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01/02/13 4:00am

La Slowteria
548 Court Street, South Brooklyn
4 L’s

A tiny and complimentary bowl of brown, chili-dusted grasshoppers landed on the table beside a little dish of charcoal-colored salt, made with the dust of ground-up insect larvae—the same “worms” you might find in a bottle of mezcal. We hadn’t planned on eating any creepy crawlers with our Mexican meal, but La Slowteria’s chef brought the grasshoppers over with such a sincere and humble promise of their deliciousness. The critters were crunchy, salty and spicy with a pleasantly grassy bite; the worm salt added depth and smokiness to everything it touched. We sprinkled it over cool salsas on warm, fresh-pressed tortillas that were attractively marbled with bright red beet juice. The array of salsas ($6) were served in little glass cups, perched in an architectural platter the shape of a carat—the sort of flashy serving vessel that might compensate for the lack of flavor in a lesser eatery. But here, creamy guacamole, zingy salsa verde, bright pico de gallo, and spicy habanero were each exponentially tastier than we expected. Paired with a cold Pacifico or a fresh-squeezed watermelon juice (with lime and mint!), each bite transported us a little closer to a Mexican beach town, as if we’d entered a wormhole through an inconspicuous doorway down where Court Street meets the BQE.

Actually, La Slowteria was transported to Carroll Gardens from its original location in Tulum, Mexico, a vacation destination known for beaches, Mayan ruins, and restorative yoga retreats. Its name refers to the slow food movement and a bingo-like card game called Loteria that involves 54 brightly colored and iconic images: scorpions, mermaids, cacti, watermelons. The moon card, La Luna, refers to a luscious grilled cheese served in a handmade crescent-shaped tortilla, a dark cloud of black beans topped with popcorn drifting across its plate ($9). The Musico card calls out a tasting plate of charred shrimp, steak, bacon and a wide assortment of caramelized vegetables in a hibiscus flower reduction ($23). The sauce, like a long-steeped hibiscus tea, offers subtle freshness to each blackened bite without imposing too much floral sweetness, and the meat could be omitted from the dish for vegans. Each deeply flavorful market-fresh vegetable—winter squash, tomato, mushroom and beet—is a treat. The tamale of the day, served in another fresh tortilla, is a must-try—ours was filled with richly spicy chicken mole—and it’s big enough to share as an appetizer or hog as an entrée. The only drawbacks to enjoying the unseasonably delicious warm-weather fare at La Slowteria are the jarringly cold winter winds that greet you on the way out—and the long walk back to the F train. But after such a hearty meal, it’s consoling that you don’t have to put on a bikini and hit the beach.

12/17/12 5:00am

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Everyone needs to eat. Brooklyn is lucky to have what seems like infinite options—you could get lost in the vast and varied dining scene. Every year, new restaurants crop up all over the borough, but not all of them are worth a visit. This is our list of the 10 that stand out from all the rest, the ones you need to visit as soon as possible. Everyone needs to eat, but not everyone gets to experience food at this level. Treat yourself.

12/05/12 4:00am


Chió
117 Columbia Street
The Columbia Street Waterfront District

Location, location, location.
At 5:15 on a dark and frosty Sunday night, the fireplace at Chió warmed an empty room while a line of bundled-up diners huddled together on the sidewalk, awaiting a table at the destination-worthy Thai spot just a few doors down. Once Pok Pok had filled its seats and added latecomers to a wait list, this Italian spot began to fill up with time-killers and rejects; they flocked to the long bar and snagged the handful of stools along the side window with the waterfront view (only partially obstructed by the traffic on Columbia Street). It’s not a bad place to sip one of the craft ales on tap, like a bitter and citrusy Green Flash Hop Head Red from San Diego or a malty and creamy Sixpoint Sweet Action brewed down the block. But you should at least grab a pre-Pok Pok snack.

