10/09/13 4:00am

Photo by Austin McAllister

Shalom Japan
310 S. 4th Street, Williamsburg

4 L’s

You might expect a Japanese-Jewish restaurant to churn out some heavy-handed, hard-to-eat, gimmicky fusion food. Fortunately, these two disparate food cultures come together with a light touch at Shalom Japan. Yes, there’s a matzo ball ramen, but for the most part, the food draws subtly from its husband-and-wife proprietors’ cultural influences. Aaron Israel, who worked at Mile End and Torrisi, constitutes the Jewish side of the family, while Sawako Okochi, who has experience at Annisa and the Good Fork, reps Japan. Their ethnic union is echoed in the décor: a dark curtain over the kitchen bears their logo, the merging images of a Jewish star with the Hinomaru (the “circle of the sun” from the Japanese flag); on the wall of their must-visit bathroom, there’s a framed poster-size ad for Levy’s “real Jewish rye,” featuring a little Japanese boy with a sandwich and the tagline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” And you don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy the glowing, high-tech toilet, which offers jets of water (aimed at the front or back—your choice!) with the touch of a button, followed by a warming fan to dry you off gently. Konnichiwa!

The Japanese-Jewish menu is written on a chalkboard, listing cryptic items like “Aburaage Pouches, Raclette, Green Tomato Relish” and “The Jew Egg,” which you’ll need a server to explain. The former involves pockets made from tofu sheets, which are fried until golden, stuffed with zucchini and nutty, melty raclette cheese, and then topped with pickled green tomatoes. The latter is a play on a Scotch egg, a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg with a well-spiced falafel crust standing in for the traditional sausage. Both options are highly noshable and pair well with the wheat-y and floral Hitachino Nest White Ale on draft. House-made chickpea tofu has the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture of panna cotta but gets a savory spin from juicy heirloom tomatoes, grilled eggplant and a sesame vinaigrette. Aromatic braided challah loaves are baked with sake kasu, a byproduct of sake production, and served with whipped butter that’s studded with sake-soaked raisins. In the simplest Far East-meets-Middle East mash-up, tuna tataki gets paired with rich black tahini, then garnished with dill. Our only disappointment was a Rosh Hashanah special: duck braised in Katz’s artisanal viognier vinegar. Both our server and the bartender highly recommended the dish (it’s worth noting that it was the most expensive item on the menu, priced at $27), but the big portion and basic preparation just seemed to highlight what we’d already figured out: putting unexpected Japanese touches on Jewish dishes and vice versa isn’t just a cheap gimmick here.

09/25/13 4:00am

Photo courtesy Atrium

15 Main Street, DUMBO

4 L’s

If fall had a flavor, it would taste something like Atrium’s house-made, applewood-smoked potato bread, a crusty, chewy loaf that captures the essence of campfires and chimney smoke. When we asked if there was bacon in the bread, our waiter explained that smoked yeast gives the bread its toasty flavor and politely added that it reminds him of a peaty, smoky Scotch. In the bar area, where the stools are upholstered in crisp white, it would make a perfect bar snack, paired with your brown liquor of choice, but it also makes a fine first bite in the bi-level dining room. The space (formerly the short-lived and Sandy-devastated Governor) is modern, and the staff is buttoned-up, but there’s still an outdoorsy feel. A verdant, vertical garden thrives on one wall, and high industrial ceilings are painted as dark as the night sky and draped with string lights. Tables on the lower floor are close to the action of the spacious open kitchen, and during our visit, the mezzanine provided a semi-secluded spot for a lively private party.

The menu pushes Mediterranean dishes that are prettily plated and hearty, too. On our table, a big, juicy chicken breast met a meltingly tender baby eggplant in an elegant pool of delicately spiced yogurt sauce. The dish was topped with an array of fresh, feathery herbs for color and pine nuts for an earthy crunch. A bountiful bowl of gazpacho included a generous portion of sweet, fresh crabmeat. And one of the most delicious bites of the night was from an unexpectedly rich and savory vegetarian dish; the quinoa tagliatelle came with two preparations of the healthful grain: as light, chewy pasta noodles, and as crispy, salty kernels sprinkled atop the dish. A creamy cauliflower sauce, redolent of lemon and cumin, made this pasta dish one of the best vegetarian entrees we’ve tasted in a while.

