Friday, August 06, 2010

Connect the Dots, or Slouching Towards Bushwick and (Many) other Tales of the City

Late spring found members of Team AEB collaborating with Team Twitchy on a fast, furious, and highly caffeinated 2-day tour of New York. If you were to connect the dots, it would go something like this:

roberta's 1 fig. a: Roberta's façade

1. Roberta's

How do you describe a pizza joint like Roberta's?

I'd heard great things about Roberta's. (And this being New York, Roberta's detractors were both plentiful and vocal.) I also knew full well that it was located in Bushwick, with all that that entails. Even so, I just wasn't prepared for the Roberta's experience.

From the homely, auto body shop-like exterior (the restaurant is housed in a former garage), to the eclectic urban bricolage of its dining room/pizza kitchen, tiki garden, greenhouses, vegetable & herb gardens, and radio station (?), Roberta's was unlike any serious, new-school, hardcore-Neapolitan-pizza-oven-wielding pizza joint I'd ever been to. Aspects of Roberta's reminded me of Waitsfield, VT's American Flatbread--the communitarian atmosphere, the loopy pizza nomenclature, the emphasis on sustainability, etc.--but Roberta's represented the very opposite of AF's back-to-nature ideology. This joint was long-haired, heavily bearded, and hippyish, but it was all about taking back the city. Other aspects reminded me of Joan Didion's seminal "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." This is a place to be taken with a grain of salt--or a tab of acid. All that said, the night we went, our party might have been a little bemused, but we came close to achieving instant karma--Roberta's food was right on.

roberta's 2 fig. b: Roberta's tiki garden

Now, perhaps not surprisingly, Roberta's has its detractors (some of them vehement), but it's also got no shortage of supporters, and business is brisk. The night we went, there was a bit of a wait before we could be seated, so we took the opportunity to down a couple of frosty ones in the tiki garden, and to check out the premises.

gardening at night fig. c: gardening at night

An impressive complex of greenhouses has been built on top of parts of the Roberta's compound, and a vacant lot beyond has been transformed into a massive container-gardening operation, utilizing containers of all kinds. Even bathtubs. Inside, piggy banks scattered around the dining room solicit donations to help support Roberta's Farm Fund.

Half an hour later, we were seated at a communal table, and we'd moved onto sipping Italian reds by the glass. Our pizzas consisted of a Margherita and a The Lupo (pesto, mozzarella, prosciutto cotto, smoked mozzarella, and spring garlic),* and we rounded things out with a hefty, incredibly juicy pork chop, served with farro, guanciale, and mizuna greens. All three were so totally rad that they didn't really fill me up--they just gave me the munchies. I was ready to work my way through the entire menu.

2. Gimme!

The folks at Gimme! got started in the Ithaca area--and that area is still home to their HQ--but they've now got two locations in NYC: one on Mott St. in SoHo/NoLIta, and another on Lorimer St. in Williamsburg. We'd been to the Mott St. location before, but this time, because our home base was in Brooklyn, it was all about the Lorimer St. location, where the staff were friendly and happy to oblige, and the espressos were expertly pulled and awfully tasty.

russ & daughters fig. d: inside Russ & Daughters

3. Russ & Daughters

There's more to the legendary Russ & Daughters (how legendary?--check out Anthony Bourdain's encomium in the photo above) than just bagels, gravlax, smoked fish, rollmops, candies, nuts, and halavah.

ultimate egg cream fig. e: UEC

There's also their absolutely amazing ultimate egg cream. Takes 'em about 5 minutes to make it because they pour (and stir) so much love and attention into it, but it's so worth the wait. If there's a better egg cream alive, I haven't encountered it.

Plus, the folks at R & D are such sweethearts. And they love to gab. And I love smoked fish. I could spend the whole day there.

milk bar 3 fig. f: inside Milk Bar

4. Milk Bar

Milk Bar was something of a pilgrimage. Michelle's been following Christina Tosi's reign of catch-as-catch-can dessert mayhem closely over the last couple of years, so we were curious to visit Milk Bar up-close and in-person. And with good reason. With all the talk of the nostalgia values of recent dessert trends (cupcakes, doughnuts, whoopie pies, etc.), Tosi is one of the few people who's really pushed things further--she's also done so more inventively. Take her trademarked "cereal milk," which simulates the flavor of the leftover milk at the bottom of a just-finished bowl of cereal (Grape Nuts?), and which she's made available as a "milk" and as a soft-serve ice cream. Want to add to the layers of nostalgia? How about topping that cereal-milk ice cream with some "cornflake crunch" or, even better, "potato chip crunch"? Of course, Tosi's deliciously playful take on pop culture has also made her a major player in a scene the New York Times has labeled "haute stoner cuisine."

