A Brooklyn buffet

The scene at Smorgasburg, a Brooklyn food festival operated on Saturdays in the Williamsburg section.
The scene at Smorgasburg, a Brooklyn food festival operated on Saturdays in the Williamsburg section. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

It may be one of America's most exciting places to eat. And da clincher? It's so close.

Posted: August 10, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - The line had already begun to form by the time we arrived at 5:30 p.m. By 6, when the door opened, the wait had stretched to two hours for a seat in the tent behind Pok Pok Ny.

Such competitive waits for hot new restaurants are nothing new for New Yorkers. And Pok Pok Ny, the much-anticipated East Coast outpost for acclaimed Portland, Ore., chef Andy Ricker's authentic Thai kitchen, certainly qualifies.

But this determined crowd, growing eager as the intoxicating smell of lemongrass-stuffed hens on the charcoal grill wafted over, was not queueing up in tony Manhattan. This pilgrimage had brought them to a once-obscure slice of Brooklyn, the Columbia Waterfront District, that just a couple of years ago was still an industrial zone.

"I didn't want to open in Manhattan with a massive [financial] burden on my shoulders, and Brooklyn rents are way cheaper," Ricker said. "Plus, most of the interesting things happening in New York right now are happening in Brooklyn. Everyone I know lives in Brooklyn."

The Brooklyn buzz - built over the last decade on affordable real estate and a youth culture obsessed with local ingredients, fedora-topped hipster-chic, and DIY foodcraft - has reached a crescendo that's impossible to ignore. In-the-know Philly chefs have long looked to the borough for inspiration on everything from pickles to cured meats, food trucks, and cocktail culture. Stephen Starr will soon be teaming with Williamsburg's barbecue magnet, Fette Sau, to open a Fishtown branch.

But Brooklyn, a few exits shy of Manhattan on the northbound New Jersey Turnpike, really isn't that far away. So we decided to experience the dynamic borough for ourselves. And after a couple of weekends eating through its pizza palaces old and new, its pop-up markets, legendary steakhouse, bakeries, beer gardens, and ethnic haunts (borscht on the boardwalk? Da!), the question is no longer simply whether Brooklyn is New York's most intriguing food destination: It may well be the most exciting place in America to eat right now.

A stroll through the rapidly materializing retail strip of Williamsburg on North Brooklyn's East River shore offers a glimpse of a foodie developer's paradise. There are tours of the pioneering Brooklyn Brewery, the cacao-perfumed atelier of cutting-edge Mast Brothers Chocolates (crackling with Maine sea salt), and excruciatingly slow lines for single-origin pour-overs from a branch of San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee. And there are vast beer gardens for those who like the distressed-Teutonic-jazz-hall look ( Radegast Hall & Biergarten) or an industrial-sleek setting (in neighboring Greenpoint) for vegan or venison brats with black kale salad ( Spritzenhaus).

At moments, the cool factor feels a bit too contrived, with every garage door rolled up to reveal yet another hipster bar tableau (Oh, the lumberjack beards! The plaid!), and buildings like the new Wythe Hotel done up in a calculated collage of exposed-brick scruff and urban vintage. But the vast weekly food festival known as Smorgasburg, staged on a vacant lot beside the river, is a must-stop validation of the borough's genuinely vibrant grassroots food culture, built on largely local, hand-crafted ingredients by entrepreneurs with an eye toward the diverse latest trends.

Begun in 2011 as a Saturday spin-off of the famed Sunday Brooklyn Flea ("where else could you buy an old couch, get a leather jacket, and eat a pupusa?" says Rachel Wharton, deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn magazine), the food fair has become a happening of its own, attracting 5,000 visitors each weekend to sample its 100 well-selected vendors. Come hungry, because the choices are dizzying and worth sampling. There are crackly-crisp roast pig sandwiches (at Porchetta), multiple pickles ( McClure's and pioneer Rick's Picks), several ramen and steamed bun stands ( Sun's milky corn version was our favorite), Shorty Tang's spicy sesame noodles, borough-made sausages from Brooklyn Cured, shots of hot soup from Sea Bean, and deep-fried anchovies (head-on "Jersey style" optional) and smoked paprika aioli dip from the aptly named Bon Chovie. The little fish rocked.

There was also an array of stunning sweets, from Blue Marble ice cream to the "S'morgasm" sandwiches of chocolate-drizzled handmade marshmallows on clover-honey grahams from S'more Bakery. In case you're thirsty, " SmorgasBar" was recently added to the mix, pouring the ever-growing roster of Brooklyn-made beers, wines, and spirits.

Such street-food vitality and neighborhood life in Williamsburg would no doubt have been a pleasant shock to Sol Forman, who bought the Peter Luger Steak House in 1950: "He would not have believed it, but he would have been thrilled," said his granddaughter, Jody Storch, who helps run the restaurant today, meticulously hand-selecting the whole short loins of prime beef for a rosy pink hue and marbling ideal for dry-aging in Luger's cellar.

