05/07/14 4:00am
05/07/2014 4:00 AM |

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
04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

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
04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

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
03/26/2014 4:00 AM |

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
03/12/2014 4:00 AM |

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.

02/26/14 4:00am
02/26/2014 4:00 AM |

919 Fulton Street, Clinton Hill

At this new pizzeria helmed by husband-and-wife team Matthew and Emily Hyland, the eponymous pie sounds like a cross between a truffled white pizza and baklava. Turns out this is a perfect match. The chewy, charred crust is topped with creamy mozzarella; pungent, buttery taleggio; and aromatic truffle sottocenere, a cow’s milk cheese laced with slivers of black truffle. The sottocenere sets off a bomb of earthy flavor that you just can’t get from a slosh of run-of-the-mill truffle oil, and it perfectly balances the Mediterranean dessert combo of sticky-sweet honey and crunchy pistachios. A drizzle of honey also elevates the Colony, a pizza topped with jammy tomato sauce, stringy mozzarella, crisped and curled pepperoni, and spicy pickled chilis. Both flavor combinations were so unexpected and delicious that we couldn’t pick a favorite. We could live on this pizza.

When we stopped by for a weekend pizza brunch, the four tables beside us were pushed together to accommodate eight young parents and a slew of children quietly perched on laps, cuddled to shoulders, or squished together on the bench that lines the wall of this slender space. The ample staff didn’t seem flustered, delivered our pies quickly, and smiled knowingly as they deliberately brought out our own 3-year-old’s classic pizza first. The basic combo of sauce, mozzarella and basil hits all the right marks and is reminiscent of the fine traditional pies at Sottocasa on Atlantic Avenue, where Emily’s pizzaiolo met his pizza-making mentor, Luca Arrigoi. At dinnertime, the expanded menu caters to a more grown-up clientele, promising non-pizza extras like Brussels sprouts with apples, Worcestershire, and chilis; crispy pig ears with winter greens in a mustard vinaigrette; spaghetti with ‘nduja (spicy, smoky spreadable pork sausage), uni and pistachios; and cinnamon-sugared pizza churros with dulce de leche for dessert.

The short list of $10 cocktails includes a vodka-spiked lavender lemonade, and the booze-free version of the home-brewed lemonade is flawlessly tart and floral for a mere $3.50. Wines by the glass range from $7 to $9, tap beers cost $6, and the sweet, oaky Rodenbach Sour makes a fine pizza pairing at $7 per bottle. Once a month, the restaurant hosts pizza-making workshops. The next one, scheduled for March 4, involves a yoga class with Emily, who’s an instructor when she isn’t passing out pizzas. The pizza-yoga combo may sound a little too Brooklyn-precious, but we also once thought the same thing about putting honey on pizza.

02/12/14 4:00am
02/12/2014 4:00 AM |

412 Court Street, South Brooklyn

It started with the acorn-sized gougères, their buttery pastry shells piped with Gruyere cream, and continued with an espresso cup of rich, earthy root-vegetable soup sprinkled with chili flakes and drizzled with olive oil. Next, a long, thin loaf of bread arrived, looking like a baby baguette but tasting more like chewy herbed foccacia, accompanied by a miniature bowl of ricotta—dusted with black pepper to cut through its creamy sweetness—and another little bowl of mellow white-bean puree brightened by briny green olive tapenade. When you dine at Dover, the roomy new space helmed by Battersby’s Joseph Ogrodnek and Walker Stern, these are the kinds of dishes you can expect to receive as gifts from the chefs. Amuse-bouches. Freebies. A few unexpected bites of food that turn a Monday night dinner into a special occasion, an impromptu celebration, a
happy memory.

As our actual orders arrived, things got even better. Fresh, sweet morsels of crabmeat were tangled into an ample appetizer-sized portion of inky tagliatelle, lightly touched with lemon and chili. Tender, flaky cod was paired with roasted potatoes, sweet and juicy cippolinis and tangy olives in brown butter, plus teeny tiny croutons (in culinary school, they call this miniscule 1/16-inch dice a “brunoise”) that added salt and crunch. Seared scallops met carrot curls, roasted almonds and juicy, jewel-like mandarin orange segments in a light, citrusy, buttery sauce. Half-sized portions of the fish were ample enough to share, and a dinner-sized portion of duck—seared on the outside and luxuriously pink within—was even more generously sized. (The only dish that we sent back unfinished was the cauliflower, browned and deep-fried florets mixed with white crisp-tender ones, plus plump raisins and wisps of bitter winter greens in what seemed to be a pool of lemon juice. The bright, tart, inventive vegetable may have worked better in a small tasting portion, but a wide bowl was too much.)