We got ourselves primed for our Milk Bar sugar shock by having a Ssäm Bar pork bun as an appetizer. Milk Bar is mainly a dessert outpost, but the space is connected to Ssäm Bar, and they do offer a few items that are on the savory tip. Once we'd gotten that into our system, we tried a selection of Milk Bar's soft-serve ice creams (blueberry muffin! cinnamon bun!!), and then moved on to the cookies, pies, and cakes section of the menu.

milk bar 2 fig. g: truffles by Milk Bar

Tosi's "truffles" were a good way to sample the cakes. They're essentially bite-sized portions of the cakes that have been rolled up into a truffle-like form, and you get 3 for $3. Curious about Milk Bar's "birthday cake" cake, but hesitant to shell out the $38 it costs for a full-sized cake? Get yourself a packet of "birthday cake" truffles. We did.

milk bar 1 fig. h: compost never tasted so good

As much as I liked the truffles and the "candy bar" pie, my favorites were the cookies. At $1.85 each or 6 for $10, Milk Bar's cookies are extremely affordable, and some of them, like the kitchen-sink appeal of the "compost" cookie** and the creamed corn/comfort food qualities of the "corn" cookie, are strokes of genius.

5. Third Rail

Third Rail was probably my favorite coffee bar of our visit. It was certainly the smallest and the cutest. And it's conveniently located just a block away from Washington Square. My late-afternoon macchiato was totally gratuitous (again, as I mentioned above, when you roll with Team Twitchy, you tend to have a fair bit of caffeine coursing through you system pretty much all the time--high-quality caffeine), but somehow it still managed to taste like my first of the day.

ice cream picnic fig. i: impromptu ice cream picnic

6. Beez Kneez Ice Cream

One afternoon we were lying in the grass and taking in the sun and the views in Williamsburg's East River State Park when some Aussie came by and asked us if we were interested in some ice cream.

Why, yes, we are interested in some ice cream. Thanks for asking.

He pulled a container out of his cooler, handed us a couple of spoons, and the next thing we knew we were eating Australian ice cream made with real Australian honey. Was Beez Kneez ice cream as "killer" as their website claims? Well, it was pretty darned good, and the honey did taste pretty exotic, and, besides, how many artisanal ice cream companies can you think of that deliver?

How do you find Beez Kneez ice cream? Why, on Twitter, of course

negroni fig. j: Franny's negroni

7. Franny's

It had been a while since either of us had been to Franny's. Much too long a while. Our first two experiences were all about Franny's justly famous pizza pies, and both experiences were breathtaking. This time around we took a very different tack. L. had a theory. She insisted that as outstanding as Franny's pizzas were/are, their real strong suit was their line of pasta dishes. And their cocktails. Quite specifically, L. claimed Franny's was serving the Negroni to end all Negronis. Now, we already had a dinner date planned, but it was 6:00 pm, and an absolutely beautiful evening, an evening that was just begging for a Negroni, so the next thing I knew, there we were, having a couple of Franny's phenomenal Negronis with a spaghetti chaser. Now, I'm not sure that this pasta dish eclipsed Franny's pizzas (I still have dreams about their clam pie), but it certainly lived up to the standards I've come to expect from them. Chickpeas, minced garlic, crushed chili peppers, slivers of fresh mint, and some truly perfect pasta--so simple, so honest, so extraordinarily satisfying. Now that's what I call Happy Hour.

8. Aburiya Kinnosuke

Our dinner date that night was with our friends A. and J. and when it came to picking a restaurant, we deferred to their expert knowledge of New York's Japanese food scene. Their pick? Aburiya Kinnosuke, an elegant Midtown Japanese restaurant, specializing in robata grilled treats, fish dishes, and "tidbits for drinking." The atmosphere was semi-private yet convivial. We had our own little dining cubicle all to ourselves, but we were not detached in the least from the rather animated festivities going on all around us. Aburiya Kinnosuke was evidently making many of our fellow diners quite happy, and, I have to say, the vibe was infectious--especially when the beer and sake arrived.

