Brooklyn Hits a Homer
Laura Stanley - July/August 2006
A lively young dining scene, more homey than hip, is making news in the New York City restaurant world long dominated by high stakes Manhattan ventures. On this side of the East River, an ambitious chef can still start out on a shoestring, a couple can run a mom-and-pop with the babies nearby, or an iconoclast can have things his own way. Laura Stanley reports on the borough she lives in and loves.
Applewood restaurant, in the heart of Brooklyn's picturesque Park Slope, is an earnest little place, both sweetly modest and critically acclaimed. It keeps a low profile on a tree-lined block, with a simple, butter yellow dining room that glows softly out of a storefront window in a row of brownstone town houses. Inside, forty seats are ranged around farmhouse tables. The chef, David Shea, works in back, on secondhand equipment in a narrow kitchen he built with his father and brother. He prepares a painstakingly crafted menu—butter poached lobster in rhubarb consommé, pan roasted duck breast in macadamia-nut brown butter, braised Vermont veal in leek fondue—for an audience as discriminating as any serious cook could wish for. Customers are well-off enough to pay $25 or more for entrées, too, which makes it possible for Shea to cook with top-quality ingredients direct from the farm. Everyone gets a competitive living wage, right down to the dishwashers. And the best part is that the people eating here are mostly just neighbors.
If this sounds romantic, it's because it is, in a cozy, Old World kind of way. Applewood offers the sort of experience that Brooklyn does very well: Manhattan-quality dining without the celebrity designer set and without the glossy service and high-concept identity conceived to generate buzz. It's just a really good restaurant, owned by the chef and his wife, Laura, who greets guests and helps them select wine from an unpretentious but thoughtfully composed list.
The Sheas' ambitions don't appear to stray much beyond their garden gate, but why should they? In his past life, David was a rising big city talent at Chicago's Spruce and Twelve 12. No matter. In Park Slope, he can enjoy the company of his two little girls, who play underfoot as he works. When the youngest, Tatum, was an infant, Laura carried her around the dining room in a sling, clad in nothing but a diaper. Customers actually liked that.
And when a whole pig was recently delivered at peak dinner hour, through the front door (there's no other way in), they liked that too.
For a serious chef who wants creative and financial independence, a relationship with a community, and time for family, few places beckon like Brooklyn. Gentrified districts like Park Slope have proven fertile ground for a bumper crop of pedigreed mom-and-pop establishments like Applewood, so much so that the two most celebrated fine-dining districts, Smith Street in Boerum Hill and Fifth Avenue on the western boundary of Park Slope, appear to be getting saturated. "The rents are so high now, the competition is stiff, and it's getting harder and harder to differentiate yourself from everyone else," says Smith Street chef/owner Saul Bolton, of the 60 seat Michelin-starred Saul. Bolton cooks at the northern end of a strip that includes The Grocery, which attracted national attention to the neighborhood in 2003, when the Zagat Survey named it one of the seven best restaurants in New York.
But here, unlike Manhattan, there's still plenty of room for growth. Case in point: Bolton's own neighborhood of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, on the eastern edge of Prospect Park, where his family just moved into a vintage Tudor. "You know, there are lots of people living there in these beautiful old homes, and there's nothing. You have to figure that there's opportunity there."
On one recent evening, the dinner menu at Saul included a hamachi tartare parfait, a study in contrasting textures and flavors with layers of wasabi tobiko, seasoned crème fraiche, raw hamachi, diced pickled beets, and an avocado puree, topped with crisp beet chips. There was a special of lamb three ways—pan-roasted leg and chop, sautéed liver, and shredded braised shoulder wrapped in socca—over curried spinach puree and a puddle of earthy black beluga lentils. "We always do lamb this way, so we can use the whole animal," explains Bolton. Brooklyn customers, who tend to be sustainability minded, appreciate the gesture; more important, they really like the dish. It sells well at the Manhattan-level price of $34.
When considering Brooklyn, it's important to remember just how vast it is—more than three times the size of Manhattan—and just how many different Brooklyns there are. Some 2.5 million people live here, in a sprawling patchwork of dozens of neighborhoods, ranging from very poor to very rich. Brooklyn has long been one of the most ethnically diverse urban regions on the planet and a true playground for adventurous foodies. The upscale dining trend is the latest development in the borough's rich food history and is a powerful signal to prospective home buyers that the good life is alive and well on the other side of the East River. "There's a very strong relationship between these restaurants and the rise in property values," says realtor Frank Percesepe, senior vice president for the Brooklyn region at The Corcoran Group. "They make a neighborhood a much more desirable place to move into."
