Tuesday, June 27, 2006

New York, New York 4: Red Hook Report

New York Dock Co., Red Hook fig. a: New York Dock Co.

It all started with a rumour about NY's best selection of bourbon and a warehouse full of Key lime pies. Some things just cry out to be investigated further, even if only by me alone. This time, though, I had no problem enlisting other researchers to join me on my quest. Off we went, taking the sea bus from Pier 17 straight to Red Hook. (And not a moment too soon: Pier 17 was the site of "Kid's Day," a horrifying display of under-10s running around without adequate supervision.) The sea bus left the port and the kids behind. The water was choppy, Governor's Island was lovely, and the wind blew our hair around. A cheap thrill at just $5 per person.

The view of Red Hook from the water is amazing. Old brick warehouses line the shore, some of which are residential, some function as art galleries, others are abandoned. Sadly, a chunk of the waterfront is slated to be demolished to make way for a huge Ikea. Until then, the waterfront's history remains more or less intact. The sea bus docked right in front of a disused tram.

tram, Red Hook fig. b: tramcar

From the water we'd spotted an amazing warehouse covered with potted tropical plants and a greenhouse. Thinking it was some sort of wholesale plant store we made our way along the streets of Red Hook trying to get a better look at it. That's when we stumbled onto Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies.

pies here fig. c: Michelle at Steve's

It was right beside the plant paradise. I made a beeline for the pies while Todd took a look at the plants. Inside the pie place was a tiny counter with a bowl of Key limes. They sell Key limes, a few pies of different sizes, and a frozen Key lime tartlet on a stick dipped in chocolate. This last treat, named the Swingle, was easily the best thing I have ever eaten on a stick, and probably the best Key lime-based dessert I've ever encoutered. It was a knockout. The curd was smooth, tart and refreshing. The chocolate added a sweet richness. A perfect product. I agree wholeheartedly with Steve's philosophy: When you make something that's this perfect, why make anything else? (They don't.) While Stephen and I ate our Swingles, Todd was peering into what we thought was a plant wholesaler but was actually someone's home. This someone came out and wasn't too friendly, either. We walked quietly away and hoped he wouldn't chase us. He didn't. We thought about getting another Swingle, but even I have to draw the line somewhere every once in while.

bar, Red Hook fig. d: Sunny's

Red Hook used to be a bustling port, crawling with sailors on shore leave. Their first stop? Probably Sunny's, a bar that's been around since 1890. We were in dire need of a drink when we got to the door. Too bad it doesn't open until 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays only. We took a longful look inside and continued down to Van Brunt St. in search of booze.

1 cider, 1 bourbon, 1 bottle of cachaça (not pictured) fig. e: hooch from LeNell's

And booze we found at LeNell's, along with free and exceedingly generous samples of caipirinhas and Brazilian barbeque. (Note to shopkeepers: samples work. We came home with a bottle of cachaça after tasting their samples, plus wine, cider, and bourbon.) When I walked into LeNell's, I felt like I'd come home. It's the liquor store I dream of in this uptightly Protestant country of ours. A claw-foot tub sits in the window filled with a selection of gin. Their bourbon section takes up three full shelves, and I do mean full. And when I asked the proprietor if she had any elderflower cordial, she looked at me and said, "I'd love to get my hands on some of that stuff." So would I. Tonya LeNell Smothers (hence the name) is a friendly, knowledgeable lady, and if her southern accent doesn't charm you, her selection of booze will. Ask her about her mezcals. You won't regret it. And if you happen to come from a bourbon-deprived region of the world, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better assortment. Don't be a fool. Get on that sea bus.

Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, 204 Van Dyke St.
Sunny's, 253 Conover St.
LeNell's Ltd., 16 Van Brunt St.
(all in Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY)



Anonymous said...


michelle said...

It was. You should come up and see us sometime.
I miss you.