The only dish that disappointed us was a baby greens and shaved beets salad. Tart, jewel-like pickled blackberries, raspberries and blueberries supplied juicy bursts, and the inner rim of the salad bowl had been lightly brushed with a magenta puree of berries and beets for a beautiful effect, but the salad was otherwise undressed and very dry. That said, the late-summer salad days have just about passed, and Chef Laurent Kalkotour’s haute yet homey cooking seems best suited for cold weather. As wintry dishes like sweetbreads with chanterelles and chorizo, pork chops with spoonbread, kale with bacon, and creamy corn sailed past our table, we pledged to come back on a chillier night.

09/11/13 4:00am

Photo by Austin McAllister

Zona Rosa
571 Lorimer Street, Williamsburg

3 L’s

On the corner of Metropolitan and Lorimer, the windows of a spartan silver trailer reveal a busy restaurant kitchen. Overhead, diners sip watermelon margaritas on an expansive roof deck, which is shaded by orange and yellow striped awnings. The trailer is tucked into a corrugated metal façade, parked in the dining room, where a model-thin hostess wearing Chuck Taylors and tattoos leads patrons to sunny tables beneath a skylight. After dark, wall sconces cast a neon pink glow. If Epcot were to add a Williamsburg pavilion to its World Showcase, it might look something like this—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

On the night of our visit, the entire waitstaff enthusiastically sang “Happy Birthday” to a large party in the center of the room while a family with young kids happily snacked on guacamole at a corner table. It’s a different vibe from chef Ivan Garcia’s more subdued Mesa Coyoacan, but judging by how packed the place was, Zona Rosa’s boisterous bar-and-grill attitude has been well-received. If you can snag a seat on the roof, it’s worth a visit just to catch the last rays of evening sun while sipping a zempasuchitl. This earthy and slightly smoky cocktail, made with fresh lime and orange juices, orange liqueur and mezcal, is like the margarita’s raspy-voiced cousin. The margaritas here are made with fresh juices, too, and offered in traditional citrusy form or with watermelon, tamarind, pineapple and jalapeño flavors.

On our table, the shrimp ceviche, served in a pool of pico de gallo with buttery avocado, made a fresh and light starter, while the hot, stringy bowl of queso fundido, topped with spicy house-made chorizo, packed enough cheesy goodness to soak up a few mezcal cocktails. Other rib-sticking menu options include a Mexican hamburger, a juicy grass-fed patty with jalapeños, grilled mushrooms, melted cheese, avocado and chipotle mayo, and a braised Berkshire pork sandwich drowned in a bowl of salsa. The tacos Arabes were like tacos crossed with shawarma sandwiches, with marinated pork rolled tightly into a paper-wrapped tortilla and served on a tall, tiered tray with a selection of salsas. Unfortunately, the spiciest of these salsas was necessary to bring the dish to life, and the tiered tray was a conversation barrier. If our server came back to check on us, I would’ve asked for a plate. In short, if you’re a stickler for real-deal Mexican flavors, stick with Mesa Coyoacan (or your favorite taco truck). But if you’ve got a craving for Mexican-inspired pub grub with a little fresh air on the side, Zona Rosa is the place for you.

08/28/13 4:00am

Photo by Austin McAllister

Fritl’z Lunch Box
173 Irving Avenue, Bushwick
4 L’s

On the short walk between the DeKalb L station and Fritzl’s Lunch Box, I passed a man on the sidewalk smoking a cigar on a sofa, as well as a narrow mural that depicted a youngster wearing baggy jeans, a backwards baseball cap, and a smile with a silver grill. It was painted on a darkened building with a sign that read, “YO! Braces.” Fritzl’s chalkboard, which advertised in careful cursive a wimpy-sounding cucumber-watermelon salad, seemed a bit out of place.