I was excited to see all manner of robata dishes on the menu. I was even more excited when they began to appear before us. Among the night's highlights were a trio of pork sensations: organic berkshire pork simmered in brown sugar soju, grilled pork cheek, and black peppered berkshire pork. Oishii!

saltie 1 fig. k: inside Saltie 1

9. Saltie

Saltie was already one of Team Twitchy's favorites. It instantly became one of Team AEB's too. From the moment I set eyes on the place, I was sold. The decor. The color scheme. The Jim O'Rourke blaring from the stereo speakers.

saltie 2 fig. l: Saltie's Scuttlebutt

And then there's their specialty sandwiches. Like their truly amazing Scuttlebutt, which contained feta cheese, mixed greens, hard-boiled eggs, capers, pickles, and a roasted red pepper aioli, and was served on their house-made focaccia. Patrons have been known to fall head-over-heels in love with the Scuttlebutt. I've joined their ranks, but, unfortunately, mine is a long-distance affair.

saltie 3 fig. m: inside Saltie 2

Saltie is essentially a luncheonette, and they're closed on Mondays, so plan your visits wisely.

Oh, and they also make an awfully bold, awfully tasty buckwheat/olive shortbread and some wickedly beautiful fruit galettes.

the brooklyn kitchen + the meat hook fig. n: inside The Brooklyn Kitchen + The Meat Hook

10. The Meat Hook + The Brooklyn Kitchen

Two for the price of one.

Last summer we met a couple of Brooklynites in Montreal who told us they were just on the verge of opening a butcher shop/kitchen store/cooking class kitchen/kitchen studio complex. I can't remember how big they said it was going to be, but I remember it being BIG. Like, 650,000 square feet or something. I'm exaggerating, of course, but the project seemed so huge, so elaborate, so grandiose that I could barely wrap my head around it.

Then, 10 months later, I was taken to a neighborhood kitchen supply store, and, lo and behold, there it was. That butcher shop/kitchen store/cooking class kitchen/kitchen studio complex had materialized before my very eyes.

The Brooklyn Kitchen/The Meat Hook is not exactly Trump Tower (it's not even Zabar's)--it's actually remarkably modest in size--but it is just as ambitious as it was initially described to us, which means that there's a lot to keep the food-obsessed among us busy.

The Brooklyn Kitchen is a seriously well-stocked kitchen supply store with knowledgeable staff. They're worth visiting for their knife selection alone, which is impressively comprehensive, with German, Swiss, French, English, American, and Japanese models to choose from.

The Meat Hook is a old-school-as-new-school butcher shop fronted by local butcher extraordinaire Tom Mylan. Like their friends at Fleisher's, they only work with farmers that they trust and they only carve sustainably raised animals. Sausages are made fresh daily on weekdays. They carry artisanal bacons and country hams like Benton's. They're friendly and helpful, too. The real deal.

grumpy fig. o: inside Grumpy

11. Grumpy

I never actually ordered a coffee at Café Grumpy (Greenpoint), but, in the company of Team Twitchy, I got to check out their roasting operation and partake in a full-on coffee cupping exercise. My very first.

I also got to check out Grumpy's backroom blackboard--the one that lists all the coffees they've been roasting.

Not sure how to find Grumpy Greenpoint?

grumpy map fig. p: limited edition Grumpy map

Here's a handy map, courtesy of Team Twitchy. Just look for Mr. Grumpy Face.

12. Trini-Gul

Shut out at A & A because it was already early afternoon and they were very much sold out, we continued along Nostrand and just chanced upon a relatively new Trini establishment called Trini-Gul. We were looking for doubles, and doubles they had. Cheap, too. Only $1.50. Not as spiced and herbal as those at A & A, but absolutely delicious nonetheless, and they came fully loaded with hot sauce, tamarind sauce, and minced cucumber (!).

H. was with us on this particular stop, and, frankly, she was a little skeptical. She'd never had doubles, never even heard of them, and she wasn't sure it was worth the stop.

She came out of the experience a true believer.

"What are these things called again? Doubles?"

Trini-Gul has that kind of effect on people.

hill country 2

hill country 1 figs. q & r: inside Hill Country

13. Hill Country

What can you say about a place like Hill Country?

More than just a Texas-style barbecue joint, more than just a Manhattan Texas-style barbecue joint, Hill Country is a Manhattanist theme park, a Manhattanist fantasy of Central Texas, of the region that encompasses Austin and Lockhart, of a region that's renowned for its music and its barbecue. Fittingly, Hill Country's signature barbecue is modeled after one of the undisputed Legends of Lockhart: Kreuz Market.

Now, they might have pushed things further and named it Hill Trash because there's something almost Cracker Barrel-esque about Hill Country (although it's so much more cleverly/tastefully appointed, as you can see from the photos above), and there's definitely something about Hill Country that's straight out of your standard male-fantasy beer commercial/promotion (think Bud Camp). The place is simply outrageous. And enormous. And overwrought.

