Nestled among Brooklyn Heights brownstones,
behind walls of ivy or modern plate-glass entrances, are old-fashioned
bed and breakfasts. No sign marks their entrance to beckon tourists.
One hears of such places from a friend of a friend whose sister
stays there when she visits.
Five months ago, Panarea, a new bed and breakfast, opened in
the neighborhood. It differs from its secretive neighbors in
two ways. Unlike the rest of the group hidden along the side
streets, some of Panarea’s rooms face bustling Atlantic Avenue,
the neighborhood’s main street for dining and antique hunting,
while others have a view of residential Henry Street.
But what makes Panarea (named for an island off Sicily) such
a find is Cafe Del Mar, the street-level restaurant attached
to the lodging. Anyone, whether they’re Panarea’s guests or not,
can enjoy the cafe, which faces Henry Street.
Cafe Del Mar (Italian for "Cafe by the Sea") is a tiny,
two-room eatery with an ambience reminiscent of the amiable little
trattorias scattered about Italy. All the rooms’ surfaces are
painted soothing, dappled sand colors. Chairs are comfortable,
modern-looking wood. Yellow cloth napkins add a touch of sunshine.
While diners wait for dinner, the small kitchen, partially open
to a dining room, emits aromas of fish sauteing, garlic and fresh
herbs. On an evening that began with a downpour and ended with
glints of early evening light casting about the room, the cafe’s
wall-to-wall glass doors were thrown open to the street allowing
fresh breezes to cool patrons. Outside, big umbrellas hovered
like festive red balloons above the cafe’s tables.
Two chefs have come and gone since Cafe Del Mar’s opening. Until
October, talented Tony Raggiri (who was behind the stove at Isobel
in Brooklyn Heights during its peak) is performing a limited
engagement while the restaurant he’s opening in Manhattan is
completed. I suggest you hurry in; Raggiri’s act is worth catching.
What makes his cooking so appealing is its simplicity. He favors
a few perfectly cooked ingredients that complement one another
and plates his dishes beautifully. You’ve probably already tried
what he’s offering – carrot-ginger soup isn’t new, neither is
tuna nicoise – but from this kitchen, they’re a delight. He’s
wise, too. Instead of taxing his small crew with a bulky menu,
he offers a diminutive selection of mostly Italian with a few
A bowl of the gently warmed carrot and ginger soup is a pleasing
way to start the meal. A few tender pieces of asparagus are crisscrossed
in the bottom of a shallow bowl and outlined with a circle of
olive oil. The soup is poured from a small pitcher over the little
checkerboard and the oil is swirled in. All the flavors are light
and clean, the ginger adds its peppery-sweet aroma, and the oil
silkens the puree.
Another dish that doesn’t sound like much but surprises the palate
with its rich textures and vibrancy is the goat cheese wrapped
in zucchini. Little pillows of fresh goat cheese are whipped
into a mousse then draped with thin, grilled zucchini slices.
The airy mounds sit atop caramelized eggplant and red peppers.
A few leaves of arugula in a tangy lemon dressing partners up
to the goat cheese and compote. Dabs of deep-red, slowly cooked
shallots, colored and sweetened with port wine, act like a rain
cloud, adding a note of depth and mystery to all the bright flavors.
He works a similar trick on a luscious black sea bass fillet
encased in potato slices. Like the goat cheese and vegetable
appetizer, potato slices surrounding a fish is a trick that originated
before Raggiri could see over a stove. But the balance of sweet
and tart flavors, and crisp and creamy textures renews its appeal.
The quick sizzle of the bass in butter forms a coat like a supple,
salty potato chip around the fish. The well-dressed fillet sits
on a bed of peppery endive braised in fresh orange juice. He
could stop there and have a perfectly delicious dish. Instead,
he drizzles garnet-colored syrup made from caramelized shallots,
port and red wines and a touch of fresh thyme about the plate.
The silky, complex sauce does for the fish what the right piece
of jewelry does for a simple dress.
A less complicated, yet equally satisfying, entree is the tender
and rich rib-eye steak. The rare, crusty-edged slices are sauced
with pan juices given a pleasantly bitter edge by a splash of
Madeira. As good as that steak was, it was nearly upstaged by
a stack of potatoes dauphine, a caloric assemblage of soft potato
slices layered with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, soft, sweet
onions and cream that was worth every waistband-busting bite.
Another pleasure that takes a spot on the top of my 2004 hit
list of greatest desserts is the banana crisp. Raggiri wedges
tangy house-made lemon sorbet between two brittle coconut cookies
then paves the top with a layer of caramelized bananas. A few
raw sugar grains add crunch to velvety fruit, and a smoky, nutty
sauce of caramel draws all the elements into one luscious mind-bending
By fall, Raggiri’s reign in Cafe Del Mar’s kitchen will be over.
Before he leaves, order something wonderful from his kitchen,
perhaps the banana crisp, and be grateful that city life can
be so sweet.
Cafe Del Mar (311 Henry St. at Atlantic
Avenue in Brooklyn Heights) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American
Express. Entrees: $12-$21. Serves lunch and dinner seven days
a week. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 am to
4 pm. Rates for Panarea bed and breakfast are approximately $100
per night. For Cafe Del Mar reservations and additional information
on Panarea call (718) 243-0487.