At Chió, pronounced “kee-OH,” you won’t find the bracing, exotic spices that are on offer at Pok Pok, but the house-made squid-ink tagliatelle packs a surprising amount of heat. A very generous scoop of lump crabmeat carries the light, saline sweetness of a sea breeze, while a creamy, lemony, garlicky sauce serves as an appealing contrast to the dark-hued ribbons of pasta. Calabrian chili peppers cut through the sauce’s mellow creaminess with their deep, fruity spice, and cured lemon—the sour, salty secret ingredient of many Moroccan dishes—provides another unexpected layer of flavor ($20). It’s the kind of dish that could make your Pok Pok plans melt away. The same might be said for the juicy, smoky charred octopus served with some nutty fingerling potatoes ($13). Mellow, homey and hearty dishes, like the extra-large veal and ricotta meatballs ($12) or the margherita pizza, served on crisp flatbread with a nice ratio of tomatoes and basil to fresh mozzarella cheese, will please the young and fussy, as evidenced by a quiet pair of fork-wielding toddlers perched quietly in high chairs.

In a borough where charming Italian joints are a dime a dozen, Chió will never be a destination restaurant, and a bit of its neighborhoody intimacy is lost in the comings and goings of the would-be Pok Pok patrons biding their time at the bar. Still, a cozy back room, lined in brick and reclaimed wood, offers a break from the crowd and lends itself to quiet conversation. It’s the perfect spot to sip a cappuccino, savor some impossibly moist chocolate-date cake, and schedule your next culinary adventure.

Photo Tora Fälted


11/21/12 4:00am



Arthur
276 Smith Street, South Brooklyn
4 L’s


Seated in the front booth beside Arthur’s long, tall window, our family of three felt like the inhabitants of a snow globe. We had trudged two blocks through the November nor’easter’s fat flakes and sidewalk slush, carrying our toddler from stoop to high chair. Elliott Smith, Bob Dylan and Morrissey—punctuated by the hissing of heat through radiator pipes—provided the soundtrack for our cinematic scene in this low-light, wood-paneled enclave. We snacked on toasted bread, heavily crusted with sesame seeds and spread with honey and butter. A fizzy Breukelen gin cocktail, garnished with a sprig of rosemary, paired perfectly with the tender octopus and smoky, paprika-rich romesco sauce ($15) that tasted like our honeymoon in Barcelona. In other words, if you’re comfortable with embracing your inner yupster, this place can’t be beat.

On Google, Arthur’s tagline is “Seasonal fare, Italian influences, indie soundtrack,” which may sound a bit contrived, even for those of us who admittedly love all three of these things. When we asked our server if she knew who put together the playlist, she said it was a Pandora station, and we felt a little lame for being sucked in by a logarithm. The seasonal Italian fare is as formulaic as the tunes, but here’s the thing—it works. The house-made tagliatelle, lightly dressed in lemon, Parmigiano and cream, melts in your mouth, and the giant shrimp tossed with the pasta have the juicy, oceanic, succulent bite of just-steamed lobster ($19). Broad bands of pappardelle take the mouth-watering house-made noodles in a more rustic direction—with spicy lamb sausage, a touch of red sauce, a sprinkling of sharp, aged pecorino and a kick of black pepper ($19). We’ll be back for all the whimsical, locally sourced clichés—the burrata with black figs ($16), the heirloom carrot salad ($10), and the farm-raised pork chop with fingerlings and pickled peppers ($27)—because it doesn’t matter if the menu reads like a Portlandia sketch when every bite of food is utterly delicious.

Though the log-cabin elegance of the dining room doesn’t seem at all geared toward children, they’ve got a “Bambino” menu, featuring grilled Fontina sandwiches ($7) and house-made fish sticks ($8). The al dente spaghetti and whole spices in the meatballs ($8) didn’t win over our one-year-old, though he may have just been saving room for dessert. The sweet-salty flavors that opened the meal came back to close it in the form of a butterscotch budino a la mode topped with duck-fat popcorn. The taste of duck wasn’t discernible, but the salty crunch of popcorn makes a perfect ice-cream topping, and I’ve been dreaming of the rich, just-sweet-enough butterscotch pudding ever since.

