07/16/14 4:00am

Delaware and Hudson
135 North 5th Street, Williamsburg

For a full-on feast priced under 50 bucks, you’re not going to do better than Delaware and Hudson, located in the old Egg space on North 5th in Williamsburg. Chef Patti Jackson’s four-course, $48 prix fixe menu was more like a nine-course dinner. The first course, a set of shared appetizers, could easily be spread over five courses. The menu changes weekly, but ours included deeply browned, salt-crusted pretzel rolls; a best-of-the-greenmarket selection of blanched baby vegetables with a little pot of herby ramp butter; crisp-tender asparagus wrapped in a flaky strudel, rich veal meatballs; and oyster croquettes, crunchy on the outside and creamy within. Our “second” course was a smoky, savory tangle of house-made noodles, chewy bits of bacon, and sweet peas.

By the time the main course came out, any notions we had that this would be a light summer meal had rolled under the table. Options for our seventh dish included a well seared filet of wild striped bass with sweet leeks and plump fava beans, a couple of thick, pink-centered lamb medallions with a garlicky nettle pesto, asparagus and petite, buttery roasted potatoes, or a “corn mush” with peas, leeks, pea shoots, fried egg—a dish we skipped but may have been more inclined to order if they’d just gone ahead and called it polenta. (The restaurant is named for an early American railway, so although the term “mush” brings Little Orphan Annie to mind, it also jives with the spirit of old-timey Mid-Atlantic food.) Had we known that two rounds of notable desserts would follow, we may have made a more concerted effort to save some room.

Jackson, who has been cooking professionally for 30 years, was originally trained as a pastry chef. In a borough where desserts often feel like an afterthought, hers brought a fine-dining finish to a meal that otherwise felt more like hearty, high-end home-cooking than haute cuisine. Our first dessert plate looked innocent enough—a pair of petite rhubarb panna cottas and two pretty little raspberry-almond tortes, but we weren’t going home until the chef herself rolled up with a ninth and final dish of tiny confections: cloudlike raspberry macarons lined up beside white chocolate bark studded with pink peppercorns, dark chocolate-caramel bon-bons touched with sea salt, and melt-in-your-mouth fruit jellies rolled in sparkling sugar. This tasting menu pushes a staggering amount of food, and it’s the only option available at dinnertime (though the kitchen will swap out dishes to accommodate dietary restrictions). For an a la carte sampling of Jackson’s specialties—say, Baltimore-style crab cakes or Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple—you’ll need to stop by for lunch or brunch.

07/02/14 4:00am

The Meat Hook Sandwich Shop
495 Lorimer Street, Williamsburg

“We’re out of the House Ham, but we have the Crispy Pig Face instead, and it’s the best,” the cashier, wearing a heavy mustache with a fuzzy George Michael beard, shouted over the blasting chorus of Madonna’s “Dress You Up.” Welcome to the Meat Hook Sandwich Shop. This special-of-the-day was served on trimmed Italian bread. That is, a layer was cut off lengthwise so that the crust and breadiness didn’t overwhelm its knock-out fillings – crispy-chewy pork jowl, chipotle mayo, melted mozzarella, and mounds of freshly chopped cilantro. It was, indeed, the best. Another inspired daily special featured snappy, cheesy sausage on a roll with black beans, pickled jalapeños and a spicy aioli, sprinkled with crushed tortilla chips and brightened with a douse of lime juice. 

While the specials were on the daring end of the sandwich spectrum, the regular menu sticks to the classics. The Italian, though it wasn’t bulky or overloaded, was solid as anything you could find in an old-school deli. Thinly sliced pepperoni, soppressata, olive loaf, and mozzarella met red onions, pickled cherry peppers and shredded lettuce, with a vinegary bite from Italian dressing. There was nothing ironic about it, besides the way George Michael kept correcting customers who ordered it by saying “EYE-talian.” With Madonna fading into Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” in the background, it was hard to tell if he was an out-of-towner clinging to a regional pronunciation or what. Another regular offering was the Hot Chicken – crispy fried thighs, dripping with a searingly spicy sauce, served on a soft bun with shredded lettuce and crunchy bits of pickled celery. The only disappointment was the vegetarian sandwich, which involved fried onions, hash browns, roasted red peppers, pickled onions, and mild white cheese, but mostly tasted like vinegary shredded lettuce with pops of flavor from coriander seeds.