Now 125 years old, Peter Luger was, as recently as a decade ago, one of the very few reasons non-Brooklynites would consider visiting the borough for dinner. The classic half-timbered dining room is anything but trendy, with bare-topped four-legged wood tables, gruff service, and a cash-only (or house-credit) policy. Bring plenty, as the signature porterhouse for two runs $91.90 for a 2.5-pound chop. But it's still worth it. While I've had better sides at other steak houses, a bite of Luger's meat, dry-aged for "an unspecified time," is an experience that will reset your taste buds to a timeless standard. This is what real beef on the bone should taste like: unabashedly rich, with a complex, vaguely funky minerality, and a savor that lingers for hours.

With institutions like Luger that still focus on quality, there is often less tension than synchronicity in the co-existence of Brooklyn old and new. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ever-fascinating world of Brooklyn pizza.

There is so much great pizza in this borough, you could spend an entire week living solely by the slice, from the original coal-fired Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge, from the hand-built wood-fired oven at Lucali in Carroll Gardens, and from Di Fara in Midwood, where Domenico Di Marco has handmade each pizza for 48 years. All have their devout proponents. But we visited two others that are deservedly legends in their own right.

Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitana in Coney Island is one of America's great coal-fired survivors, popular enough for long enough to have a photo of a satisfied Babe Ruth out front. Though it suffered temporary closure from a fire in 2009, the cramped interior today still feels like 1924, the pressed-tin walls covered with memorabilia, and the narrow-mouthed steel furnace of a pizza oven turning out pies that look unremarkable, but taste anything but. There is an elusive quality to the greatness here, but there is just something about the crust (a hint of smoke from the coal?), and the perfect balance of tangy sauce and cheese, that makes you nod with understanding at Totonno's longevity.

At Franny's in Prospect Heights, the appeal to modern Brooklyn is far more obvious. It was opened in 2004 by Francine Stephens and her chef-husband, Andrew Feinberg, and its blister-edged Neapolitan pies are extroardinary in their most basic buffalo mozz-topped Margherita form. But Franny's also taps the seasonality bursting from local farm markets with pizzas topped with fava leaves and Calabrian chiles, as well as vibrant salads of sugar snap peas over ricotta tossed with lemon and mint. Feinberg turns out an exceptional platter of hand-made salumi and sausages (stuffed Parmesan and wine, wow!). And Stephens has assembled the best Italian wine list I've seen at any pizzeria, with the quirky bonus of 25 bitters (including three homemade) that should keep you drinking long after the pizza's gone.

Just go early for a seat - try early Sunday lunch after loading up nearby on heirloom grains, greens, and cheeses at the vast Grand Army Plaza farmer's market - or wait until later this year, when Franny's moves to a big new double-oven location  a couple of blocks south to the Park Slope side of Flatbush Avenue.

Brooklyn is full of intriguing international enclaves to explore, such as the Russian community in Brighton Beach. We had one of our most memorable meals at Tatiana, and feasted on meat-filled pelmeni dumplings, borscht, and butter-bomb chicken Kiev at a boardwalk cafe, backed by a glitzy nightclub, that was as delicious as it was surreal, like eating in a Moscow-meets-Atlantic City mash-up.

But it is the new generation of food artisans, offering hand-crafted twists and personal quirks to familiar flavors, that are driving the borough's signature style. Yes, there are likely more cupcakes per capita here than any other place on the planet. But there are also amazing black-bottom oatmeal pies (thank you, next trend!) at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus, golden Twinkie vamps called "Twinks" amid the exquisite wedding cakes at Betty's Bakery in Boerum Hill, and top-notch French breads and pastries nearby at Bien Cuit (owned by Zachary Golper, who previously ran Georges Perrier's bakery operations). At Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, you can sit at the counter of a restored '20s pharmacy in Carroll Gardens and sip a Pink Poodle float (with hibiscus soda) or a genuine U-Bet chocolate egg cream made by a cheery "jerk" in retro vest and cap.  

Observers like Wharton of Edible Brooklyn trace the borough's food renaissance back to the late-century openings of al di la in Park Slope and Andrew Tarlow's Diner in Williamsburg. Philadelphia-born Devra Ferst, now a Brooklynite and food editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, cites Frankies Spuntino for lighting a fresh spark by pioneering updated trattoria flavors in the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Carroll Gardens.

But success, of course, has downsides: principally, a lack of easy reservations that seems to be a Brooklyn-wide phenomenon. And while Frankies' braised octopus with dandelion greens, house linguine with Trapanese pesto, and hot sausage with cavatelli were great, they were not worth the cramped, airless table beside the open kitchen and dishwasher that was our reward for an hour-and-a-half wait.