Photo Courtesy Arthur

11/07/12 4:00am


Cielo Bar Brooklyn
474 Myrtle Avenue, Clinton Hill
2 L’s


Cielo is the Spanish word for sky. And though blue neon enhances the day-glo graffiti that lines Cielo’s walls, and the same neon blue shines from beneath the ledge of the bar, the fluorescent hue doesn’t evoke the same flattering tone of a blue sky. The staff couldn’t be sunnier, and some heavenly power may bestow you with happy hour prices all night at the bar—expertly mixed $5 fresh-lime margaritas and caipirinhas. But still, a more fitting name for this welcoming Nuevo Latin joint would be Ajo, the Spanish word for garlic. An odiferous mist of rich, roasted garlic hangs over the sidewalk abutting its Myrtle Avenue storefront, promising big flavors, even though the four flatscreens over the bar showing close-captioned sports might suggest otherwise.

The flavors are big indeed, and garlic is the prevailing one. A trio of sweet, sautéed plantain strips are wrapped around the garlic-infused shrimp with a super-garlicky sauce drizzled around their mostly empty plate; you get a single slice of toast to sop it all up ($12). The small portions and spare, stylized plating don’t really jive with the giant televisions. Perhaps you’d be better off with a jibarito, an $11 Puerto Rican sandwich filled with beef or chicken and plantains—it might be easier to eat without taking your eyes off the game. The garlicky papas rellenos ($8) make a tasty and more practical bar snack. Though they’re advertised as being stuffed with duck, ours lacked any big, juicy pieces of meat and would’ve benefited from a crispier crust. One of the house specialties is a tiny take on the chile relleno. Instead of big stuffed peppers, Cielo’s calamari relleno ($12) involves three little squid bodies, seared and stuffed with garlickly chorizo on a block of black rice, colored by squid ink. An order of white rice and pink beans ($5)—which are also super-garlickly—help to fill out the small bites.

I left Cielo feeling as though I hadn’t overeaten or overimbibed—though it would be easy to push yourself over the edge with that solid happy hour deal—so when I awoke at 4am, stomach seizing, upper body burning from sternum to spine, I was pretty sure I’d been food-poisoned or was about to endure the most horrific hangover of my entire life. I took two Tums and prayed to see the morning sun. When I awoke, feeling miraculously fine, my husband told me, “I didn’t want to insult you last night, but you came home smelling more garlicky than a person has ever smelled.” Be warned, friends and garlic-lovers: if you’re hitting Cielo, take some antacids before bedtime and be prepared to air out your jacket.

Photo Greg J Konop at Level 3 Media

10/24/12 4:00am



The Pines

284 Third Avenue, Gowanus
5 L’s


Behind a frosted-glass storefront on Third Avenue, the Pines is dim, like a forest at dusk. Next door at Littleneck, the seafood spot with which this eatery shares owners, the cooks might be humming along to the Grateful Dead as they tenderly stuff lobster rolls, but this new meat-driven joint is a different animal. The open kitchen here exposes Chef Angelo Romano’s furrowed brow, thick beard and backward baseball cap as he spins out dishes to the heavy, sensual beats of Portishead or Madvillain’s dense rhymes and buttery flow. Flavors are bigger and brawnier here, unexpected but unfussy. The first item on the menu, simply listed as “BREAD,” sets the tone. A large helping of blisteringly hot, crunchy, crusty hunks of yeasty filone (Italian peasant’s bread) and woodsy seeded-wheat are seared-to-order. The generous, hand-torn portion looks like something that might’ve been served to Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. The accompanying caraway butter melts on contact. They should probably call it “TOAST.”