Small, perfect bites are the specialty at Dover, and the best way to experience them is to get on board for the $95 seven-course tasting menu, but it’s possible to dine here on a smaller budget. For $94, two of us split two first-
courses, two half-sized fish dishes and one entrée; we left too full for dessert. In that respect, Dover is not only serving up some of the best meals in Brooklyn—it’s also one of the best deals in Brooklyn, considering the quality. It’s much bigger than Battersby, but we expect that the extra seats will soon be booked far in advance. Get a table while you still can.

01/29/14 4:00am
01/29/2014 4:00 AM |

Photos by Austin Mcallister

The Roof
214 Third Street, Gowanus

Standard dieting advice says that food shopping on an empty stomach can leave you with a cart full of calorie-dense impulse buys. But dining before you shop at the Roof, the taproom and counter-service café on the second floor of Brooklyn’s new Whole Foods, poses different risks. You might easily blow your entire shopping budget on wholesome bar food before your aisle-wandering even begins. Or, after a few rounds upstairs, you may find yourself drunkenly loading your cart with Third & 3rd specialties like frozen Roberta’s pizzas, pints of Van Leeuwen’s vegan ice cream and Chocopologie Chestnut Cocoa Stout Chocolate Truffles, wiping out both your budget and your dietary resolutions. But we don’t think you’ll regret it.

The taproom is tucked into the corner of a larger seating area, where customers can bring trays from the food court and downstairs. If you’ve got a big appetite, it’s worth hitting the Yuji Ramen counter on your way up for a bowl of broth-less yet big-flavored noodles to eat as an appetizer; the Roof’s food service is on the slow side. Otherwise, we couldn’t complain. Even on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon, the second-floor space was filled with natural light. There were a few seats taken at every one of the many communal tables, and the majority of parties were helmed by a kid or two; despite all the highchairs, the scene was mellow enough to sip a Stillwater Stateside Saison—a citrusy, golden farmhouse ale—in peace. (The 16 beers on tap include a few that are brewed especially for the Third & 3rd Whole Foods Market, like Evil Twin’s Even More Denmark, a smoky and malty chocolate-chestnut stout that’s 10 percent alcohol.)

The Roof offers lots of meaty bar food, like burgers, maple-sriracha wings, beer-glazed ribs, juicy hot dogs, baby brats served on mini pretzel rolls, and chorizo cheese fries. But there are also plenty of vegetarian options. The Winter Grilled Cheese, on buttery stout bread, has just the right ratio of sweet pear-ginger preserves to sharp cheddar. In another savory sandwich, chestnuts, roasted red onions and honey complement a Cabmembert. The crisp-tender cauliflower steak, though on the bland side, was artfully presented in a ring of saffron aioli, toasted almonds and plump currants. The Brussels sprouts, which were larger than golf balls, were served whole. The central leaves seemed undercooked compared to the caramelized exteriors; a fig accompaniment sweetened the dish. A huge salad of crisp, refreshing bitter greens, tart blood orange rounds and crunchy toasted pistachios was big enough to share. Our bellies now full of cleansing leaves and citrus, we headed downstairs to fill our baskets with fancy candy bars, pizzas, ice cream and growlers of beer .

01/15/14 4:00am
01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Photos by Austin Mcallister

Dosa Royale
316 Court Street, South Brooklyn

This place could do for South Indian cuisine what Pok Pok did for Thai food—that is, make real-deal ethnic fare totally accessible to those residents of Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill that are too lazy to leave Brooklyn. We’ve trekked to hole-in-the-wall dosa joints on Long Island and in Murray Hill, where the travel-worthy food was illuminated by unflattering fluorescent lights, but Dosa Royale—much like Pok Pok—provides a date-night setting: exposed brick, low lighting, and painted tin ceilings. Our server greeted us with a passionate description of dosas (savory crepes made from a batter of finely ground lentils and rice) and thalis (samplings of vegetables, curries, soup, lentils, chutneys, yogurt and sweets served in little steel bowls, alongside rice and rolled flatbread). And at the table beside us, a man from the kitchen with a small swipe of red powder on the center of his forehead presented one of those thalis, quietly announced the contents of its 10 tiny silver bowls in Indian-accented English, and dashed back into the kitchen. We ordered one for ourselves.