With better timing (early is best), we had more satisfying experiences elsewhere. Just across Court Street at Buttermilk Channel (named for the tidal strait separating Brooklyn from Governor's Island), we savored reimagined comforts such as duck meat loaf over gingery parsnip puree and buttermilk fried chicken with cheddar waffles elevated by a tangy-sweet drizzle of balsamic-maple syrup. In the sleekly intimate railcar-shaped dining room of the Good Fork in Red Hook, near the sprawling Fairway market, we devoured Korean-American fusions by chef-owner Sohui Kim, from pork-and-chive dumplings to fried green tomatoes, roast chicken with black bean sauce, and grilled skirt steak with completely irresistible fried rice tinged red with house-made kimchi.

At tiny Mile End in Boerum Hill, law school dropout Noah Bernamoff is turning New York's venerable Jewish deli tradition on its ear with a Canadian push. Yes, the sweet pea pierogies and kasha-crusted sweetbreads are tempting. But it's the inspiration from his native Montreal that is really the big draw: Mile End's smoked meat - a quality whole brisket dry-cured in 18 spices for nearly two weeks, then smoked eight hours over oak - puts most modern pastrami and corned beef to shame.

Back at the head of the line at Pok Pok Ny, meanwhile, we can only hope Andy Ricker's authentically inspired menu can work the same revelatory magic for the East Coast's Americanized Thai food scene. And we aren't disappointed. From the first tamarind-infused sip of Pok Pok's "sipping vinegars," we're off on a journey of novel and vibrant flavors. We strip a hen clean of its garlicky lemongrass-infused meat, savor the funk of catfish steeped in fermented rice and turmeric oil, devour a mound of rarely seen young tamarind-leaf salad dressed in chile-galangal curry. A coarse-ground northern Thai-style sausage, sai ua samun phrai, is awesome, but mostly the vehicle to dip into naam phrik num, a garlicky green chile curry paste of dried soybeans, fermented fish, and cilantro root that radiates a magnetic force that is alternately hot, sour, and briny.

It is magnetic enough to some day draw us back, and, judging from the lines, legions of others, too. But after just two weekend visits, I realize we've only just scratched the surface of what this borough's food scene has to offer. As it rapidly evolves into one of the country's great food destinations, it's clear the Brooklyn story has really only just begun.


Kimchi Rice With Bacon and Eggs

Makes 2 servings

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut

into 1-inch pieces

1 cup prepared kimchi, thinly

sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons rice wine

vinegar

2 to 3 cups leftover rice, preferably steamed sushi rice

4 eggs

1. Place the bacon in a cold saute pan set over medium heat, and brown on both sides. Remove the cooked bacon and set aside. Pour out all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan, reserving the rest to cook the eggs.

2. Cook the kimchi in the small amount of the reserved bacon fat for 5 minutes over medium heat until it's warmed through, and sprinkle in the sugar and vinegar.

3. Fold in the rice and cooked bacon until evenly mixed and heated through, loosely cover with foil, and set aside.

4. In a small nonstick skillet, fry the eggs sunny-side up in a teaspoon or two of the balance of the bacon fat. Pile the kimchi rice mixture onto two plates and top with two eggs apiece. Serve hot.

- From

Sohui Kim, chef and co-owner of the Good Fork in Red Hook, in

Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook (Sterling Epicure)

Per serving: 995 calories, 35 grams protein, 154 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 359 milligrams cholesterol, 1,304 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Cucumbers With Ricotta, Basil, and Mint

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Salt

2 pounds whole cucumbers

   (preferably a mix of types,

   such as Kirby or lemon),

   sliced into 1/2-inch-thick

   rounds

1 small bunch mint, leaves

   only

1 small bunch basil, leaves

   only

1 small bunch chives, minced 1/2 cup fresh ricotta

4 tablespoons extra-virgin

   olive oil

Red wine vinegar

Red pepper flakes

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Salt the cucumber slices generously in a colander over a bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour. Rinse off the salt and pat them dry.

2. In a medium bowl, toss together the mint, basil, and chives. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta and olive oil until it resembles sour cream. Combine with the cucumbers and herbs.

3. Add a few splashes of red wine vinegar, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste.

- From

Andrew Feinberg, chef and co-owner of Franny's in Prospect Heights

in

Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook (Sterling Epicure, 2011)

Per serving (based on 6): 135 calories, 4 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 127 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


White Manhattan

Makes 1 serving

21/2 ounces Kings County

   Moonshine, or use anoth-      er corn whiskey

1/2 ounce Dolin Vermouth de

   Chambery Blanc, or use

   another white vermouth

1 thin strip lemon peel, for

   garnish

1. In a mixing glass, stir the whiskey and vermouth.

2. Pour into a rocks glass filled with ice. Top with a lemon peel.

- From Kings County Distillery and Marlow & Sons restaurant, Williamsburg, in Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook (Sterling Epicure)


Next week in Food, Craig LaBan explores Queens. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.

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