Brooklyn: Bite the Big Apple
Move over Manhattan – New York’s finest flavours are now found in Brooklyn
Sunday 22 January 2012
If you want to experience one of New York's greatest culinary adventures, take the L train from Manhattan to Morgan Avenue. Here, the streets of the north Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick retain an early Nineties, pre-Zero Tolerance air of desolate menace – I nearly walk straight past Roberta's, mistaking its graffiti-covered breezeblock exterior for a somewhat unsavoury biker bar.
Once inside the former garage, I find a warmly convivial space with shared wooden tables and fairy lights softening the whitewashed concrete. At the bar, I sip strong, Long Island-brewed Blue Point Rastafa Rye beer from a jam jar to a pumping electro soundtrack and watch the restaurant's signature pizzas appear from the bright red-painted, wood-fired oven.
As good as the thin crust "pies" are – the dough bubbling and charring in the intense heat – they're not the main reason Manhattan-based journalist and influential food blogger Kim Davis of pinkpignyc.com has agreed to meet me here for dinner.
Alongside a "Good Girl" pizza topped with taleggio cheese, pork sausage, kale, garlic and chilli, we feast on a series of extraordinary dishes that you'd never find in your local pizzeria. Thinly sliced coppa di testa (Italian-style pig's head terrine) with fennel pollen; raw sea urchin on polenta with white truffle; cuttlefish with pear, chilli and basil; beef tongue with beetroot, tarragon and fig.
Roberta's is a great example of the kind of restaurant that's too much of a risk even for downtown Manhattan these days. The cost of real estate means that new Manhattan restaurants tend to be either ventures by celebrity chefs and established chains, or tiny, cramped store-front start-ups.
"That's why all the action today is in Brooklyn," says Davis, who described Roberta's in his Eating the Apple New York dining guide as "a locavore paradise and an ambitious restaurant by stealth". The New York Times agreed, calling it "one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States".
But Roberta's is just one example of the many exciting food and drink enterprises in the borough. What is, for now, still affordable real estate combined with a fierce sense of pride and local identity has unleashed a culinary tidal wave here. In The New Brooklyn Cookbook, authors Melissa and Brendan Vaughan trace the origin of the "surge of culinary energy that coursed through Brooklyn" in the past decade to 1998 and, in part, the opening of Diner, in Williamsburg.
Local residents and veterans of the Manhattan restaurant scene Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow decided to take the lease of a 1920s Kullman Diner car simply so they would have somewhere they liked to eat and hang out. The pioneering local, seasonal and sustainable restaurant is still going strong and the neighbourhood has gentrified around it.
Walking north from Diner on Broadway along tree-lined Bedford Street is a head-spinning experience. Sandwiched between the brownstones, laundromats and scaffolded building sites destined to become pricey condominiums are restaurants, bars and food shops of every stripe. Gourmet burgers are served in grilled brioche buns at wood-panelled restaurant DuMont; absinthe and oysters are paired at Maison Premiere, a hot spot styled on a Parisian salon; and American-style gastropub food is on offer at The Bedford.
I grab a late lunch at Tacos Morelos, one of several food trucks that park on North 7th and Bedford Avenue where $2.50 (£1.70) gets me a delicious and filling spicy pork taco with all the trimmings.
Successful Manhattan restaurateur Zak Pelaccio has chosen Williamsburg, specifically South 6th Street, as the location for Fatty Cue, the latest outpost of his growing empire. The dark, low-ceilinged bar is hip and cool, but that doesn't prevent the flat-cap-sporting barman Adam Shuman from giving me a warm welcome, a glass of Cologne-style Kölsch lager and a spin around the intriguing menu of South-east Asian influenced barbecue.
I get talking to my neighbour, who turns out to be a waitress from the West Village branch of the restaurant. Together we share steamed buns stuffed with beef, chilli jam and aioli; bacon and clams in a curry leaf and chilli broth and curried black-eyed peas with smoked brisket "burnt ends" and coriander.
Despite Manhattan interlopers – and there are bound to be more to come – Williamsburg still feels self-contained. It brews its own beer at the famous Brooklyn Brewery (open for public tours at weekends) and makes its own chocolate at the beautiful Mast Brothers test kitchen and tasting room, where there are always samples of the high-quality artisan chocolate on offer. And in an 80-year-old building on North 8th Street that's been at various times a car dealership, funeral home and pickle factory, nine grape varieties, including pinot noir and merlot, are shipped from New York state and California and vinified right in the heart of the borough.
"There's such an amazing artisanal 'make-it-here' movement in Brooklyn that it was exciting for me to take the whole idea of wine and take it up one level," says Brooklyn Winery president and former Marvel comics employee John Stires, who co-founded the company in October 2010 with his friend Brian Leventhal. "You can come in for a glass of wine or immerse yourself in the whole process and craft your own barrel of wine."
With its stainless steel vats and oak barrels, the winery is already making international standard wines. I taste the New York Wine and Food Festival gold medal-winning F B Riesling in the atmospheric wine bar, clad in reclaimed New England wood and lit with old railway station fittings. It's light and crisp with a hint of apple and tropical fruits. Because of the winery's small batch production, right here is the only place it can be consumed, which somehow makes it even more enjoyable.