Copious amounts of brisket, sausage, ribs, etc. are portioned right there in front of you and served counter-style on butcher's paper, and on the day we went there was also an honest-to-goodness pig pickin' taking place. You've got your meat counter, and your sides & fixings counter, and your drink counter. You've got waitresses in short shorts and tight tees providing real Texas hospitality on the dining room floor. You've got two floors to choose from, because Hill Country is a bi-level establishment. You've got live music and big-screen TVs, Hill Country cocktail bars and a Hill Country merch counter. Get the picture?

But somehow, against all odds, Hill Country actually delivers. The brisket could definitely have been smokier, but it could hardly have been any more moist and succulent. The smoked Kreuz sausages were total crowd-pleasers--the jalapeño cheese, in particular, was juicy, just the slightest bit fiery, and oozing with cheese. The campfire baked beans with burnt ends would have been at home on the range. The green bean casserole would have passed muster at a church fundraiser. And the banana cream pudding was a blue-ribbon winner.

And we're not the only ones who like Hill Country. We're in good company (that's right, Bruni named the place one of his top five restaurants in the world).

ricotta & greens sandwich fig. s: Bklyn Larder's ricotta & wilted greens sandwich

14. Bklyn Larder

From the good people who brought you Franny's, comes Brooklyn Larder, a.k.a. Bklyn Larder LLC. Here, you can find Franny's phenomenal sweet fennel sausages and all the rest of their brilliant selection of charcuterie, along with baked goods, prepared foods (pickles, sides, main dishes, etc.), a small but surprisingly extensive cheese counter that specializes in the very best of the New American Cheeses, a small but tastefully chosen selection of artisanal beers (North American and European), and a tantalizing selection of chocolates, preserves, canned goods, and other specialty food items.

Be forewarned: Brooklyn Larder is the kind of place that makes you want to drop a whole whack of dough.

They also have a great selection of freshly prepared sandwiches, including a ricotta and wilted greens number that was ever so simple, and ever so right.

pork bun picnic fig. t: Palisades Parkway Pork Bun Picnic

15. Milk Bar

You can never have too many Momofuku pork buns and you can never bring too many Milk Bar cookies home for your friends, so a return trip to Milk Bar was my final stop.

Just in time, too. This post is just ridiculous.

They don't call it the Big Onion for nothing, I guess. Come to think of it, that's kind of what I looked like by the end of this trip.

Roberta's, 261 Moore St., Brooklyn (Bushwick), (718) 417-1118

Gimme!, 495 Lorimer St., Brooklyn (Williamsburg), (718) 388-7771

Russ & Daughters, 179 East Houston St., Manhattan (Lower East Side), (212) 475-4880

Milk Bar, 207 2nd Ave. (@ 13th), Manhattan (East Village), (212) 254-3500

Third Rail, 240 Sullivan St., Manhattan (Greenwich Village), (555) 555-5555

Franny's, 295 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn (Park Slope), (718) 230-0221

Aburiya Kinnosuke, 213 E. 45th St., Manhattan (Grand Central/Midtown East), (212) 867-5454

Saltie, 387 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn (Williamsburg), (718) 387-4777

The Brooklyn Kitchen + The Meat Hook, 100 Frost St. (virtually underneath the BQE), Brooklyn (Williamsburg), (718) 389-2982

Café Grumpy, 193 Meserole Ave., Brooklyn (Greenpoint), (718) 349-7623

Trini-Gul, 543 Nostrand Ave., Brooklyn (Crown Heights), (718) 484-4500

Hill Country, 30 West 26th St., Manhattan (Flatiron District), (212) 255-4544

Bklyn Larder, 228 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn (Park Slope), (718) 783-1250


Many thanks to Team Twitchy, A. and J., and H. Respect to all of you that this whirlwind visit didn't allow to see.

* Remember the "loopy nomenclature" I mentioned above? We seriously considered getting a Millennium Falco (tomato, Parmigiano, pork sausage, onion, basil, and breadcrumbs), and the Specken Wolf (speck, mushrooms, oregano, onions, and mozzarella) was tempting too, but in the end we opted for 1 classic, 1 special, and one main.

** Get this: pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, butterscotch, and chocolate chips.


Robin said...

Egg cream, whirlwind, twitchy...this story is chock full of beautiful words! And pictures ^_^.

Anonymous said...

Seriously-- what could anyone have to say against Roberta's?

aj kinik said...

Hi, Robin,
thanks--glad you liked it!

Hi, Anonymous,
pizza in NYC is nothing if not controversial--pizza in Bushwick is certainly no exception--as for us, we've only been twice, but we're big fans