Even as the real estate market slows down, Brooklyn properties continue to fly out of the store, from the industrial waterfront of DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass") to the Victorian suburban outpost of Ditmas Park, southeast of Park Slope. Places once branded too remote or dangerous continue to gentrify at a breathtaking clip. Suddenly, it's not so surprising to find a Bouley or Balthazar alumnus supervising the preparation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a worldly minded French bistro on DeKalb Avenue, a five minute walk east of Brooklyn's still gritty downtown. Since Laurent and Catherine Saillard established iCi on the ground floor of a gracious brownstone two years ago, it seems all the Manhattan critics have crossed the water to check it out. The New York Times' Frank Bruni gushed about the pretty back garden—not so remarkable an asset in verdant Fort Greene but a luxury to anyone who spends nights in a row in climate-controlled urban dining rooms. The restaurant, which the couple put together for under $20,000, is just three blocks away from their home and their two sons, who are 2 and 5. "They're here almost every day for lunch," says Laurent.
Classic Italian-American restaurants, long beloved fixtures in the Italian neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and Carroll Gardens, have been joined by a handful of more ambitious places, including the wildly popular Al di La, a Venetian-style boîte on Fifth Avenue, where fans brave the no-reservations policy for one to two hours on weekends for a platter of chef Anna Klinger's homey casunsiei (beet ricotta ravioli in poppy seed butter) or a bowl of her gutsy trippa alla Toscana. In central Park Slope, chef Amanda Freitag (lately of Verbena, Il Buco, and Lavagna) has created a full-flavored menu of updated Southern Italian-style fare—herb crusted sea scallops over chickpea puree, saffron orecchiette in lush pork pancetta ragù—for Sette Enoteca e Cucina, on underserved Seventh Avenue. Sette is a step up for Bensonhurst-born restaurateur Giovanni Tafuri, who also owns Sapore, an inexpensive West Village trattoria.
The most interesting Italian newcomer, from a business point of view, is Frankies 457 Spuntino in Carroll Gardens, named after the spuntini (snacks) that dominate the menu: salads, antipasti, sandwiches, and homemade pastas. Most of it is prepared in advance, in a cramped basement kitchen, and finished on freestanding induction burners upstairs. A fewer heartier items, such as pork braciola alla marinara, are included for bigger appetites, but the emphasis here is on mid-price snacking in the company of very good but affordable Italian wine. The 50-plus label selection encompasses the length and breadth of Italy, from Alto Adige to Sicily, with most bottles in the $25 to $35 range. Ten years ago, all this might have been a stretch for this old-fashioned Italian-American neighborhood, but now it finds an eager audience. Waits for a table in the warm brick dining room or backyard garden can be long, and the new breed of locals—mostly professional couples and young families—are unfazed by the sophisticated wine list.
The two Frankies (chef/owners Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli) could stop here, as others in Brooklyn have, and profitably run this small business for years to come. But that was never their plan. "We grew up together in Queens Village, in strong southern Italian families where people were cooking all the time," says Castronovo. Their culinary careers took them away from all that—Castronovo went on to train with Paul Bocuse and cook with David Bouley, while Falcinelli, who worked under André Daguin, Charlie Palmer, and restaurateur Drew Nieporent, brushed with stardom as executive chef/partner at the ultra exclusive Moomba. "But then we started watching guys like Mario [Batali] become so popular, and we said to each other, ‘You know, that's something we could do too, because we were raised on that kind of food.'" And so the Frankies Spuntino concept was born: a name-brand neighborhood restaurant, started up for just $300,000 and designed to be replicated in other neighborhoods. There's a second Frankies already, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a 26 seat eatery that is supplied entirely by the Carroll Gardens kitchen. As the Franks' little empire grows, food preparation for all the restaurants will remain in Brooklyn in an expanded kitchen that they hope to develop quite soon. "And we'll stay here too, working together, because we love each other," asserts Castronovo. "This isn't just a restaurant. It's our culture."
Castronovo and Falcinelli aren't the only new Brooklyn restaurateurs who're looking to grow. In Williamsburg, the arrival of Colin Devlin's Dressler, just a half block east of the venerable Peter Luger, heralds a coming of age for an urban-industrial area once considered a cheap bohemian extension of Manhattan's East Village. Devlin, who also owns local favorites DuMont and DuMont Burger, has opened a destination dining room four blocks from the East River shoreline, backing the dramatic approach to the Manhattan Bridge. Dressler, pictured on the cover, is dark and pub like, outfitted in fanciful ironwork—flamboyant chandeliers, screens, light boxes, and furniture—created by Brooklyn Navy Yard–based Ferra Designs in conjunction with partner Joseph Foglia. Devlin took much of his inspiration from Balthazar, where he tended bar for four years before going into business for himself. "Keith McNally is the master of room design," he says. "He creates places that are both fun and legitimate."
