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Digesting 2007

for The Brooklyn Paper

Let it be known that 2007 was the year of the cocktail in Brooklyn. Lists of “elixirs” concocted by “mixologists” were as important in some restaurants — more important sometimes — than the entrees. (The entrees, by the way, are yielding to small plate dining that evolved from the once trendy — and still popular — tapas.)

During my travels throughout the borough this year, I consumed “goji” berries, tea-infused desserts, pork belly (yes, still) and more bacon than I care to admit.

The quest for the perfect burger continues, and, while Brooklyn didn’t see the spate of chef-driven steakhouses the way Manhattan did, steaks appeared on nearly every menu I opened.

I now know the names of the farms — and sometimes the farmers — which raised the animals I devoured, too. It looks like the desire for meat isn’t abating, so diners were soothed with the knowledge that their sirloin once survived on a small local farm and was treated ethically.

Below are highlights from my 2007 dinners. You’ll find honorable mentions and goodbyes to several places I’ll miss.

It’s not like Brooklyn Heights is teaming with great restaurants, so when one comes along that has everything working for it, people notice. Le Petit Marche is the whole package: A great location, a room that channels a French bistro — yet isn’t kitschy, and owners who are friendly without being overbearing and know how to train wait staff.

And there was that chef.

One cold night last winter, Robert Weiner fed me onion soup — with a broth so intense and onions so caramelized — it brought tears to my eyes. Then there was a lamb shank with rosemary-scented white beans and a bouillabaisse that put other 2007 renditions of this dish to shame.

Let’s hope that the new chef, Dominick Rappa, is equally talented.

I don’t live in Greenpoint, so I haven’t tried the breakfast fare at Brooklyn Label that the locals rave about. However, I can tell you that if I were to die tomorrow, I’d want owner and chef Cody Utzman’s “Old Mac” tonight. This version with large, al dente pasta shells, cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan is pungent and salty, mellow and sharp, everything this dish should be. His pineapple-upside-down cake made me happy, too. Add that to your list of “last night on earth desserts.”

Melt in Park Slope has had blips on its radar with chefs coming and going. The latest to make his mark is Patrik Landberg, who blends Swedish restraint with a flair for flavor combinations.

The evidence: truffle-dusted gnocchi scattered with tiny cubes of pancetta; tuna tartare in lemon vinaigrette paired with a smear of hot mustard; and the heat and tingle of star anise turned vanilla panna cotta into something special.

Charlie Statelman shook up the well liked, but staid, Cafe on Clinton in Cobble Hill when he bought the place and revamped the menu. Last spring, Statelman served me seven courses of little pleasures, the greatest being confit of duck leg with mahogany skin and meat so juicy it oozed. The chef cut the richness of the fowl with a barely sweet, palate-tickling pomegranate sauce. When I have a yen for duck, I’m going back.

I returned to the Dumbo General Store — an unassuming coffee, muffin and lunch place by day that transforms into Hecho En Dumbo, a sophisticated Mexican restaurant and performance space by night — as much for barman Ethan Smith’s cocktails as chef Daniel Mena’s small bites or “antojitos.” The “tequila con sangrita” was like a deconstructed Bloody Mary but better: One shot glass held smooth tequila, the other a tomato juice chaser given fire by “Valentina,” a traditional Mexican hot sauce. A must-have — if your palate isn’t scorched by the booze — is a serving or two of “burritas de res,” a small, crisp burrito filled with rare, wine-braised steak and caramelized onions.

I liked the “cozy cafe around the way” in Prospect Heights where Cheryl Smith plies “global fusion” cuisine. At Cheryl’s Global Soul, she bounces around the planet with a Thai dish here and French dish there. All the plates were assured, yet she hit the mark when she landed in Japan with “sake-glazed salmon.” The alcohol crisped the skin and added a welcome bitter note to the deeply flavored fish.

On the edge of Prospect Heights and Park Slope is Flatbush Farm, where chef Eric Lind served an appealing mix of country fare, like lamb stew and stuffed cabbage, in this quirky urban setting. His crisp chicken livers over roasted onions weren’t delicate, but the livers’ crusty exterior and creamy centers and those sweet onion slices made a devasting pair. It hardly mattered what I ate though; after gulping down the “mixologist’s” “Mo’ Stomy” — a lethal mix of ginger juice and ginger ale, dark rum, mint and lime — the room spun for a minute. (We’ll see if his successor, chef Stephen Browning, is having an equally intoxicating effect on diners.)

I gave a few new Korean places a try. Moim in Park Slope was the best in all regards. Chef-owner Saeri Uyoo Park’s refined menu puts a light, modern touch on classic fare. Her “pajun,” a lace-like pancake, was airy and chewy and studded with briny shrimp and scallops. The “dub bu kim chi” layered tender pork slices in a vibrant spicy sauce over silky tofu and pungent stir-fried cabbage, and crunchy black sesame seeds glittered like tiny jet beads over the dish.

Bahija Elmourabit’s Fez Cafe in Windsor Terrace is the quintessential ethnic neighborhood place: cozy and welcoming with a terrific chef in the kitchen. Elmourabit’s slow-cooked lamb tajine defines this dish, too: the meat is tender and deeply flavored, while the eggplant and tomatoes are perfumed with garlic, fresh bay leaves and Moroccan saffron. With a steaming cup of mint tea, an evening there left a memory to savor.

Honorable mentions

The “toasted almond” at Cobble Hill’s Bocca Lupo starts with a fluff of innocent whipped cream, then takes a detour right into hangover hell with a concoction of Kahlua and vodka; the saltiest, crispiest fries and freshest oysters are available at Sidecar in Park Slope; intense “chocolate espresso bread pudding” can be found at Park Slope’s Apropos Cafe; the lobster rolls served at Fish Tales in Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Fish Camp in Park Slope lived up to their lofty reputations; the delicate, silky house-made tofu is a must at Hibino in Cobble Hill; and I’m happy to report that the hot dogs at Nathan’s in Coney Island are still delicious, salty and spicy.

The most fun

In early June, I joined 21 adventurous eaters at a dinner sponsored by the Brooklyn Food Group. It was all very secret, with the names of the hosts reduced to “Ben” and “Molly,” and the address of the gathering undisclosed until a “member” logs on to register. There were plenty of good eats among the five-courses, but the room full of strangers, joined together for the love of food, trumped anything on the plate.

Farwell Friends

To the now defunct Red Cafe in Park Slope: Mark, you should have said “goodbye.”

Amelia’s Ristorante in Bay Ridge: Ken, let me know where you’re cooking. And if you’re cooking “vitello e granchino alla Madeira” (veal medallions with crabmeat, asparagus and light Medeira sauce), let me know tonight.

Snooky’s in Park Slope: When all I wanted was a good stiff drink and food that didn’t distract from conversation with a friend, Snooky’s hit the spot.

Spirito in Park Slope: The space on Ninth Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues must be jinxed. That’s the only reason why a place with good, rustic Italian fare, charming owners and rooftop dining, where a waiter sang an aria to me, would close.

Royal’s Downtown in Carroll Gardens: Location foiled this ambitious place. It wasn’t the food.

The Plant in Dumbo: It was the food.

For 2008: Forks at the ready. Now eat!

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