I read at KGB Bar last night. Pretty cool.
Yesterday the New York Post ran my article on what may be the country's first bar inside a full-time motorcycle garage. Called The Shop Brooklyn, the innovative Williamsburg outfit is located three blocks from me; I watched the space transform into what it is today over the last three years. Keep your eyes peeled, as they say.
(Photograph by Zandy Mangold.)
My mom and I share a love of biscuits—perfect biscuits. Usually we eat versions other folks make (like the biscuits at Williamsburg's Egg or the ones at Houston's The Breakfast Klub, both divine), but rarely do we knead and bake them ourselves. That's because my mom gets anxious just thinking about the process (everything has to be just so!), while I have a super-old oven that doesn't hold a consistent temperature.
Well, we both got over our issues and produced the scrumptious specimens in the above photo, which we ate for Thanksgiving breakfast with butter, strawberry jam, and raspberry-jalapeño jelly straight from New Canaan Farms of Dripping Springs, Texas. (Jalapeño's in everything in Tay-has.)
We used this recipe for the biscuits, by Scott Peacock, a James Beard best-chef winner and former top toque at Georgia's Watershed restaurant (which, weirdly enough, is owned by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers; I forgot that duo existed). Though Peacock moved on earlier this year to work on an oral history of Alabaman elders and their food memories, his scrumptious biscuits aren't going anywhere (except into your mouth, six or seven in a row). Just remember: Don't twist when you're cutting the dough!
Glancingly I'd seen mentions of this putative locavore resto in the East Village, and then my silver-haired guru, discerner of discerners, did repeat business there. So last night I checked it out. I didn't have any expectations, in keeping with my ambition to be Zen at all times, and the menu posted at their website looked neither amazing nor horrible. (It did, however, list a chilled cauliflower soup, so clearly it hadn't been updated in awhile. Note to restaurateurs, especially purveyors of seasonal fare: please get with it!) And—I don't know why this surprised me, but it did—the food turned out to be neither amazing nor horrible. I was glad to have tried it, but there will be no repeat business from this discerner.
The problems started with the caveat at the bottom of the menu (which, en suite, featured a watermelon gazpacho instead of the cauliflower; alas, I didn't have it): "Northern Food Spy Co. aims to source and serve food produced by regional farmers and artisan purveyors whenever possible." Huh? "Aims"? "Whenever possible"? Why such qualifications? It's very possible to use local sources exclusively—lots of eateries do so. Also, I don't like to see shortcomings advertised.
Then the wine: a Lambrusco that paled in comparison to a bottle I'd recently snagged at Williamsburg's UVA wine shop, and, subsequently, a chilled Gamay that was absolutely tasteless, as if it had been opened days before. (Both glasses were served already poured—quelle horreur!) The Banker had a house-made lemon-lime seltzer that could've used more oomph. I wanted to taste the bracing lemon and lime flavors, not tolerate faint outlines of them.
Indeed, the food could've been more bracing too. The heirloom-tomato salad, a special, was fine but should've been glorious (they're heirloom tomatoes!), though the risotto of freekeh (an Arab bulgur-like wheat), snap peas, zucchini, and mascarpone had a lovely loamy quality. The three fat meatballs I had for my main dish, composed of heritage pork and dotted with pecorino, were better than fine but made me wistful for Marco Canora's veal-and-ricotta wonders, my personal standard. (My mom makes some mean meatballs too.) The "Long Island market fish" was striped bass, which doesn't scream Long Island to me, but the Banker found it delicious nonetheless. I scraped the dish containing a side of wild rice, feta, mint, and lemon, served at room temperature. The peach pie with burnt-sugar ice cream was kaput for the day, so we recalcitrantly opted for the buttermilk panna cotta, tangily superb. If only its surface hadn't been invaded by berries, thus masking the taste.
The restaurant has a great, if modest, beer program, boasting four craft varieties on tap, six in the bottle, and a can of Porkslap for a cool four bucks. (Why drink PBR when you can get a local version?) And our server was delightful. She even checked on the Banker after an especially hot shishito shard (part of the bass dish) entered his gullet and he copiously downed a few glasses of water. "Do you need some milk?"
As we gathered to leave, one of my favorite songs, "Jane Says," came on, the latest in a string of '90s indie classics on the stereo that night (note to trend watchers). I hadn't heard it in forever and it thrilled me. Would that the food had been as specific and memorable. Try again tomorrow.