But, signage aside, there isn’t anything wimpy about the food at Fritzl’s Lunch Box (which is open for both lunch and dinner). Though the summer menu had its share of lighter fare, the restaurant air was thick with the aroma of smoked meat, and the deeply smoky, fatty and succulent lamb ribs hinted at the hearty fall dishes to come. A mix of lean, flavorful, house-ground beef cheek with fattier beef chuck made the hefty burger patties chewy and juicy with some big-time beefy flavor. Served on well-seeded sesame buns with chef-owner Dan Ross-Leutwyler’s own sweet pickle relish and “special sauce” (which seemed to be an aioli), they were also pretty cheap—just $8 per burger.

Vegetarian options included a surprisingly hearty sandwich of Brie, avocado, orange marmalade and alfalfa sprouts on whole-wheat toast, and the batter-fried eggplant slices stood up to an extra-spicy sweet-and-sour sauce that I wished was available to buy by the bottle. Even that salad from the chalkboard was a particularly robust pile of cucumber and watermelon cubes, decked out with creamy chunks of feta, crunchy pistachios and a mix of pungent fresh herbs.

Fritzl’s 19-seat dining area is narrow, modern and bright, and it’s set up so that the burly, big-bearded chef can peek out from the kitchen to greet customers if the server is busy with the tables in the backyard. A handful of easy-drinking beer- and wine-based cocktails make up for the lack of a full liquor license: a Gruner Vetliner with club soda and lavender syrup; a calimocho (the red wine and Coke combo that’s widely enjoyed in Spain); and a mix of house-brewed kombucha with Founders IPA. On the soft-drink front, the brown sugar limeade hits the perfect balance of sour, tart and sweet. All in all, the flavors at Fritzl’s aren’t wimpy— they’re brawny.

08/14/13 4:00am

photo © 2013 Francis Dzikowski/Esto

550 Court Street, South Brooklyn

3 1/2 L’s

As three silver-haired French-speaking men entered through the front door, a burst of throaty laughter interrupted the soft strains of Nick Drake streaming from the stereo. With warm handshakes, the boisterous trio greeted both the waiter and the couple sipping wine at the bar and headed straight for the garden. It was a quiet Thursday night, and besides the wine-sipping couple—who may have been the owners—we were the only patrons inside the restaurant. Pompette shares its sleepy stretch of Court Street with Luna Rossa, a pizzeria; La Slowteria, one of my favorite Mexican spots in Brooklyn; and the Treats Truck Stop, the kid-friendly, sweet-as-can-be bakery and snack shop. These welcoming spots never seem as crowded as they should, and although our waiter said that Pompette is usually much busier, I began to worry. Just as some people post pictures of sad-eyed dogs in need of adoption, I often want to post photos of hopeful chefs peeking out into empty restaurants as they wait to make someone dinner.

Pompette is worth journeying past Buttermilk Channel, if only to drink wine and eat steak au poivre and pomme frites under white umbrellas in the charming little yard. In fact, as a bottle of red and three plates mounded with fries sailed past our table and toward the Frenchmen, we worried that we’d ordered wrong. Still, a martini glass of cooling cucumber juice spiked with gin and a twist of lemon made a fine aperitif. And we had no complaints about our salad, an artfully arranged crescent of perfectly tender baby beets, figs bursting with sweetness, potent and creamy blue cheese, and rosemary-roasted almonds, all drizzled in truffle-honey. On another plate, expertly cooked octopus met fresh, plump fava beans and bright, bitter baby arugula dressed in a citrusy aioli. Sweet scallops were seared until just caramelized, and served with baby vegetables and rich, porky guanciale. The house-made spinach tagliatelle may have been a bit on the gummy side, but its generous toppings of garlicky hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, juicy lobster and fresh corn disguised any imperfections.

With entrée prices ranging from $18 for roast chicken to $27 for Long Island duck, Pompette isn’t cheap, but you can make a light meal out of an appetizer portion of the scallops or lobster tagliatelle, both priced at $15. If you need a place for a quiet date—or a spot to take visiting relatives who aren’t into the communal table trend—this cozy bistro, like that sweet puppy looking for someone to love, deserves your attention.

N.B. Pompette is closed for vacation until August 15.