Though the slim sandwich shop felt like a bright alleyway of whitewashed bricks, Whitney Houston’s “I Get So Emotional” playing at wedding DJ volume brought some character to the streamlined space. Its three tall tables fit four stools each, with a couple of extra seats by the front window, but quick turnover made up for limited seating. The sandwiches were filling without being overwhelmingly gigantic, so I had room after lunch for a chocolate chip cookie or perhaps an artisanal Ding Dong and a sing-along to the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” but dessert is not (yet) on the menu.

06/18/14 4:00am

353 Broadway, Williamsburg

Beneath the rumbling JMZ track, Dotory shines on a dark stretch of Broadway. The small Korean restaurant is open for lunch Tuesdays through Saturdays, and its bright sandwich shop lighting doesn’t dim for dinner. Near the front window of the narrow space, tables are smooshed tightly together, and in the back a handful of seats are tucked into an alcove beside a faux fireplace, its log casting a glow through orange plastic. The tall stools at the bar arguably make the best seats, but there are only three of them. On a busy night, it’s likely that any intimate conversations between a party of two will provide entertainment for the solo diner who is inches away. Between bites of the tasty Seoul sandwich–crusty bread smeared with chili pepper paste and piled with marinated roast pork, crunchy vegetables and fried onions–the crowded environs start to feel cozy.

Even on a warm evening, a sweet and steamy cup of daechoo cha is hard to resist. The traditional tea is made from Korean dates, or jujubes, which are also sprinkled into the liquid. For a more summery option, nori is fried into tiny taco shells and stuffed with creamy tofu tangled with shredded pickled vegetables, fresh watercress, tangy pomegranate seeds and a crisp kimchee vinaigrette. It’s love at first bite, even as the nori shatters on impact and its contents spill onto your plate. The pan-fried kimchee pancake, studded with sweet seafood, scallions and chives, has a golden crust and rich, eggy flavor within. Dotory’s bibimbap seems healthier than its meatier, heftier counterparts in Manhattan’s Koreatown. Here, black jasmine rice, quinoa and millet are stirred into the sushi rice that forms a satisfying crust along the edges of its sizzling stone bowl. The dish also breaks with convention in that it’s offered in several vegetarian forms: with avocado and crunchy nori, marinated vegetables or tofu and black sesame seeds. Bibimbap with kimchee, cheese and bolgogi meatballs makes a heartier dish, but the meatballs were on the dry side. If you’re looking for a rib-sticking bowl, the kimchee bibimbap with spicy roast pork combo is hard to beat.

Next time we’ll skip the myulchi bokum, dried and toasted whole anchovies with fish sauce-soaked cashews, garlic and dried chilis. The little dish made for an interestingly fishy couple of bites, but the tiny sea creatures, glinting silver and petrified in mid-swim, may be an acquired taste. The anchovies arrived early in our meal, and no matter how many times we politely pushed away our half-eaten bowl, those fishes stayed put as the rest of our plates came and went, watching us with their little eyes as we paid our bill and set out into the night.

06/04/14 4:00am

Lucky Luna
167 Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint

At this Taiwanese-Mexican joint, it’s all about the bao. Meltingly tender five-spiced duck is folded into soft white buns with gingery pickled cucumbers, hoisin mayo and chicharrònes, which impart a subtle Mexican accent onto the Taiwanese street snack. The pork belly bao—a daily special when we visited—also featured decadently juicy meat. The tiny sandwiches are $5.50 each or two for $10, and you’ll definitely want to order pairs. To get a little more bang for that ten bucks, opt for the two-taco plate. The beer-braised heritage pork tasted fresh and healthy, which may not be the biggest selling point for fans of fatty, crispy carnitas. Still, Lucky Luna scored points for using tasty corn tortillas from Tortillería Nixtamal in Corona, Queens, and pairing the dish with steamed rice and heirloom beans, which, though on the bland side, helped fill out a meal from a menu of shareable small—sometimes very small—plates.