One thing the Pines has in common with its big-sister seafood restaurant is the impeccable freshness of the ingredients served, which can come as a surprise when you’ve just passed through the fog of swamp stank that swirls around the Gowanus Canal. A wedge of lettuce and a handful of feathery frisée are crisp as a mountain stream, kissed with dill and sprinkled with airy, crunchy bits of guanciale (like pork-flavored mini-croutons). A pool of creamy dressing gives the salad ($12) richness and heft. In another first course, fresh sliced apples, picked at their honeyed peak, are coated with a sheen of tangy sheep’s milk cheese, then topped with black sesame seeds and mellow hibiscus leaves ($10). In a heartier entrée, golden gooseberries bring mouth-puckering tartness to a dish that balances sweet, juicy cubes of pink pork shoulder with crisp-tender baby turnips, crunchy macadamia nuts, and a drizzle of rich, yolky sauce ($21). Some of the turnips still have a long, stringy root or two attached—which may take the whole man-of-the-earth aesthetic one step too far—but the tart-juicy-earthy-crunchy-rich combination of flavors makes for a crave-worthy dish.

The short menu mostly consists of artistically plated, easy-to-share options, but there are some surprises, too. A very al dente bowl of pici (fat, hand-rolled noodles) in a porky ragu ($18) is total Italian Grandma Fare, and their house-made lemon verbena digestif is sparkling, ladylike, and lovely. We hit the Pines before they started offering complimentary s’mores, roasted over a campfire in their leafy backyard, so we didn’t know what we were missing as we happily sipped our after-dinner drinks indoors and the hip-hop mix gave way to “Purple Rain.”

Photo Jessica Nash

10/10/12 4:00am



Potlikker

338 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg
4 L’s


At her old restaurant in Greenpoint, Queen’s Hideway, Liza Queen earned a reputation for quirky, homespun, freestyle cooking. After a two-year culinary stint in Saigon, she’s returned to Brooklyn and opened Potlikker, fittingly named for the rich liquid left in the pot after cooking collard greens—an all-American home-cookin’ elixir whose very last drops ought to be sopped up. But the environs here aren’t as folksy as the fare. With an autumnal breeze blowing in through Potlikker’s high-ceilinged open storefront, the space feels more airy than intimate. Whitewashed walls bounce the luster of big bright globe lights onto forest green tables and matching metal chairs. This isn’t a spot for low-light date-night coziness, but ample bar seating allows diners to snuggle up to the open kitchen—and there’s something romantic in watching each homey, bold-flavored dish come together.

Using the same seasonal local ingredients that every other Brooklyn bistro is using, Queen manages to build dishes that seem both straightforward and completely improvised, satisfying but strange. A Dutch pancake on the dinner menu is drizzled with hot pepper jelly, like honey with jalapeño heat; its sweet, puffy dough is then topped with crispy fried oysters, creamy goat cheese and smoky chunks of bacon ($12). In one aggressively flavored (and successful!) small plate, lusciously sweet fresh figs poached in Madeira are paired with bitter grilled radicchio, pungent and creamy Stilton and salty jambon de bayonne—France’s take on prosciutto ($13). The peppery arugula salad is mellower, with sweet roasted pumpkin and onions, shards of nutty Piave and a lightly tart lime dressing ($9). Decadent, tender pieces of pheasant confit graced the chestnut soup ($10), which was spiked with horseradish and sherry. The soup was another successful flavor experiment, but sadly, its texture was more gritty than creamy.

Since Potlikker’s menu is expected to change often, it’s the kind of place where you want to try as many dishes as possible before they disappear. We passed on the mains—brick chicken ($21), seafood risotto ($23), braised pork belly ($23) and sirloin steak ($23)—in favor of sampling more adventurous salads and small plates. And we were happy that we did. The malty Speakeasy Amber, with its caramel notes and creamy foam, proved the perfect pint to wash everything down ($6). And the nuanced tastes of the meal were echoed in a pitch-perfect dessert that balanced grandmotherly goodness with delicately balanced flavors: sticky-sweet roasted plums and tart lemon glaze topped a tangy buttermilk cake, with a loose crumb perfect for soaking up the sweet-tart juiciness of the fruit ($6). We’ll be waiting in the wings to sop up whatever rib-sticking options Potlikker has to offer in the coming cooler months.