07/31/13 4:00am

615 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint

4 L’s

This narrow nook of a restaurant in the back room of Tørst might be the best place on the planet to take a beer nerd on a dream date. The restaurant’s 26 seats are tightly packed, and the proximity to our neighbors made us aware that it’s possible for young men to discuss nothing but beer for three hours. When one of them boasted about belonging to some underground beer message board that’s capped at 50 users, I felt relieved that my husband, who triumphantly scored our opening-day reservation before the restaurant got booked solid for the next few months, wasn’t the biggest beer nerd in the room.

Still, he seemed giddy about each bottle we got, starting with a special batch of Mikkeller’s It’s Alive! that had been brewed with rhubarb exclusively for Tørst. (The brewer, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, is Tørst beer-consultant Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø’s brother.) This sour Belgian ale stood up to the vinegar-doused, potato-chip-esque ham crisp, one of the three shared plates that started our meal. Our server refreshed our wine glasses with small pours—no pints here—as we shared a six-bite serving of artfully arranged roasted carrots and beets, and a scant bowl of lightly sweet, crumbly seaweed crackers to dip in a disproportionate portion of mussel mousse.

“It’s not like they’re pairing the beer with the food here—it’s like they’re pairing the food with the beers,” my husband said. Jeppe’s Evil Twin brews steered three of the courses. The hoppy and lightly funky Femme Fatale Brett tamed the lime-vinegar tartness of a little bowl of razor clams, cucumber, radish and bone marrow. The caramel notes of the mild and malty Noma Juniper brought out the sweetness of wilted gem lettuce and the nuttiness of chanterelles in pea broth enriched by the yolk of a poached egg. A sour and sweet blueberry beer called Justin Blåbær, labeled with a photo of Jeppe in his days as a hair model, accompanied a scoop of spruce ice cream (like a creamy Christmas tree), a rhubarb-beet dessert, and traditionally Danish chocolate-covered marshmallows. The only pour that wasn’t brewed by family came with the main course: the sour cherry of Rodenbach’s Grand Cru brought depth and sweetness to a finger-sized portion of perfectly charred and juicy lamb with a little salad of tender shaved lamb tongue and earthy sunchokes.

There simply isn’t another place—in Brooklyn or on Earth—where you can sample such rare beers paired perfectly with food. The $45 for the beer tasting makes sense. But $75 seemed too much for very tiny portions of food that would lack power without the beer pairings. All tasting menus are pricy, but the five-course menu at Battersby is consistently heartier, sets the borough’s standard for deliciousness, and costs $10 less. We’re intrigued to see what this innovative kitchen does next, but as long as a table for two costs $240 plus tax and tip, this pioneering food-and-drink experience may be exclusively available to beer geeks with fat wallets.

Photo by Austin McAllister

07/17/13 4:00am

The Bounty
131 Greenpoint Avenue, Greenpoint
4 L’s

For those of us who don’t actually spend a lot of time on boats, there’s something romantic about a storm at sea. So the next time the wind whips through the streets of Greenpoint and the rain pounds down on its sidewalks, grab an umbrella and a sweetheart and trudge over to the Bounty. This candlelighted seafood-centric spot shines during a thunderstorm, when lightning illuminates the stained glass sailboats in the transom over the door; a wall-wide canvas streaked with blue-gray brushstrokes conjures waves at your back; and a model clipper ship almost seems to rock on its shelf. Sails hang like canopies from the ceiling, and a bartender pushes sazeracs, gimlets and—of course—dark-and-stormies over a bar topped with well-worn wood as couples slide into chairs painted with a splash of seafoam green.

The chefs at the Bounty are serious about serving abundantly available seafood sourced from the wild; their devotion to sustainability shows in a short, focused menu featuring a raw bar with oysters, mussels and clams; a handful of starters and sides; and only four entrees: one whole grilled fish, one pan-roasted fillet, a pasta dish, and a burger. During our visit, the fresh, mild pan-roasted hake was crispy on the surface with perfectly soft and flaky white flesh within. It was served alongside a rich pancetta ragout, tender cannellini beans and a smear of tart lemon curd, capturing on a plate the brightness of summer. The burger, served on a house-made roll with tomato jam, mayo and red onion, was also cooked just right and came with crispy, salty fries. The evening’s selection of oysters ranged from pungent to sweet, and they were all as fresh as an ocean breeze. A cooling glass of watermelon and lime juices mixed with mint tea and spiked with rum made a refreshing elixir, and the only dessert offering—a dark and creamy chocolate mousse—made a fine finale.