The Lu Rou Fan, a little bowl of white rice with pickled mustard greens, bits of ground pork and a poached egg, could’ve also used a punch of flavor. And it was too tiny a portion for its $10 price tag. The $7 crunchy cucumber salad, spiked with garlic, ginger and a sweet sesame-soy vinaigrette, better accompanied both the Taiwanese- and Mexican-leaning dishes.

Despite a few half-hearted attempts to fuse the two cuisines together, they generally stand side-by-side on Lucky Luna’s menu: a teeny tangle of shredded Thai basil atop the mango panna cotta doesn’t exert much of an Asian influence on the tropical dessert, but it’s so light, creamy and citrusy that no heavy-handed fusion is necessary. The quasi-Latin-American Florecita, a cherry-red mocktail of hibiscus, lime and ginger with a super-spicy combo of sugar and chili circling its rim perked up our whole meal, even though its whisper of ginger didn’t really scream, “Taiwan!” The springy, boozy Peony cocktail combined gin, Cocchi Americano, lemon and absinthe; the addition of a lychee placed it on the vaguely Asian end of the menu.

Lucky Luna’s greatest asset is its waitstaff, whose chattiness and excitement about the menu made us feel like we were dining at a friend’s house. The space itself feels a bit like a postcollege starter apartment: a red accent wall here, a turquoise shelving unit there, some fringy Mexican textiles hanging around, lighting that could be a bit softer, and a bowl of free feminine hygiene products discreetly placed in the bathroom. If you’ve ever dreamed of hosting a Mexican and/or Taiwanese dinner party without having to clean up, this is your place.

05/21/14 4:00am

The Runner
458 Myrtle Avenue, Clinton Hill

You can’t judge a restaurant by its website. The Runner’s is tasteful but fusty: the logo appears over an olive-and-gold floral textile, like a swatch of a grandmotherly carpetbag, and the tagline reads, “An American Heritage restaurant and bar with recipes inspired by Clinton Hill circa 1900.” The thought of old-timey roasted meats didn’t really excite my taste buds. As I walked toward Myrtle Avenue, I braced myself for some light period garb: beards paired with take-me-seriously suspenders, or thrift store vests over vintage button-downs with sleeves rolled to reveal swirls of forearm tattoos. I yawned just thinking about it—but I had gotten it all wrong.

We entered through a cozy, dark-wood barroom, where bursts of laughter erupted over pints of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and the Other Half IPA. The host, a friendly, modern-looking guy in a flannel shirt and glasses, led us to an adjacent dining room with a wood-burning oven in an open kitchen area. The scene was as laid-back as a neighborhood bar and grill, with nary a waxed moustache nor a high-waisted trouser in sight. Servers—mostly ponytailed young women, all in present-day apparel—smiled as they sailed by, carrying plates heaped with hunks of fragrant bread. These giant, airy popovers were served warm with sweet walnut-raisin butter, and their puffy deliciousness made us feel sorry for all the gluten-adverse people in our lives.

We were wary of the section of the menu titled “tartes”—after all, savory tarts (especially with that added “e” at the end) sound like something heavy and quiche-like that comes in a thick, buttery crust tucked into a little ramekin—but, no, ours was a generously sized, wood-fired pizza piled with rich, salty bacon, sweet caramelized onions and nutty melted gruyere. Paired with a huge, crisp chopped salad of kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and pistachios in a pleasantly tangy vinaigrette, this pizza-tart could’ve made a hearty meal by itself. We overdid it by also ordering the well-browned and well-seasoned roasted cauliflower with fried shallots and plump raisins in addition to the simple, hearty whole roast chicken for two, which was served with fresh watercress and fennel dressed in lemon juice. Everything was scrumptious all over again for lunch the next day. If all local restaurants were this good in 1900, then the Brooklyn food scene has really gone downhill in the last century.

The prices are reasonable, the portions are big, and the heavy-handedness of the website doesn’t really transfer to the real-life space. Sure, a well-worn copy of Leaves of Grass is available to page through if you’re waiting in line for the bathroom, but we imagine that if Walt Whitman still lived in the neighborhood, he
would’ve approved.

