Last year, 718 become the new dining 212.
After years of eating middle-of-the-road, local fare with an
air of resignation, as if to say - "this’ll do until I can
get a real meal in Manhattan" - we now have places that
welcome us, coddle us, and best of all, feed us with inspired
dishes that are every bit as good, and sometimes better, then
our Manhattan competitors.
I first suspected a change for the better two summers ago when a friend and I downed pitchers of sangria and ate man-sized steaks at Sur, on Smith Street in Cobble Hill. I wasn’t too drunk to notice that this street, once a haven for men playing dominoes accompanied by their ancient Chihuahuas, had morphed into a stylish boutique and restaurant mecca.
But it’s not just Smith Street that is undergoing a gastronomic reawakening. Name a neighborhood, any Brooklyn neighborhood - Park Slope, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO - and I’ll show you a place being eyed by an enterprising young chef.
People ask me which Brooklyn restaurant is my favorite. Choosing a favorite restaurant is a little like choosing a friend. When I need a laugh or want to celebrate, then only my loudest, silliest friend will do. When I’m tired and not in the mood for surprises, an old friend with a warm smile is the person I want to be with. That is how I selected restaurants to dine in this year.
Early in 2001, when the economy was just starting to slow down, and we believed that only stress could hurt Wall Street workers, I craved glamorous places that made me feel less like someone’s mother, and more like a sophisticated grown up. After Sept. 11, I just needed comfort. Call it the "’Cheers’ Syndrome," but I only wanted to eat where everybody knew my name.
I’ve listed just a few of the places that dazzled with innovation, served up dishes so delicious we were awed, or offered solace when only a kind voice and six cups of coffee would do.
Places we love
There was a lot of excited talk when Eric and Bruce Bromberg opened Blue Ribbon in Park Slope. The fourth branch of the brothers’ Blue Ribbon chain; the other three - the original Blue Ribbon, Blue Ribbon Sushi and Blue Ribbon Bakery - are in Manhattan. Serving everything from matzo ball soup to their infamous, towering, multi-layered platters of seafood, Brooklynites could finally stay out until 4 am eating, drinking and making merry. They may not want to stay out until 4 am, but now we could - just like our friends in SoHo.
Another place that received lots of good word of mouth, and was packed one week after 9-11, was Bistro St. Marks in Prospect Heights. The room was sexy, the food was sublime and the French waiters were charming - take that Manhattan!
Long before 9-11, we craved comfort food in places that felt like home. Of course, what’s comforting for me may not be comforting for you. Baked macaroni and cheese or my mother’s stuffed cabbage gives my world a rosy glow. For others, tomato sauce simmering away on the stove, or fried chicken and mashed potatoes on a chilly evening cures what ails them. Comfort food, for lack of a better definition, is whatever made us feel loved and fussed over way back when.
Contentment came one evening in the form of a tiny place in Williamsburg called Soma. We were charmed by co-owner Daniel Ray’s enthusiasm for his restaurant, and we were delighted by the new-wave pizzas, meatballs the size of Mohammed Ali’s fist and perfect tomato bisque served by chef and partner Adam Rose. Future plans, according to Rose, include a takeout "Breakfast in Bed" featuring their house-cured salmon pizza, and a prix-fixe dinner that will include wine and beer tasting.
If you’re feeling under-appreciated or just in need of a little pampering, do as I did one evening last summer, and share an order of couscous with seafood, one of the specialties at Convivium Osteria, a rustic Mediterranean eatery on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Delicate eaters may want to pass on this powerfully flavored dish. For everyone else, tie on your lobster bibs and dig in.
It’s not Paris
and we like it that way. You understand, oui? Lace curtains, vintage posters and candles everywhere satisfied the craving for Gallic warmth. An old-timer on the Park Slope restaurant scene, The 12th Street Bar & Grill continues to serve the kind of well-made classics, with enough innovative twists, to keep its regulars captivated. Chef Paul Vicino’s P.E.I. (Prince Edward Island) mussels in a curried broth have become my prototype for the perfect seafood dish, and his steak au poivre with frites is as good as any steak I had in Paris.