Northern Spy Food Co., 511 E. 12th St. b/w A and B, 212-228-5100, www.northernspyfoodco.com. Image courtesy of the Cheery Observations blog, which also includes notes on how to make the restaurant's kale salad.
When I happened by the drinks menu in a window of the Commodore, the new canteen from Pies 'n' Thighs and Egg alum Stephen Tanner, I thought, a bit panicked, Oh, kitsch. I'm not one for simulacra, and themes make me run the other way. But the food menu looked reassuringly locavore and Southern—asparagus and ramps! Biscuits!—and I figured I'd just order an old-fashioned or Manhattan to go along with my meal. A frozen piña colada served in a svelte palm-emblazoned glass with a pineapple garnish was most definitely not part of the vision.
Neither was a decor that evoked Jack and Larry's favorite bar—or my late uncle's basement man cave. I never noticed the design at Black Betty, the space's former occupant, possibly because there was none, but at the Commodore, the late '70s/early '80s details are impossible to miss: the white bar stools, the porntastic blinds in the windows, the Schlitz and Miller Lite signs—and the porpoise corpse—on the walls. The aesthetic isn't overwhelmingly period, though; it still feels contemporary, thanks in large part to the wide, dark beams that set off the white ceiling. (The effect is to die for.) Altogether, the elements both create and defeat any sense of replica. I felt out of sorts and thoroughly on, which is how, later, I came to imbibe that tall drink of cold-whipped amaretto-infused confection.
The food is exactly what you'd expect from Tanner, and it's divine: fried catfish, pulled pork, an "adult" grilled cheese with hot sauce, all served on—amazingly—white bread; mini-biscuits and perfect fries; a burger adorned with a cocktail umbrella; those asparagus and ramps, grilled and plated with a halved soft-boiled egg. (Quirkily, you have to order both food and drink at the bar and either pay cash upfront or fork over a card to be held; then you get a small faux-wood-paneled placard with a number, and your order is brought to you.)
The Banker and I wolfed everything down amid swigs of sloe gin fizz (him—it tasted like pink lemonade) and old-fashioned (me—the cherry was cloyingly maraschino and thus lovely), then watched images of a young David Hasselfhoff on the small TV in the corner of the bar. (It didn't look like Night Rider, so who knows what it was.) It was time to order new drinks, and I was riding high from the food, already subsumed by this thing that was greater than me, and I thought, the Commodore. It's the namesake drink. I should have it. (And note that seafaring name, fitting for a spot up the block from Saltie, where Tanner could recently be found slicing focaccia, presumably while waiting for a liquor license.)
The Banker went with a frozen drink too, a mojito, and his arrived post-haste. My piña colada, however, took about 15 minutes to materialize—I kept hearing a blender whirr—but it was well worth the wait. Somehow I've gone my whole life without imbibing a strained pineapple, so I've nothing to compare the Commodore to, but nevertheless I'm convinced what I had was perfection. And it made me feel so good, like the way a great cappuccino makes me feel, only instead of the caffeinated energy, I was woozy, mellow. There weren't any records in the jukebox, but if there were, I might've put on some James Taylor.
In a way, the Commodore is a perfect match for the prevailing gastronomic Zeitgeist, at least as practiced in Williamsburg today. Go to Saltie enough and you realize how often Lynyrd Skynyrd's on the stereo; Hotel Delmano is perhaps the most faithful manifestation of a 1920s American speakeasy/Left Bank vibe in town. Some establishment was bound to join these twin ideals of twisty authenticity, and I guess the Commodore is it. Besides, there's vintage video games to play—and cartoony King Kong-and-Jane cut-outs you can stick your face in and pretend.
What you're looking at above is a coffee shop. If it doesn't look like any coffee shop you've ever frequented, that's precisely the point of the Blue Bottle folks, who opened a satellite of their San Francisco haute-java enterprise in Williamsburg this week. (You may have seen the omnibus NYT piece on Wednesday that listed Blue Bottle and 29 other top coffee joints in town.) Conveniently, the location is only three blocks from my apartment, on Berry St. between N. 5th and N. 4th, and you can't miss the double glass garage doors that serve as its facade. While the shop has some nice equipment inside (and a lovely spartan aesthetic clearly meant to reinforce the seriousness of the coffee-making), one's eye naturally drifts to the expansive space beyond the customer area, designated off-limits by a beige velvet rope. The view is of a laboratory, or a church, where Important Things are made in secret, impenetrable fashion. No wonder Blue Bottle teamed with Mast Brothers Chocolate, which supplies the key ingredient in the hot chocolate ($3.50). The brothers' space a block away has a similar set-up, with chocolate bars in glass cases up front and inscrutable factory-like tableaux in back. Blue Bottle is next-level coffee (for New York, at least), so it needs a next-level space. I dig.