05/07/14 4:00am

Bunna Cafe
1084 Flushing Avenue, Bushwick

How about some good old-fashioned vegan food? Vegetarian fare these days too often involves a newfangled version of nut-cheese or some innovative soy-based meat substitute, but Bunna Café serves wholesome plant-based recipes that have been savored for centuries. The Ethiopian vegan restaurant, which started out as a Smorgasburg stall, has grown into a big Bushwick storefront: table lamps bring a soft glow to the dim, expansive space and make it feel like a mellow college-town coffee shop. But Bunna’s traditional Ethiopian coffee goes beyond what’s normally poured at an undergrad java house. A few times a week, the restaurant hosts a traditional coffee ceremony, which involves burning frankincense and myrrh, roasting beans over a tiny stove, grinding the beans by hand with a mortar and pestle, and brewing them in an ornate pot with aromatic spices. With or without the ceremony, the rich and smooth little cups of coffee make Bunna worth a visit.

There’s a lot to love on the appetizer menu, too, like mildly spiced lentils wrapped in crisp puff pastries and bowls of butecha selata, a bright green salad of chopped kale, red onion, zingy lime juice and dried cranberries. (The craisins might not be traditional, but they bring a nice touch of sweetness.) If you can handle the mouth-numbingly spicy kategna—dark brown squares of injera (that spongy Ethiopian bread) toasted just until crisp, rubbed with super-spicy awaze (hot pepper paste) and drizzled with olive oil—you may want to temper the spice with a pureed avocado drink, which is thick as a milkshake and layered with sweet grenadine. (At press-time, Bunna is still waiting on a liquor license and does not allow BYOB.)

The best way to sample the rest of the menu is to order Bunna’s healthy and hearty nine-dish sampler that feeds two for $28 (or three for $39, or four for $48). Our shared feast was plated like a giant artist’s palette, a huge slab of injera dotted with scoops of crimson julienned beets, dollops of golden-hued split peas, orangey-red piles of Berber-spiced lentils and dabs of green kale prepared two ways: some steamed with ginger and garlic, some served raw with olive oil and lime juice. Less colorful dishes included earthy sautéed mushrooms, a fresh, crunchy cabbage slaw, and a rather bland concoction of wet, shredded injera that benefited from a bowl of daata: a grainy, super-spicy paste of awaze, cilantro, garlic and sherry. If you’re ordering a smaller sampling of dishes, be sure to include the spicy red lentils, or misir wot, which are sufficientely protein-rich so you won’t find yourself missing the meat. And if you’ve got room for dessert, the vegan baklava replaces the typical honey glaze with coffee-infused demerara syrup.

04/23/14 4:00am

French Louie
320 Atlantic Avenue, Boerum Hill

The swagger is hard to deny. This place radiates confidence from the moment you step into its front-room, a bar impeccably dressed in shiny white subway tiles, elegant glass shelving, gleaming brass fixtures and curvy, high-backed ebony stools. Once you catch an affable grin from the owner, Buttermilk Channel’s Doug Crowell, as he hobnobs with his sophisticated guests, it’s hard to find much fault in his latest venture. Though it just opened, it already feels like a 50-seat dinner party. In fact, the moment you feel the stirrings of the smallest complaint, you may find yourself making up an excuse on behalf of the place. Like, my friend couldn’t get the bartender’s attention, no matter how loudly she shouted over the bar, to compliment him on the French 75, a spin on the classic using fruity cognac instead of floral gin. But who am I to whine about the high-volume clamor of the restaurant when everyone there seemed so happy? Maybe my pal just wasn’t yelling loud enough. Maybe the bartender was hearing impaired.

Motown pumped over that buzz of conversation, and “Let’s Get It On” came on just as I bit into my first gougère. I could quibble that the dry puff of bread lacked the lushness of the vocals on the stereo, but that wouldn’t be fair. Nothing tastes as good as Marvin Gaye sounds, though Buttermilk Channel’s warm honey-buttered popovers do come close. I could rave about the pork and rabbit rillettes—rich, gamey meat balanced by the acidity of cornichons and the sweet spiciness of huckleberry mustard—yet gripe about the rock-hard texture of the thin baguette upon which it was spread. But then, I could also blame my overbite and poor table manners for turning each gnawing bite into an explosive-yet-delicious mess.