Photo Matthew Feddersen



09/26/12 4:00am



Dassara
271 Smith Street, Carroll Gardens

4 L’s

If you’ve got culinary memories of road trips down South, this ramen joint may take you places you didn’t expect to go. In a pillowy-soft steamed bun, a thinly pounded and crisply panko-battered chicken breast is lightly dressed in a sticky-sweet sauce and nestled atop some sour pickle chips ($7 for two buns). One bite and the neon-lighted bowl of noodles in Dassara’s window fades; you’ve been transported to a drive-through window in southern Georgia. For those of us who support gay marriage, it’s not cool to admit to an occasional hankering for a Chick-fil-A sandwich. But thanks to the fried-chicken steamed bun at Dassara, you can revisit the flavors and textures of this beloved snack—minus the hate sauce.

When Dassara’s owners came up with their rotating list of steamed bun specials, they probably didn’t plan on transporting patrons to the Georgia highway. That said, they probably weren’t concerned about transporting their customers to the traditional ramen shops of Japan, either. This joint is something between a kitschy tiki bar and trendy optometrist’s office on Smith Street. They’ve gotten plenty of press for their Japanese-Jewish Deli Ramen ($15), a spin on the traditional noodle bowl with house-made matzo balls and Montreal-style smoked meat from the nearby Mile End deli. But their standard ramen ($12) is memorable, too. Meltingly fatty pork belly, slightly bitter rainbow chard, and a creamy poached egg meet in a full-bodied and umami-rich chicken broth, with notes of miso and star anise. Small, sweet Manila clams in open shells top the White Clam Mazemen ($13), which is served with a small pool of broth that’s briny and creamy enough to flavor the whole bowl of noodles.

The two-room space—darkness and barstools on one side, bright lights and kid-friendly tables on the other—makes the place work well for a casual date or family outing, and the menu extends beyond ramen and steamed buns. The sake-and-booze cocktails are a tad pricey at $12, but there’s also a selection of craft beers on tap and a well-curated bottle list that includes Japanese brews from Hitachino and Ise Kadoya. The soft-launch of their brunch menu included a mind-blowing breakfast ramen with a poached egg, a bit of rich, bacon-y broth and small, chewy smoke-bombs of pork. A soul-warming cast-iron skillet of super-spicy winter squash and ground pork packed a lot of heat for morning consumption, but we’d happily order it again. In short: whether the chicken bun conjures nostalgia for the fast food joints of your youth, Dassara serves the sort of comfort food you’ll look back on fondly for years to come.

Photo Mark Anderson

09/12/12 4:00am


Gwynnett St. • 312 Graham Avenue, Williamsburg
4 L’s

It takes a special chef to handle tofu and duck with equal aplomb. Just as mushy faux-chicken nuggets at a vegan joint can disappoint a tag-along carnivore, the vegan entrées at many a fine New American restaurant often turn out to be bland. But not those by Gwynnett St.’s Justin Hilbert. Since the restaurant’s opening last fall, Hilbert has served a tofu-like substance made of ground pecans and another made of almonds. In late August, the menu’s vegan offerings were swapped for rich, nutty pan-seared pistachio squares ($21). This deeply delicious and texturally toothsome food has little in common with supermarket tofu, aside from the fact that it’s meat-free. Translucent shavings of summer squash add airiness to the dish, and bits of sautéed celtuce—a Chinese vegetable with lettuce-like leaves and celery-like stalks—add a summery, vegetal flavor. Throughout dinner, I kept glancing at the restaurant’s front door—with each bite, I was convinced that the place might be stormed at any moment by a flash mob of hungry vegans.

Hilbert’s more traditional duck is a perfectly executed transition to fall—lean pink meat, rich faro, crunchy toasted pecans and tender chanterelles get a late-summer sugar-spike from fresh chopped nectarines ($28). The artistic, asymmetrical platings seem slightly at odds with the restaurant’s beloved whiskey bread ($5 per loaf), but we’re not complaining. Homey and rib-sticking, with a sweet hint of bourbon-y fermented tang, this biscuit bread is proof that this adventurous restaurant has a really big heart.

