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Manhattan Transfers

Serious chefs, stymied by Manhattan's high rents, are finding new freedom in Brooklyn.

THERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when I greeted every empty storefront in my Brooklyn neighborhood with feverish anticipation. Perhaps some crafty entrepreneur has sussed out the need for a new restaurant, I'd think, only to find the niche filled a few months later by a store that boasted "We sell human hair" or a travel agent specializing in flights to Yemen. ("Yemen only!" he cried when I foolishly tried to book a flight to Chicago.)

Boerum Hill, just south of downtown Brooklyn, has always been a bit of a hodgepodge, falafel on one corner, cannoli on the next. Indeed, it was this lack of pretension that first drew me to the neighborhood four years ago. Still, a vague wish list was forming in the back of my mind. A few more restaurants would be nice, I thought. Good ones with comfortable chairs and handsome waiters. Places to go when you wanted to impress a snob with the excellence of Brooklyn or woo a new love with soft lights and strong wine. When friends came to visit, I knew just where they could purchase human hair, but at dinnertime we still defaulted to Manhattan.

Lately, though, it seems like someone has sent my wish list to the big boys across the river. There's been a restaurant explosion in my neighborhood, and most of the newcomers have opened on Smith Street, once a decrepit stretch of five-and-dime stores and laundromats. It isn't just Boerum Hill that's booming, either. Friends report that exciting new places to eat are springing up all over Brooklyn, run by ambitious young chefs who trained at major restaurants in Manhattan but couldn't afford the rents there. The Manhattanization of Brooklyn, the papers were calling it, so I set out on an eating tour of my neighborhood to see if it was true.

Restaurant Saul

Saul Bolton, a veteran of Manhattan's Bouley and Le Bernardin, serves American classics that taste like what your mother would cook for dinner if she moonlighted as a chef at the best restaurant in New York. I was completely content with my charred pork loin until I tasted my friend's roasted chicken with garlic sauce. I don't know what Saul does to that chicken, but, believe me, you want to order it. (I am sorry to report that my selfish friend allowed me to eat only half of it before fighting me off.) Bolton and his wife and co-owner, Lisa, are longtime Boerum Hill residents; the black-and-white photographs of the neighborhood on the menus are hers. They opened Saul in August and already people are coming from as far afield as Connecticut and New Jersey. "We have one guy who has eaten here 30 times," he said happily. No doubt the poor man is hooked on that chicken.

The Grocery

The Grocery's owners, Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter, see their restaurant as a modern mom-and-pop operation, and their presence gives the dining room a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. On our visit, they wandered out of the kitchen to offer a complimentary starter of Three-Day Squid, named for its rigorous marination schedule. I loved the seared lamb with cucumbers, minted yogurt and grilled bread as well as a charred octopus and fennel salad topped with a green olive vinaigrette. At the end of the meal, Kiely reappeared just in time to steer us toward the wonderful steamed gingerbread dessert, cheerfully admitting he eats it every day for breakfast.

Smith St. Kitchen

Smith St. Kitchen also has a laid-back feel, with comfortable velvet banquettes, well-spaced tables and pressed tin walls. The tin was discovered beneath layers of corkboard installed by a previous tenant who ran Boerum Hill's only combination record store and driving school. (Don't ask. It's typical old Brooklyn.) The restaurant distinguishes itself from its neighbors with its emphasis on fresh fish. A trio of chefs (Michael Pailbrack, an American who once worked at Bouley, Anatoly Dubinsky, a native of Russia, and Marek Gregorski, born in Poland) seem to thrive on combining their eclectic influences. Ocean Broth Chowder turned out to be a comforting broth filled with clams, baby calamari and handmade herb ravioli. Zucchini-wrapped halibut with green pea sauce was light and summery despite the chill outside. Not all the seafood will be quite so sophisticated; come warm weather,the chefs hope to give the place a Beach Blanket Bingo feel by hosting clambakes in the backyard.

Uncle Pho

Alan Harding is the grandfather of the Boerum Hill scene; three years ago he had the foresight to open a bistro, Patois, on Smith Street. People who couldn't get a table there begged him to start another restaurant. Uncle Pho, a French-Vietnamese bistro, is the result, although it too is endlessly beset by crowds. In fact, its very popularity had scared me off the place for a while. If Manhattanization meant long lines and sullen hipsters, Uncle Pho seemed to be the epicenter of it. But soon I saw signs of the trademark Brooklyn friendliness: A note in the window invites customers to give the chef suggestions for the upcoming breakfast and lunch menus. Not that the kitchen is short of ideas on its own,as the mussels in sake with fermented black beans and the coyly titled Pad Thai with Interesting Vegetables soon proved. I had to admit that my misgivings about the whole Manhattanization thing were fading a little with every bite.

Mignon

Mignon is the area's other big success story, although it isn't on Smith at all but a block away on Court. The rustic dining room is lovely, but the seating is so tight we immediately became privy to our fellow diners' troubles. (Mr. X had ignored a tip to invest in eBay, Ms. Y had a suitor with three ill-behaved dogs.) Fortunately, my claustrophobia vanished as soon as the food arrived. The chef, Pablo Trobo, is originally from Uruguay, but traditional French cooking is his passion. The escargot special, which a friend had described as "an excellent garlic and butter delivery system," fully lived up to its reputation, as did the restaurant's namesake beef filet.

A Neighborhood Place

Trobo used to work as the chef at Provence in SoHo, but said he tired of the Manhattan scene because it has become more hype than substance. He and several of his Smith Street colleagues agreed that high real-estate prices and the narrowing of Manhattan menus into ever more specific niches and themes have made the true neighborhood restaurant a vanishing breed. On Smith Street, the chefs borrow pots and pans from each other and share soap. To many who've traveled to Boerum Hill to see for themselves, this boom is less about the Manhattanization of Brooklyn than its revitalization.

I'd reached the end of my eating tour, fearing that if this food renaissance continued I might have to be buried in a piano case. There's only one thing I've left out. The first time I tried to eat at Mignon, there was a half-hour wait--unheard of in this neighborhood. My friend and I stood outside, wondering where all these fashionable, well-heeled people had come from. After awhile, the owner of Helen's Place, the Italian restaurant next door, came out and looked quizzically at the crowd. He painstakingly straightened his window display, which featured a Budweiser sign and an ailing plant. By the door was a faded review that praised his excellent home-style cooking.

Suddenly, I felt like I'd taken my trusty old dog to the pound and traded him in for a new puppy. I took my name off the list at Mignon and headed to Helen's. The place had worn linoleum floors, dropped ceilings and a TV playing old sitcoms in the back. The owner was delighted to see us and tried to convince us to order dessert before dinner, a game that seemed to fill him with glee. At long last, we were given menus. After the poetic sounding entrées of the last few weeks, it was a shock to order linguini with broccoli rabe and spaghetti with clams. But we did and they were good. Not life-changing, mind you, but good nonetheless. After dinner, the owner unveiled his secret stash of liquor and gave everyone drinks on the house. He brought us tiramisu and a very small check. When it was time to go home, he implied that I was the sweetest, most beautiful woman who had ever eaten in his restaurant. Then he went over to a woman at the next table and implied the same. Old Brooklyn lives.

Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Published February 2000
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