If you needed further proof of the neighbourhood's gentrification, look no further than the recent opening of the trendy Hotel Williamsburg and luxury condominiums. Its outdoor pool, rooftop bar with Manhattan skyline views and designer rooms complete with Brooklyn Lager-stocked minibars and record players are bound to appeal to the discerning visitor.
In the hotel's swanky Pillar and Plough restaurant, chef Andres Julian Grundy applies skills picked up working in the world-renowned kitchens of L'Arpège in Paris and Bouley in Manhattan to locally sourced produce, including some grown on the Eagle Street rooftop farm in the Brooklyn neighbourhood Green Point.
Open to the public on Sundays from April to November, the extraordinary venture cultivates organic produce including swiss chard, salad greens, corn, squash, herbs and flowers on a flat roof above a three-storey warehouse. In addition to a small farmers' market, the farm hosts talks on everything from bee-keeping to growing tomatoes. Located on the edge of the East River, it's worth visiting for the stunning Manhattan views alone.
The Manhattan skyline also provides a backdrop to the Sunday Brooklyn flea market. Located between 6th and 7th Streets, the market has plenty of antiques, vintage clothing and jewellery to be browsed, but it's also a great chance to try artisan food and drink from all over the borough. At Solber Pupusa, I sample pupusa, a traditional El Salvadorian dish of grilled corn patties stuffed with pork crackling and cheese, and a light textured dulce de leche and almond doughnut from Dough of Bedford-Stuyvesant that's one of the best I've ever tasted. Had I a bigger appetite, I would have sampled a grilled all-day breakfast sandwich with aged Wisconsin Gruyère, egg and caramelised onions from Milk Truck or a kimchi and seaweed-flake-topped hot dog from Asia Dog.
Brooklyn isn't without fine dining, either. At an upmarket grocery store, Brooklyn Fare, behind the Fulton Mall is the supremely unlikely location of the three Michelin starred Chef's Table restaurant. Reservations for the 18-seat counter can be reserved six weeks ahead and sell out within 45 minutes of the lines opening. "I was thinking how to make it unique," Brooklyn-born owner Moe Issa tells me. He opened Chef's Table in 2009, partly funded by his ownership of a Pepsi-Cola distribution concession. "I thought since I was going to pay the rent and prepare the food for the store I wanted to do something beyond what everyone else was doing. I never thought it would reach the level it has." For $185 (£123) a head, diners from as far afield as New Zealand and France enjoy a three-hour, seafood-heavy dinner of up to 26 courses that might include red mullet with Japanese rice, San Diego sea urchin and saffron-crab bouillabaisse or smoked sturgeon with beetroot, potato, caviar and smoke.
But dining in Brooklyn is perhaps better represented by the more affordable, convivial experience on offer at Prime Meats. Local chefs Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli's Austrian/German diner is located two doors down from their highly acclaimed Frankies Spuntino in the middle-class Carrol Gardens neighbourhood, south of Downtown. At a table in the rammed, dimly lit and wood-panelled bar where diners wait 45 minutes for a spot in the main dining room, I feast on a huge homemade pretzel with mustard, an "Alpine tasting board" of house-cured bacon, landjäger sausage and pastrami calf's tongue; a dozen oysters and roast bone marrow.
In a four-night stay I've spent hours walking the streets searching out the best of Brooklyn's food, yet I feel I've hardly scratched the surface. Entire neighbourhoods including Vinegar Hill have gone untouched. Littleneck, the hot new seafood restaurant in Gowanus, has gone untried as has the smoked salmon pâté served in an ashtray at Do or Dine. In Brooklyn, the delicious temptations never end.
Andy Lynes flew Heathrow to JFK with American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com), which also flies from Manchester. Its partner airline, BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), flies from Heathrow to JFK and Newark, as does Virgin (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic. com). Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com) flies Heathrow-JFK. Continental (0845 607 6760; continental.com) flies from various UK airports to Newark.
Aloft Brooklyn (00800 325 25638; alofthotels.com/newyorkbrooklyn). Doubles start at $119 (£79) room only.
Hotel Williamsburg (001 718 218 7500; hwbrooklyn.com). Doubles start at $209 (£139) room only.
Eating and drinking there
Roberta's: 001 718 417 1118; robertaspizza.com
Diner: 001 718 486 3077; dinernyc.com
DuMont: 001 718 486 7717; dumontrestaurant.com
Maison Premiere: 001 347 335 0446; maisonpremiere.com
The Bedford: 001 718 302 1002; thebedfordonbedford.com
Tacos Morelos: 001 612 243 9699
Fatty Cue: 001 718 599 3090; fattycue.com
Brooklyn Brewery: 001 718 486 7422; brooklynbrewery.com
Mast Brothers: 001 718 388 2625; mastbrothers.com
Brooklyn Winery: 001 347 763 1506; bkwinery.com
Eagle Street Rooftop Farm: rooftop farms.org
Solber Pupusa: solberpupusas.com
Dough of Bedford-Stuyvesant: 001 347 533 7544
Milk Truck: 001 917 520 7415; milktruckgrilledcheese.com
Asia Dog: 001 212 226 8861; asiadognyc.com
Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare: 001 718 243 0050; brooklynfare.com
Prime Meats: 001 718 254 0327; frankspm.com
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