And the coffee? My individually prepared Ethiopian drip coffee served au lait ($4.50) was sublime. It may not've been "better" than the Clover-prepared drip at Gimme! Coffee or El Beit (on Bedford Ave., no website), but the overall vibe at Blue Bottle certainly enhanced my experience. And as I stood at the long wooden table sipping my non-commodity along with the other customers, I heard frequent exclamations of delight. The next time I go, I'll have what they're having—like the SG-120, a variation of a macchiato.
Remainders Another marvelous experience was had recently at The Vanderbilt, the newish restaurant in Prospect Heights from the owners of Saul in Cobble Hill, in partnership with the Saul alum who runs the Num Pang sandwich shop near Union Square. This was my first trip to Prospect Heights in forever, but I was just a wee bit sick of the same-old, same-old Williamsburg culinary scene, even though I love it so. I wanted adventure! And I wanted to hang with my pal Andy, who lives nearby in Clinton Hill. After a short stroll from the Clinton-Washington G-train stop (not so hard!), we were on Vanderbilt Ave., which houses not only the eponymous restaurant but several other enticing spots like the subway-tiled cocktail lounge Weather Up (no website) and oysters-and-whisky resto Cornelius (it boasts over 200 varieties of the brown stuff, so you know I'll be checking it out!). The whole stretch reminded me a tad of Berlin's Neukölln nabe: removed, quasi-desolate, but with jumping attractions.
I digress. The Vanderbilt struck me as a particularly contemporary restaurant, with three areas to sit depending on your mood and interests (and what's available: we walked in around 9 on a Friday night and were offered seats at the bar overlooking the main food-prep station, which I totally enjoyed). The menu is similarly customizable, with sections for meat, charcuterie, vegetables, etc., sort of like a new-style Craft for the 2010s. We had the boudin blanc, the spicy fried-chicken wings, and a short-ribs-and-polenta special that was insane. (Two of my favorite foods combined? Hello!) We also had the oreilles de Christ, or fried pork skins, which resembled those Chinese things the name of which I can't remember and came with droppers with which to apply the hot sauce. Weirdly cool, like The Vanderbilt in general. Word.
I made my famous Meyer Gold Rush cocktail this week. Actually, it's Savoy's, but I certainly publicized it enough that maybe they'll name a drink after me now. (But what would I taste like? More anon!) Anyway, it's so easy, and so delish: 2 oz. rye (I like Rittenhouse, which also happens to be cheap), juice of a whole Meyer lemon (with a segment or two reserved for garnish), 1 tbsp honey, and a dash of bitters (I used Angostura, which is all I had, but orange bitters might be better). Shake without ice, then pour over ice, squeeze the reserved lemon on top, and then plop it in. Doesn't it just look good? (NB: Photo's of Savoy's version, not mine!)
I had brunch today at Pâtes et Traditions (no website), which's been around the corner from me for more than a year but the rain made me think of crêpes et voilà. It felt like the south of France inside, and the servers/owners were actually French, so I got to practice my pronunciations. (I was corrected.) Indeed, the feeling was of this sign (summer cocktails can't arrive soon enough):
Finally, I must give props to Happy Goat Caramels, which I picked up at the baskets-and-sundries shop in Chelsea Market. Also, the chocolate-covered dried cantaloupe pieces I got at the supermarket there, which were a special but which can easily be made at home. And Trader Joe's salsa verde, made with fresh tomatillos and jalapeños but no preservatives (an infrequent quality at TJ's). I've been eating it with Xochitl blue corn chips dusted with sea salt. Last but not least, given my obsession with this place, I was pleased to find my favorite Saltie sandwich listed as one of the best in the city by New York mag. I didn't even know it was "vegetarian," yo! I thought it was just a Tasty Thing.