The seasonal contemporary menu, prepared on brand-new equipment by Gramercy Tavern and DuMont alumni Polo Dobkin and Cal Elliott, features dishes like spring pea fontina raviolini in Parmesan broth, and a salad of pan-roasted quail with truffle vinaigrette. The prices—up to $12 for appetizers and $25 for entrées—are high for this part of town, but the crowds are undeterred. On a recent weeknight evening, just three weeks after opening, the place was packed with 30-something hipsters. "It's not really an influx of new residents that's driving this," said Devlin, straining to be heard over a rock ‘n' roll soundtrack (they like it loud in Williamsburg). "These are people who have been here a long time, who have decided to buy property and stay." He gestured to an infant, fast asleep in an $800 Bugaboo. "There's even a baby boom going on. Families come in here with the coolest strollers."
Outside, the scene is less composed. Dressler is on what is still a desolate-looking stretch—a once-grand boulevard of stone and cast-iron buildings that is now home to a very Brooklyn mix of million dollar condominiums and graffiti-splashed plumbing supply houses. The vista to the east takes in the powerful arc of the bridge, which twinkles with moving cars at night, and the skyline of lower Manhattan. The restaurant lights the street before it like a beacon—a harbinger, perhaps, of prosperity to come. "My next project," speculates Devlin, "may be even more costly and ambitious. But, for now, this is what it is."
Dressler, for the time being, is still an anomaly. Most of the new Brooklyn restaurants are still a lot closer to Applewood in design and approach. "These people can't hire Adam Tihany to do their dining rooms," says Randee Braham, who has promoted a number of the borough's newcomers through her Park Slope–based Pass It On Public Relations. "What you see is their own blood, sweat, and tears." Nowhere is this more obvious than in Red Hook, where Restaurant 360 maintains its iconoclastic presence in the face of rampant gentrification. A three course, prix-fixe dinner here costs just $25. And the opinionated Alsatian owner, Arnaud Erhart, is determined not to raise the price, or cater very much to guests who want to order a la carte.
After 12 years in Manhattan, where he was manager at Balthazar, Jean Georges, Orsay, and La Goulue, Erhart was well prepared to strike out on his own. With the help of his friends and his credit cards, he created 360 out of an old saxophone repair shop next door to a battered-looking one-story funeral parlor. He has been attracting admirers from all over town ever since, including a pair of Upper East Side enthusiasts who commute regularly to 360 by water taxi.
Red Hook sits on a flat tongue of land that juts out into the harbor just southwest of Carroll Gardens. Rimmed by water on three sides and cut off to the east by an expressway, it feels like an urban frontier. Buildings are low and utterly plain. The streets are broad, quiet, and largely unbroken by traffic lights. The nearest subway stop is almost a mile away, on the other side of the highway. Most residents live in project housing and subsist too far below the poverty line to contemplate a dinner at 360. They are watching from the sidelines as local property values climb into the Brooklyn real estate stratosphere and as expensive cars begin to file in en route to the new Red Hook Fairway, a splendid, 52,000-square-foot waterfront satellite of the famed Manhattan supermarket. Luxury cruise ships began berthing on the district's eastern shore this April, and IKEA is scheduled to open here in 2007.
For now, however, nothing is changed at 360. The homespun contemporary dining room remains hung with the dark and angry linocut prints of left-wing political cartoonist and Red Hook local Richard Mock. People who don't want to dine under an image titled Enron Employee Severance (depicting a man being sliced to bits by a viper-topped sword) needn't come, shrugs Erhart; most customers are too busy eating to notice, anyway.
The menu, which recently came under the direction of Daniel and Bouley alumnus Richard Jakobson, is written in French but with plenty of multicultural flourishes: bavette grillé chimichurri, filet de blackfish au curry Thai. The wine list is similarly idiosyncratic, a fascinating collection of mostly organic or biodynamic French bottlings from small, largely unknown producers and obscure appellations. "Not too many people come here looking for California Cabernet," says Erhart. "Just getting here shows a certain openness toward trying new things."
On the plate, the origin of the produce is even more surprising. In summer, up to 75 percent of the vegetables Jakobson uses are grown in Red Hook, in a three-acre garden maintained by a corps of teenagers from the Red Hook projects. Curious customers can walk over and see it if they choose: a derelict blacktop covered with raised beds of organic lettuces and greens, tomatoes, corn, peppers, squashes, and strawberries. The "farm," as area residents call it, is a core component of Added Value, a nonprofit devoted to the empowerment of Red Hook youth. "What we have with 360," says Added Value director Ian Marvey, "is a really short supply chain, from seed to sale, right in the neighborhood. Arnaud and his chefs have made buying from us a very clear part of their work. It's about bridging class through food and through real economic activity." (iCi is another important supporter, says Marvey; and The Good Fork, also in Red Hook, has begun buying from Added Value as well.)
Erhart, for his part, is not interested in broadcasting the relationship, however much it might mean to him. "I don't preach. That's why you won't see ‘local this' or ‘biodynamic that' on the menu." But if you ask, he'll tell you. He'll even hand you a Richard Mock catalog. "Here, I can do things the way I want," he says. "We're free to serve, and to charge however we please." For him, this is the advantage of doing business in Brooklyn. For everyone else, it's the adventure of eating there.