return two or three times a week.

"They see Alicia’s as their dining room," he added. Anderson has placed more appetizers on the menu so diners can make a meal of several small plates or eat lightly with one or two.

Buoyed by Alicia’s warm reception, Anderson opened his second restaurant, Luise, on the Lower East Side in August. So Sijbe has been ensconced in Luise’s kitchen turning out dishes that employ French, Caribbean and Thai flavors. According to Anderson, "The neighborhood really likes the restaurant. Business is good."

Chef Evan Jacobson, a 23-year-old former line chef at Alicia’s who trained under Sijbe, has inherited the cafe’s closet-sized kitchen. Jacobson continues the "American eclectic," or bistro fare with global touches cuisine that Sijbe introduced, but his dishes lean closer to the Mediterranean with more fish entrees and the addition of risotto seasoned with lemon and Parmesan, and a penne that makes use of sun-ripened, green market tomatoes and fresh herbs.

Jacobson offers a twist on the usual fried calamari and dipping sauce appetizer. He flavors a light, creamy seafood broth with harissa, a spicy, North African condiment of chiles, garlic, cumin and coriander. Over the broth he drops rings of tender fried squid and a few mussels painted with garlicky oil. Slices of grilled country bread poke out of the bowl, offering the diner the best way to sop up that fabulous stew.

Fresh summer zucchini fritters, actually thick slivers of the vegetables lightly battered and fried, arrived in a crisp heap. Fried capers added an intense brininess to the mild fritters and a ramekin of creme fraiche made a sophisticated dip.

One entree had too many elements on the plate but was delicious nevertheless. A large grilled swordfish steak was cooked to perfection, tender and beefy, and the mango salsa that accompanied it added a tart and sweet component that complemented the rich fish. Scattered about the dish were fried slices of potatoes - somewhere between a french fry and those canned potato crisps that you find atop church supper casseroles. I loved them, but they’d make a better partner to a burger.

Jacobson’s herbed, grilled salmon can’t be faulted. Grilled rare, its juices moistened a pile of sauteed spinach and wild rice.

The two-dessert policy still exists, and it’s enough of a good thing. The choices on the evening I dined were peaches poached in Cabernet and an adult version of an ice cream sundae.

The sundae featured a large scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream topped with a bitter chocolate sauce and a scattering of frozen grapes and toasted pecans. It’s a no-big-deal dessert, yet the ice cream was luscious and fragrant with fresh vanilla bean, and the sauce hardened into brittle chunks of chocolate bark. That sundae reminded me of the dipped cones we bought from the ice cream truck as kids. Breaking off the hard shards of chocolate and taking a lick of creamy ice cream was a delight then and no different today.

Why do some restaurants succeed and others fade away? Obvious reasons like location and the economy factor into the equation. With Alicia’s space on a quiet, residential street, it isn’t a cafe one happens upon, and the economy is still in the pits. But both disadvantages have worked for Anderson.

"We’re getting couples who think of Alicia’s as ’their place,’ said Anderson, "then they come back with their friends."

Alicia’s keeps its loyal customer base and draws new business from distant neighborhoods because it stays true to his original vision: using the best ingredients to feed their customers. The dishes are compelling enough to be interesting, yet not so novel that a meal feels like event dining. Anderson’s raised the prices only as much as necessary and welcomes people warmly.

That’s what people want - just like home, but so much better.

 

Alicia’s Cafe & Eatery (10 Columbia Place between Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights) accepts Visa, MasterCard and Discover. Entrees: $8-$15. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am to 4:30 pm. Every Sunday night there is a Caribbean cuisine menu. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 532-0069.

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