By the close of the meal, we trusted the chef enough to order the server-recommended raspberry-beet dessert ($9), but that’s when things got weird. There, in the small central crater of an oversized plate, lay a few perfect, jewel-like raspberries tossed with tiny, pink, beet-flavored meringue kisses, teeny ginger-minty shiso leaves, and little frozen pellets of raspberry-shiso mousse. On a savory plate, beets can add delicate sweetness, but here the super-sweet raspberries brought out the earthiness of the beets. In wine-tasting terms, “earthy” refers to notes of rich soil, damp leaves, and minerals, but what’s great in a Sangiovese can be strange in a dessert. The cold mousse pellets—shaped like something you might feed a small dog—were certainly odd, and the floral flavor of the shiso imparted subtly soapy notes. Call me old-fashioned, but I would’ve preferred a dessert that echoed the hominess of the whiskey bread. Speaking of that whiskey bread, there were two slices left at the end of the meal, and I wanted desperately to stash them in my purse. If you find yourself in this position, learn from my mistake and grab one of those thick disposable hand towels from the bathroom before they clear your table.

Photo Jessica Nash



08/29/12 4:00am


M.O.B. (Maimonide of Brooklyn)
525 Atlantic Avenue, Boerum Hill
3 L’s


On a brick-exposed trophy wall, little plaques speared with faux fennel bulbs and golden zucchinis commemorate the vegetables that died for us. From the tall, loft-like ceiling, about 20 artfully mismatched pendant lamps hang in single-file over large communal tables. Across these tables, over tidy rows of glowing tea lights, the gluten-averse can stare lovingly into the eyes of their strict-vegan inamoratas, knowing they can share more than just a salad here. Even that rare and impossibly svelte creature, the gluten-free vegan, can down some serious calories at M.O.B. (aka Maimonide of Brooklyn), where every dish is free of animal products and brimming with healthful goodness.

Two doorways, shaped like the gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, lead from the dining area to an expansive kitchen, and the signature menu item, fresh-baked flatbreads called M.O.B.s, are molded into the same sharp-pointed vault. Something between an open-faced sandwich and a slice of pizza, M.O.B.s serve up bold, sophisticated flavor combinations with silly names: the Belly Charmer is a vehicle for a Moroccan-spiced tagine of eggplant, zucchini and carrots, with crunchy pistachios and fresh mint and cilantro; the Iron Man pairs smoky roasted shiitakes with sautéed kale and sharp horseradish aioli. (Add an L to the rating if you’re a vegetarian!) The warm, chewy flatbreads are generally made with locally grown and locally milled organic flour, but M.O.B.s are also available on gluten-free bread.

With its coffee shop vibe and pretty low price-point ($10 for an M.O.B., $15 for a crimini mushroom burger with salad or yucca fries), it’s surprising that the servers at M.O.B. speak of the menu with the pro-vegan gusto usually reserved for higher-end health-food joints like Manhattan’s Pure Food & Wine. Our server enthusiastically recommended the mushroom and chickpea nuggets, gleefully rattling off their ingredients—oyster mushrooms, chick pea flour, garlic, onions, shallots, spices and panko—and concluded that she thought they were more flavorful than any chicken nuggets she’d ever tasted. They were indeed flavorful but also on the mushy side, as they were baked instead of fried. A fine dipping sauce of honey and whole-grain mustard worked as an apology for the lack of crispiness. (For bee-respecting vegans, servers are known to warn you about the few dishes with honey.)

But we’d totally get behind her recommendation for the fennel and sage saucisson appetizer, a porcini mushroom-sunflower seed sausage served with sourdough toast, garlicky aioli and pleasingly bright and sour pickled radishes. We were also glad that she gave us the hard sell on the beet wine, the most intriguing item we tried. The combination of fresh, sweet and earthy beet juice with Fernet, a bitter, aromatic and spicy spirit that is said to have medicinal properties, captured the essence of M.O.B.’s food-for-health philosophy in one small, celebratory, ruby-colored concoction.