But in the salad department, the Bounty may still be getting its sea legs. Our beet salad appeared as though it’d fallen victim to a ricotta salata blizzard, the half-inch of grated cheese completely obscuring ruby-red root vegetables. The Caesar was parmesan-heavy and its dressing was a bit under-seasoned, but it got a boost from boquerones (flaky and white marinated anchovy fillets). But salads are an easy thing to fix, and since this eco-conscious seafood spot makes such a solid a case for the potential deliciousness of sustainable fish, we don’t expect this ship to capsize anytime soon.

Photo by Austin McAllister

07/03/13 4:00am

788 Franklin Avenue, Crown Heights
3 L’s

“Was this that shady bodega?” my Crown Heights friend asked her roommate as she looked up at the glossy aquamarine paneling on the high ceilings at Glady’s. “Like, where they’d send a 7-year-old to the basement to get stuff for you?” Now, blond-wood floors match the communal tables, which are lined with metal chairs painted a distressed teal. Neatly piled firewood, ready for the wood-burning stove, gave a rustic feel to mod red shelving, and in the open kitchen one of the cooks—there were four or five of them, looking like a band of bearded brothers—seemed to be working over an open flame. All signs of the former occupant here at Franklin Avenue and Lincoln Place have been erased.

In their place, a cheerful bartender poured summery cocktails and talked about the ingredients on the menu that were delivered via his girlfriend’s bicycle from a farm in North Brooklyn. The small-plates menu put an inspired spin on the early-summer CSA specialties. Dark pools of smoked whey—a yogurt-like cheese-making byproduct infused with smoldering flavor—enhanced a plate of lightly grilled garlic scapes, fermented garlic and richly fatty guanciale. Earthy sunchokes served several ways (raw, roasted and fried) paired well with piney rosemary and the succulent leaves of sweet-sour purslane. A bright and citrusy basil gimlet, made with fresh basil, gin, lemon and lime, tasted like springtime in a glass, and the Greenwich sour, a bourbon cocktail with lemon and Cointreau, was topped off with a summery and sparkling Lambrusco floater. We also sampled one of the house-bottled sodas, a deliciously boozy and herbaceous root beer, which may have been even more magical if we’d thought to pair it with the smoked maple ice cream—a deceptively simple, must-taste dessert that perfectly balanced sweetness and smokiness in every bite.

Though Glady’s bills itself as a sandwich shop, only one of the sandwiches we tried—the grilled truffled cheese with truffle butter and caramelized shallots—stood up to the drinks, snacks and that incredible ice cream. Though the Pollos Hermanos, a Buffalo-style pulled-chicken hero, was tasty, it seemed steeply priced at $12, especially since the sandwiches here don’t come with any sides. The Bubie, a standard combination of corned beef, sauerkraut, cheese and mustard, could’ve used a little something extra—perhaps a dash of the smoked whey that dotted the garlic scapes.

After dinner, as we walked down Crown Heights side streets, we paused to listen as one of the neighbors blasted slow jams at an impressively high volume into the warm summer night. The neighborhood might change, but it also stays the same.

Photo by Austin Mcallister

06/19/13 4:00am

112 Harrison Place, Bushwick
5 L’s

Your first instinct might be to order a beer, but that’d be a mistake. With cool aqua walls, a quiet buzz of fans (which did little to disguise the sticky June heat), and a soft-spoken hostess in a loose tangerine dress, the chic-yet-homey Falansai seemed like a calming oasis on an industrial street—until a boisterous sommelier broke the spell with a hard-sell on wine pairings that we were afraid to turn down. Thank goodness we let her work her magic.