In any good thali, the flavors of each little cup are huge. Ours included meltingly smoky-sweet bites of eggplant, bracingly spicy pickled vegetables with a hint of metallic tang, exceptionally creamy yogurt, a soupy tamarind-tomato rasam with just a touch of heat, and rice pudding laced with coconut and cardamom. Of the 10 dosas available—some stuffed with spinach and paneer, another as big as the table and meant to serve four—we opted for the rava masala dosa, a crispy semolina crepe filled with soft, fragrant curried potatoes. We added an egg to the filling to make it richer and wished we’d gone for the spice add-on, too. Ours didn’t pack any heat, but every dosa can get a shot of gunpowder, mysore or chopped green chilis for varying intensities. Dosa Royale also offers fish, lamb, vegetable and chicken curries, as well as an array of street food-inspired appetizers like ulunthu vada, fried lentils that are shaped like mini-donuts and served with a creamy-spicy coconut chutney that makes you want to lick the dipping bowl.

As far as drinks, there are Kingfishers, Sixpoints and cocktails with a South Indian spin. The Raja is a margarita with kalamansi juice instead of the traditional lime, and the Madurai Sour combines bourbon and lemon with tamarind and rose water. On the non-alcoholic side, the interesting black sesame fizz tastes like seltzer and lime with a swirl of tahini, but the creamy, cooling and sweet mango lassi, sprinkled with crushed pistachios, is
hard to beat.

01/01/14 4:00am
01/01/2014 4:00 AM |

Photos by Austin McAllister

Pickle Shack
256 Fourth Avenue, Gowanus

It’s worth making a trip just to try a bowl of fried pickles. Pickle Shack is a collaboration between Brooklyn Brine and Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, and its fried Hop Pickles, brined in Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA with a touch of habañero, make a fitting signature dish. The hoppy, tangy, slightly spicy pickle chips are battered in a crisp cornmeal batter, which sticks to the pickles—this isn’t your typical fried pickle spear that slides out of its encasement after you take your first bite—while the lemony aioli dip is tart and rich. You might wash them down with one of the Dogfish Head selections from the well-curated list, or go with one of the more esoteric options like the Crooked Stave Vielle, a sour, funky and yeasty saison. Priced at $15 for 375mL, it’s not cheap, but the beer connoisseur at our table thought it was a fair mark-up for a limited-edition brew. On the lower end, you can get a bottled Bitburger Pilsner for four bucks.

You might expect an elaborate menu of brats to pair with all these fancy beers, but Pickle Shack is no sausage party. In fact, as you read through the menu of snacks, salads and sandwiches, you’ll notice there’s not a morsel of meat on there. The house burger is a thick, hefty, earthy patty of beets and mushrooms, topped with bread and butter pickles, creamy aioli and housemade ketchup; crispy, salty, skin-on fries come on the side. The banh mi is even better: a generous pile of fresh-yet-funky house-fermented kimchee, bright cilantro leaves, crunchy pickled carrots, creamy avocado and garlicy aioli complement the deep flavors of smoked tofu. The hearty rustic loaf that served as its vessel made it a little hard to eat—a lighter, crispier baguette might have improved the experience—but we’ve tried a lot of vegetarian banh mi and none have been nearly as good. A warm farro salad with a crescent of sweet, roasted winter squash, some slightly bitter grilled kale, walnuts, apples and whole-grain mustard made a pleasantly wintery vegetable side. For dessert, they offered a quince hand-pie with chai-spiced caramel and a choice between bourbon-vanilla ice cream and a non-dairy vanilla scoop, but our resident beer nerd just wanted more beer.

At a glance, a restaurant for beer-obsessed vegetarians would seem to target too limited a demographic, but when you think about it, Pickle Shack’s niche marketing may be a boon. After all, craft beer and heirloom vegetables—many a Brooklynite will proudly admit to loving at least one. Here, you get the best of both. Just taste those fried pickles!