And I’d hate to say that our gracious, silver-haired server steered us wrong when he recommended the pan-fried skate with dirty rice and spicy crab bisque because, while the dish was a bit dry and not at all spicy, it certainly wasn’t terrible. The roasted carrot and citrus salad wasn’t memorable, but we cleaned the plate. The buckwheat pappardelle with meltingly rich oxtail ragout and broccoli rabe made for a heart-warming, rib-sticking pasta dish. The refined dessert billed as chocolate mousse was actually a little square of almond cake with whipped cream and just a touch of mousse, highlighted by a salty-sweet crunch of almond brittle. Priced at $10, it cost a dollar more than Buttermilk’s pecan pie sundae but was only about half as crave-worthy. I went well over my $100 budget here, but I think I ordered wrong. Perhaps I should’ve gotten the escargot with bacon, mushrooms and grits, smoked sardines, the steak frites and the profiteroles with fennel pollen ice cream. It’s not you, French Louie. It’s me.

04/09/14 4:00am

Colonia Verde
219 DeKalb Avenue, Fort Greene

It’s hard to picture a better date spot than this new South American hideaway. Tucked just below street level—and filled with candlelight and laughter—the front room includes a handful of tables and a long, bustling bar. Behind the front room, you’ll find the real draw: a romantic dining area beneath a ceiling paneled with glass between dark wood beams. The scraped-up butcher-block tables, the natural fibers woven over the seats at the tables and the stools at the bar, and the hefty black ceramic tableware add to the restaurant’s rustic appeal. Launched by the proprietors of Cómodo in SoHo, Colonia Verde only opened its doors in mid-February, but it’s already a neighborhood sensation: they don’t take reservations, and at 7:55pm on a chilly Tuesday night, there was already a 45-minute wait for a table, though there was still space to dine at the bar. Within five minutes, however, even the bar had filled up with young, polished patrons sipping potent cocktails. True to its name, the El Fuerte packed a boozy blend of mezcal bourbon, Cocchi Americano and mole bitters. Pisco sours and tequila cocktails pair well with Colonia Verde’s arepas: sweet little hominy flatbreads, the size of silver-dollar pancakes, topped with cool avocados, spicy Serrano salsa and machaca, a sexy term for rehydrated beef, which was far juicier and more flavorful than you might expect from a reconstituted meat.

Unfortunately, the other dishes we tried were less successful. “El Diablo Escoces,” a Scotch egg with a South American spin, was wrapped in a tough, half-inch thick layer of sausage and doused with creamy esquite-style corn. Overly rich, served at room temperature and pricey at $11, the egg lacked the elegance of the arepas. The lone salad on the menu was more of a small sampling of winter vegetables on a plate—a crescent of sweet roasted squash, a bite of pleasantly earthy roasted maitake mushroom and an underwhelming pile of limp greens and something that resembled sauerkraut. Our server recommended the chicken frito over the coffee-rubbed, slow-braised pork shoulder, but maybe he shouldn’t have: the skin on the fried half-chicken was so thickly blackened that it had to be sawed off the bird and tasted a bit like biting through chile-rubbed coal. The meat within was cottony and dry. On the tables around us, the steak-eating patrons seemed happier with their wood-fired meat. And once our barely touched chicken was swept away to make room for a dessert mug filled with caramelized bananas, pound cake and smoky pecans in a sticky-sweet glaze, we were happy, too.

03/26/14 4:00am

275 Van Brunt Street, Red Hook

This place doesn’t look like other restaurants. On a high-top table in the back, an explosion of flowers erupts from the open mouth of a taxidermied horse’s head. Meat grinders affixed to rustic dining tables also function as vases. The space harks back to Old Red Hook, pre-Fairway Red Hook, where you could buy your gin out of a bathtub at the dearly departed liquor store LeNell’s, and the heavily taxidermied décor at Bait & Tackle—before it became a trend—made you feel as though you’d entered a wormhole that transported you far beyond the city. Proprietor Erin Norris once tended bar at Bait & Tackle, which she called “the neighborhood’s nerve center” in the Kickstarter campaign that helped get Grindhaus going after Hurricane Sandy nearly washed it away.

