The new guard in the kitchens across the river
For 90 years the L train has rumbled back and forth between the Hudson River and Jamaica Bay. Leaving First Avenue in Manhattan the train dives under the East River and emerges north of the Williamsburg Bridge on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. The trip takes about five minutes. In that time you travel (restaurant wise) from the wood-fired brick-oven pizza and farm-to-table Asian fusion of the East Village to more of the same in Williamsburg. The transition is seamless.
It wasn’t always this way.
The city’s most populous borough has always been a good place for a meal out — Peter Luger for steak, Junior’s for cheesecake, Di Fara for pizza, Nathan’s for hot dogs — solid food but nothing innovative or trendy. Until recently the haute and the progressive stayed in Manhattan. But then the artists came and the yuppies followed. The culinary landscape of not just Williamsburg, but much of Manhattan-accessible Brooklyn is being resettled.
I spent a week rambling around the western edge of the borough in search of the latest classics. I’m not sure if any of these places will be around for a hundred years. But they seem to be making a go of it.
WILLIAMSBURG Diner In 1998 Andrew Tarlow and business partner Mark Firth opened Diner in a 1927 Kullman diner car under the Williamsburg Bridge. The menu is small and whimsical. The only constant is a perfect cheeseburger ground daily from grass-fed beef dry-aged at Marlow & Daughters (Tarlow and Firth’s boutique butcher shop next door), and served with hand-cut french fries.
Tarlow and Firth have built a miniature empire specializing in the posh side of local food. Their current roster includes: Diner; Marlow & Sons, a saloon with seasonal food and cocktails; Marlow & Daughters, the butcher shop; and Roman’s, an austere take on brick-oven cuisine. (Marlow is a mashup of their names.)
The food at Diner is simple, but Tarlow says it is restaurant food, not home cooking. Artisanal touches such as hand-cut pasta and house-made charcuterie define the line.
85 Broadway, 718-486-3077, www.dinernyc.com, entrees $19-$24
Fatty Cue Just around the corner from Diner is chef Zakary Pelaccio’s latest addition to his mini chain of restaurants. (There’s a Fatty Crab on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, another in the West Village, and another in St. John, Virgin Islands.)
Fatty Cue dishes up brine-soaked and oak-smoked American barbecue with a taste for all things Asian. Two Ole Hickory Smoker pits handle the brunt of the cooking: the pork loin, smoked on the bone, sliced thin, served with green peppercorn and mackerel aioli and an herb salad; coriander-rubbed bacon served with steamed yellow curry custard and toast; lamb shoulder with goat yogurt, Vietnamese mint and house-made pita bread.
The music is loud. The food is hot, sour, salty, sweet, and definitely fatty.
91 South 6th St., 718-599-3090, www.fattycue.com, entrees $19-$35
Fette Sau Joe Carroll and his wife, Kim, were running the beer bar Spuyten Duyvil on Metropolitan Avenue when the auto body shop across the street came up for lease. They jumped on it and opened Fette Sau (German for “fat pig’’). The meat here — the Berkshire pork bellies, beef briskets, and Wagyu cheeks — are farm raised, dry rubbed, smoked with a blend of local hardwoods, sold by weight, and served on butcher paper with sauce and Martin’s potato rolls on the side. Carroll says, “We’re taking traditional barbecue techniques and applying them to a New York vernacular.’’ To that end, Guss’s half-sour kosher pickles round out a meal here, as do the German potato salad, the burn-end smoky baked beans, and North Fork potato chips. There’s a long list of American bourbons and whiskeys, local craft beers by Heavyweight and Greenpoint, and Key lime pie for dessert.
354 Metropolitan Ave., 718-963-3404, www.fettesaubbq.com, entrees $16-$20 per pound, most sides less than $5
BUSHWICK Roberta’s This is a renegade restaurant, an oasis of gastronomy in a bleak grid of garages and scrap yards. It is just a block from the Morgan Avenue stop on the L train, but even with plenty of tall bikes and mountain man beards around it feels a world away from the hepcats of Bedford Avenue. To Manhattanites this must be the Brooklyn adventure. Artists may still be living out here. Katherine Wheelock, who manages the restaurant's on-site bakery, says, “The condo boom hasn’t reached the wilds of Bushwick yet. It’s still too far and too weird. But you can feel it coming.’’
Roberta’s is a pair of graffiti-clad garages with safari tents and an urban farm in between. The garden was once a dirt bike track. Now it is a place to grow tomatoes, tend beehives, and split firewood for the wood-burning ovens. The food is rustic preciousness: perfectly charred Neapolitan style pizzas, hand-made pastas, and offal fresh from the farm.
261 Moore St., 718-417-1118, www.robertaspizza.com, entrees $10-$18
PARK SLOPE Franny’s Steel and glass condo towers may be taking over the skyline, but for now the streets of Williamsburg are still lined with garages, factory buildings, and vinyl-sided row houses. Not so in Park Slope, a lot of which still looks like the swankiest parts of the West Village — all secret gardens and renovated brownstones with the urban country club crowd to match. Here are the prenatal yoga posers, the roof deck idlers, the Goldendoodle walkers.
And so, a restaurant such as Franny’s thrives. In what was once a pet store, Andrew Feinberg and his wife, Francine Stephens, opened their fantasy of a pizzeria. This is a restaurant that could be next on the list of StuffWhitePeopleLike.com, where the past and future of everything is listed on the back of the menu, where the raw honey is made, where the kitchen grease is converted into biodiesel fuel, and where the organic, biodynamic citrus comes from.
The excellent pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning brick oven in the back of the restaurant. They come uncut with a steak knife and a fork on the side. One of the pies comes with just olive oil and sea salt, another with every briny thing in the larder — anchovies, garlic, chilies, oregano, capers, and Pecorino Sardo.
A citrus salad makes the most of winter in the Northeast with an elegant spread of pistachios, green olives, blood orange, grapefruit, tangerine, and fruity olive oil.
295 Flatbush Ave., 718-230-0221, www.frannysbrooklyn.com, entrees $8-$18
CARROLL GARDENS Prime Meats Carroll Gardens is as dignified as Park Slope but farther from the subway and closer to New York Harbor and the relative wilderness of Red Hook.
Prime Meats feels like it has been in the neighborhood forever. Owners Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli (old friends, often referred to as the Franks) figured out how to capture the spirit of old New York and turn a corner dry cleaner into a living history museum of pre-Prohibition German-American barroom and banquet hall cookery.
Like many of the new, blue-chip Brooklyn restaurants, Prime Meats serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The menu starts off with a raw bar and leafy fresh salads but then veers into hungry man land with alpine classics like beef sauerbraten, landjager sausage, and brook trout with sauce meuniere and grated horseradish. Pretzels come with sweet butter and spicy mustard.
Prime meats takes no reservations. Get ready to wait in line.
465 Court St., 718-254-0327, www.frankspm.com, entrees $21-$27
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.