Other bistro-like incarnations include Brooklyn Heights’ Coq Hardi, serving classic dishes from the south of France including a richly flavored bourride de poisson du marche - a dish similar to a bouillabaisse made with a saffron broth. LouLou, in Fort Greene, is keeping neighborhood foodies smiling with a lighter approach to traditional French dishes. On Smith Street, Patois, one of the original movers and shakers in that neighborhood, still serves up perfectly made bistro classics like cassoulet and escargot. And Luce, a newcomer to Park Slope, does a Tuscan take on bistro eating. The food is so good, and the room so welcoming and unpretentious, you’ll swear it’s been a neighborhood fixture for as long as anyone can remember.
Places we turned to when only a burger and fries would do became especially important in 2001. If you grew up in New Jersey like I did, eating in diners is a way of life. You learn to love all of them; the old-timers where the waitresses call you "honey," and the flashier ones with 20-page menus, and lighting that could illuminate Shea Stadium.
I would have loved Dizzy’s too. As I write, no plans have been made to open a branch of this Park Slope institution in my Windsor Terrace area. I ask owners Ben Hoen and Matt Pisciotta this: don’t we deserve great coffee, delicious home-baked breads, meatloaf and the best macaroni and cheese in Brooklyn?
Williamsburg has Relish, an upscale diner, catering to neighborhood artists who want comfort eating without a major price tag. According to owner Sandy Stillman, "Diners are staying close to home for a good meal." Why should they travel if Relish was awarded the Citysearch.com 2001 award for "the best hamburger in the city"?
Numb and number
We forgot the pain by drinking a lot. Who could blame us this year? Take artists in their 20s, add a newly hip neighborhood, rife with galleries and performance spaces, and you’ll find a bar scene that would make the "Sex and the City" quartet feel right at home. Two of Williamsburg’s finest: The Pod, a swanky space with good fusion food, has a bar that serves designer martinis and other trendy libations. Galapagos Art Space, another crowd-pleaser, doubles as a bar and a gallery-performance space for locals. Feeling blue? Unwind in Clinton Hill’s Five Spot Supper Club. Expect great Bloody Marys, soul food and jazz.
Pro & con fusion
What is "fusion cooking" for $1,000? The word "fusion" was batted around a lot in 2001. You’ve heard all the jokes - the foie gras in a peppermint reduction, the Chilean sea bass in a wasabi volute, and so on. Over the past year, I’ve eaten a few oddball, global mixes - how does Asian-New Mexican sound? But more often then not, I found chefs using ingredients in a way that seemed natural, not forced.
Two, eclectic Park Slope eateries that get fusion right are Max & Moritz and Rose Water. At Max & Moritz, chef and owner Paul Goebert gave mascarpone and pea ravioli a fresh twist, and a little heat, with a mint and jalapeno sauce. Rose Water’s dishes, described on the menu with enough detail to substitute as recipes - the Zaatar skirt steak, grilled rare and sliced thin with sauteed kale, Romescu sauce and tostones - for example, are an inventive, and delicious blend of the Middle East, France and, well, wherever chef Neil O’Malley finds inspiration.
It’s not Chinese
A good wonton is hard to find. Maybe that’s why pad Thai and sushi are so appealing. If you live in Sunset Park, then you’re eating good Chinese. For those of us outside of that ethnic enclave, it’s slim pickins indeed. Lucky for us, we can now down inexpensive platters of great Thai curries, and even our kids order Japanese maki rolls.
What could be a better alternative to beef with broccoli and eggplant with garlic sauce than Thai food? Thai is cleaner and fresher tasting. All that lovely coconut milk, the crunchy peanuts and the little zings of basil and lime leaf - we love it. Two that I liked, Joya in Carroll Gardens and Long Tan in Park Slope, get high marks for hip decor and very good food.