The names of her Kickstarter backers are scrawled on the wall by the front door. Beside the kitchen, a bold, cartoony painting depicts a guy puking. It caught my eye as Norris herself, who was bussing tables and waiting on all of her tiny restaurant’s 20 seats during our visit, brought over a pair of shot glasses filled with orange juice under warm carrot puree. I was thinking about the barf art by the kitchen and the dead horse spewing up a floral arrangement as I sipped, but it still tasted
really good.

Also really good? Everything else we tried. The house-baked, buttery, garlicky, parmesan “parkerhaus rolls” made the place feel like the homiest puke-atorium on earth. Mellow, tender kale got a kick from anchovies and garlic, freshness from shaved sunchokes, and a satisfying crunch from smoky-salty breadcrumbs. Toothsome, ink-black pasta shells came topped with sweet little clams, a touch of chile, and bottarga, which brought on a pleasantly fishy funk. Pitch-perfect seared scallops were plated prettily with fresh sorrel fronds, buttery avocado and shaved carrot. Succulent lamb met creamy polenta, shallots and artichokes. A fizzy, tangy palate cleanser of carrot juice, seltzer and a buttermilk floater made way for one of those barely sweet mad-scientist desserts: a small bite of olive oil cake paired well with tart blood-orange supremes, beguiling honey-tea foam, and a sprinkle of surprisingly tasty toasted quinoa. Like everything else at Grindhaus, it was weird, but it worked. It’s worth journeying to Red Hook for a meal at this one-of-a-kind place, where the peculiarities of the décor mesh with the warmth of the hostess and the craftsmanship of the kitchen. Just keep in mind that they’re only open Friday to Monday, and they only take cash.

03/12/14 4:00am

El Born
651 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint

This small-plates spot imitates its namesake, a hip and pretty neighborhood in Barcelona, with chic environs and a young, stylish, Spanish-speaking clientele. On the midweek night of our visit, Rs rolled over the marble bar as regulars ordered vermuts—that is, woodsy, floral Spanish vermouths with an herbaceous bite, garnished with an orange wedge and green olive. The bar menu also included a kalimotxo, a favorite in Spain’s Basque country, which combines red wine and Mexican Coke for a refreshing sangria-like drink. And a selection of four gintonics, as the Spanish call their G&Ts, paired Seagrams with citrus peel; Bulldog gin with licorice; Brooklyn gin with mint and lime; and Hendricks with cucumber and black pepper.

In El Born’s long and narrow space, snug, bar-height two-tops press tightly against the exposed-brick wall opposite the bar, leaving a slim walkway to a few larger tables in back. A U-shaped banquette, tucked into an alcove and strewn with bright, geometric-patterned pillows, offered seating for six; a squiggle of pink neon glowed on the back wall; and the bathroom doors were marked in Catalan: homes for men, dames for ladies.

Our meal started with some complimentary pan con tomate, a pair of toast points served with a garlic clove, which you rub on the bread before smearing on grated tomato. It’s a simple traditional dish that will likely burst with sweet juiciness when tomatoes are back in season. During our wintertime visit, the rosemary-mushroom spread had a lot more flavor, but it was served as an appetizer alongside a cracker-like sheet of crispy bread that was shiny with olive oil. The same olive oil glaze coated the cod fish collars, buttery pieces of white meat taken from right behind the gills, which were served over a thick squid-ink aioli—richness upon richness, with a few green peas sprinkled on for color. The server-recommended caneló d’ ànec i bolets, two mini-enchiladas of fresh pasta wrapped around duck confit swimming in a thick pool of béchamel and Manchego cheese (which was even heavier than the cod collars). The huge portion of octopus—a long, curling paprika-dusted tentacle—made another big serving for a small plate.

All of the dishes were piled onto our table around the same time, and better pacing would have made the meal feel less overwhelming. Our favorite dishes were the lighter ones. Delicately grilled baby vegetables were drizzled with romesco sauce; a pleasingly mellow salad paired fennel, red endive and blood orange supremes with a sweet date dressing, though it may have benefited from a bit of acidic zip. The fine vegetable preparations suggest that the menu will unfold with brighter offerings—perfect for pairing with all those gintonics—in the warmer months to come.