One sip into the crisp, fresh Greek white she had expertly paired with the sweetly acidic papaya salad, and we saw her for what she really was: a sparkling fairy godmother, whose pours were like waves of a wand that brought out the flavors of every bite, whose poetic introductions turned our meal into a miniature wine course. As she spoke excitedly about the Greek grapes that were grown in baskets near the sea, we tasted the saline minerality of saltwater in each sip. She instructed us to sample an earthy, spicy-but-not-sweet Spanish Mencia before our first bite of the wok-sautéed cubes of filet mignon in the “shaking beef” so that we could fully appreciate the pairing before dipping the beef into the accompanying lime juice with salt and pepper. The fresh citrus juice wiped out the delicate flavor of the wine, but both the sauce and the Mencia brought out the nuanced flavors of the meat. (Our wine guru said that she’s training the whole staff on the wine program, but if you appreciate a passionate description of each pour—an experience on a par with far more lavish establishments—look for her at Falansai on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.)

That said, chef Henry Trieu’s Vietnamese homecooking shines with or without wine. His addictive “Dad’s shrimp rolls” encased a comforting combo of shrimp, jicama and shiitakes in a deep-fried tofu paper wrap. The fragrant and steamy clay pot of split catfish fillets perfectly balanced the funkiness of fish sauce with a subtly sweet, richly savory caramel sauce. And the name “eggplants sautéed” gives little warning of the explosion of coconut, curry and lemongrass flavors in this vegetable dish—a delicious indication that the many vegetarian options here are given the same care as the meatier offerings. (Most of the entrees are priced around $16.) With flavors as bold as Pok Pok’s and a homey environment akin to Ditmas Park’s beloved Filipino spot the Purple Yam, Falansai seems destined to become a borough-wide favorite. Check it out soon and dress for the heat—the space wasn’t air-conditioned when we visited, but we convinced ourselves that Vietnamese food tastes better in a sauna than an unseasonably cool room.

Photo Courtesy Falansai

06/05/13 4:00am

Brooklyn Southern
126 Union Street, Columbia Street Waterfront District
3 L’s

On a recent sunny evening, at a table between the open front door and the bustling kitchen, a little girl was asleep—passed out, her tiny temple pressed against the tabletop beside a half-eaten bowl of macaroni-and-cheese. “This has never happened before,” her mom said, laughing. The girl’s serene face made the perfect advertisement for Brooklyn Southern’s food-coma-inducing menu, which covers all the rib-sticking bases: shrimp, grits, gumbo, chicken fried steak. The mac n’ cheese—rich with-out being overly heavy or stringy, with golden goodness clinging to each tender elbow noodle—is the ultimate kid food. For the little folks who didn’t conk out mid-meal, a circular path around an old birdbath in the backyard made a fine running track, a safe distance from the handful of umbrella tables in the restaurant’s glorious garden. In the corners, glazed planters were overflowing with dahlias and petunias, and overhead a grand trellis dripped with wisteria. A 10-seater tucked away in the back of the yard seemed like the perfect spot for a grown-up birthday celebration. (As you plan your next get-together, you may want to warn guests that this place is cash-only.)

Classic Creole, Cajun, and Southern soul foods are the focus here, and despite the place’s name, you won’t find many nouveau-Brooklyn embellishments to the simple and straightforward fare. And you can’t go wrong with their pleasantly plain fried chicken. Served in baskets with coleslaw and pitch-perfect hush puppies, each piece of fried chicken was juicy, crisp, and enjoyably no-frills, save the couple of caraway seeds that found their way into the batter, giving a little burst of rye bread-flavor every few bites. There was nothing delicate or fancy about the po’boy roll that enclosed a generous portion of meaty oysters filled with bold, brackish flavor. The complimentary corn bread, accompanied by foil packets of butter, was satisfyingly sweet and salty. Herbivores could make a meal out of the vegetarian gumbo or a sampling of meat-free sides, but we wouldn’t recommend the kale salad, dressed in balsamic, dotted with syrupy raisins, and piled high with some oddly funky grated cheese.

The beverage selection included a handful of red and white wines and a single beer on tap; we were glad they strayed from the Southern theme for New York’s own Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold. This smooth and balanced Beglian-style pale ale made the perfect pairing for a satisfying summertime meal. After a couple of rounds, it became clear that the little girl snoozing at the front table had the right idea.

Photo by Austin McAllister