The duck curry at Long Tan was especially delicious. If you have a yen for Cambodian food try Cambodian Cuisine in Fort Greene. Chef Jerry Ley serves authentic Cambodian cooking using his mother’s recipes - think mangos, chili and galangal (a strong gingerroot.)
In gastronomically deprived Windsor Terrace, where we can get very good coffee and bagels and little else, we now have Sushi Yu where you’re welcomed like one of the family. The sushi is very fresh, and their creamy, ginger ice cream is my addiction. Geido on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights is crowded, hip, cheap and good.
How sweet it is
There are people out there who claim not to enjoy sweets. I find that hard to understand. After all, what is more delicious then bittersweet chocolate melting in your mouth, or a perfectly made fruit tart with a decadently butter-laden crust? And is there a better match to a cup of coffee then a slice of warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream?
Cocoa bean freaks head to DUMBO for sweet temptations from the Jacques Torres Chocolate Factory. This is the real stuff. His milk chocolate isn’t overly sweet and his bittersweet chocolate - don’t get me started. The Two Little Red Hens bakery in Park Slope serves a rich cup of coffee, brownies that are the dark, fudgy kind, and the apple pie, perfumed with cinnamon, is piled high with fruit. At Sweet Melissa’s patisserie in Cobble Hill, you can sit down to a traditional afternoon tea. Along with fragrant pots of unusual brews, they serve, on a three-tiered pastry rack, scones with clotted cream, tiny finger sandwiches and rich, delicious little pastries. You may feel silly, but you’ll love every minute of it.
Until next year
Right now, someone is reading this and wondering why their favorite restaurant, the one with the fabulous bouillabaisse or piroshki, hasn’t been mentioned. I can only say this. In Brooklyn, we’re lucky to have an excess of restaurant riches. Had I included every great place out there, this roundup would have been 20 pages long. So, I’ll end by wishing you an uneventful 2002, and say, shamelessly - good eating to all and to all a good bite.
Let us know about your favorite places
to dine via e-mail to GoBrooklyn
Where to GO
12th Street Bar & Grill, 1123 Eighth Ave., (718) 965-9526
Bistro St. Marks, 76 St. Mark’s Ave., (718) 857-8600
Blue Ribbon, 280 Fifth Ave., (718) 840-0404
Cambodia Cuisine, 87 South Elliott Place, (718) 858-3262
Convivium Osteria, 68 Fifth Ave., (718) 857-1833
Coq Hardi, 142 Montague St. (718) 246-5577
Dizzy’s, 819 Eighth Ave., (718) 499-1966
Dizzy’s Kitchen, (take out) 52 Seventh Ave., (718) 230-8900
Five Spot Supper Club, 459 Myrtle Ave., (718) 852-0202
Galapagos Art Space, 70 North Sixth St., (718) 782-5188
Geido, 331 Flatbush Ave., (718) 638-8866
Jacques Torres Chocolate, 66 Water St., (718) 875-9772
Joya, 215 Court St., (718) 222-3484
Long Tan, 196 Fifth Ave., (718) 622-8444
LouLou, 222 Dekalb Ave., (718) 246-0633
Luce, 475 Sixth Ave., (718) 768-4698
Max & Moritz, 426 Seventh Ave., (718) 499-5557
Patois, 255 Smith St., (718) 855-1535
Relish, 225 Wythe Ave., (718) 963-4546
Rose Water, 787 Union St., (718) 783-3800
Soma, 192 Grand St., (718) 302-9100
Sur, 232 Smith St., (718) 875-1716
Sushi Yu, 214 Prospect Park West, (718) 832-8688,9393
Sweet Melissa Patisserie, 276 Court St., (718) 855-3410
The Pod, 141 North Seventh St., (718) 302-3754
Two Little Red Hens, 1112 Eighth Ave., (718) 499-8108