On Day One of our eating journey through Brooklyn, we sampled from a global table, visiting restaurants that fed us with their takes on Thai, Filipino, Latin and Spanish/Mediterranean food. We barely had time to recover from this night of feasting when we embarked on Day Two of our journey, rallying bright and early for breakfast.
1. Baked. Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in October, 2012 and almost a year later, there are still signs of the devastation. But this vibrant waterfront neighborhood joined forces to rebuild and we were happy to see far more signs of a return to normalcy.
There’s a tightknit food community in Red Hook, which now includes a Fairway supermarket in addition to small storefronts and cafes. Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, proprietors of Baked, were pioneers here in 2005 and one of the first to reopen after the storm, feeding hordes of hungry displaced people—both residents and business owners. They helped in the cleanup and recovery efforts of Fort Defiance, the restaurant/bar which graced the cover of the January, 2013 Restaurant Business as a “great idea;” owner St. John Frizell sold “junk bonds” to finance reconstruction.
Lewis and Poliafito fed us with the same TLC, putting out a huge spread of homemade pastries, muffins, scones, cupcakes and “breakfast” cookies—several of which were studded with almonds and all of which were irresistible. We watched the bakers behind a glass-windowed kitchen making these treats and more. (We were told this all-female crew curses like a bunch of sailors, but the glass was soundproof so we didn’t hear a thing!) Baked cappuccinos and lattes were pretty impressive too. What a way to start the day!
2. OMilk. It was tough leaving plates of half-eaten pastries behind, but fueled up, we traveled to the other side of the borough to tour around Williamsburg and Bushwick. These neighborhoods are cauldrons of activity for artisan food producers, with new entrepreneurial endeavors being launched regularly in the old warehouses and factories. We visited one such business in its infancy—OMilk—a nut milk operation housed in a Bushwick building that serves as an incubator of sorts for very small-scale food production.
OMilk is a two-person operation that started at home. When we walked in, owner Greg Van Ullen was straining almond milk while his single employee was blanching the nuts. Van Ullen’s wife Julie started making the almond milk at home in a quest to find a product she liked enough to pour on her cereal. They started selling the milk at the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg—two outdoor markets—and gained a following. Now the organic OMilk is sold in a few upscale grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca, but Van Ullen delivers it there himself, loading his car with insulated bags. The purchase of a truck is his next goal.
Everything is done in a very tiny space, including the blanching, peeling and grinding of the almonds. (An imported Italian peeler helps a lot!) The raw nuts are soaked for about 12 hours, then blended with filtered water and bottled, sweetened with a little agave nectar. OMilk goes through about 50 pounds of almonds a day, producing 175 quarts of milk. They also make cashew milk flavored with vanilla bean. I tasted both and was bowled over by the subtle flavor and smooth texture. It prepared by palate for the next stop—a chocolate factory.
3. Mast Brothers Chocolate. Here’s a chocolate factory that Charlie would have loved—small enough for a kid to get up-close-and-personal but large enough to create a tempting assortment of chocolate products. Rick Mast, a disciple of Thomas Keller, started making chocolate out of his Brooklyn apartment in 2007, selling it at farmer’s markets. “I was passionate about bringing the human scale back to chocolate making,” he told the group. That same bean-to-bar ethos still drives the company, now headquartered in a large open facility in Williamsburg.
Sourcing of ingredients is of top importance to Mast Brothers. They ship up beans (75 to 100 tons in total) from Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, the Dominican Republic and several other countries for their extensive line of single-origin and even single-estate chocolates. Each has a distinct flavor profile. The beans are ground on a custom-built stone grinder in full display of visitors. The only non-single origin product is their new Brooklyn Blend. The front of the factory serves as a retail store, where shoppers can buy household-size bars of chocolate; the company also produces foodservice-size bars that it sells to chefs including Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.
What can I say? Having a chance to sample from an array of over a dozen hand-crafted chocolates before lunch is not too shabby. The chocolate lived up to its promise and carefully sourced ingredients, particularly the maple and almond-sea salt. Now I needed some coffee to intensify the experience. Luckily, our next stop was Blue Bottle Coffee, right next door.
4. Blue Bottle Coffee. This anti-Starbucks network of coffee bars opened its first outpost in Brooklyn in 2010. Blue Bottle’s mission is to serve coffee made from organic, shade-grown beans roasted in-house and brewed less than 48 hours out of the roaster. Every hot cup of coffee (either espresso or pour-over) is ground and prepared to order. It was strong and good—a great antidote to all that chocolate!
We found out that Blue Bottle was started in Oakland, Calif. in 2002 by James Friedman, who roasted beans in his own oven. The concept was named after the first coffee house in Central Europe, The Blue Bottle, founded in the 1860’s. The Brooklyn coffee roastery and store occupies a 1910-building that has housed a variety of artisans during its history, including glass blowers, metal smiths, barrel makers.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without a bit of food in our tummies. The pastry program at Blue Bottle was created to match the art at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s not only beautiful in looks, it was mighty tasty too. The sweet treats are made with all local ingredients, except for spices and nuts, and change seasonally. Okay, I had a few crumbs (or was it slices?) of the berry buckle. Outstanding! But it was now time for lunch.
5. The Meatball Shop. We were greeted by co-owner and GM Michael Chernow, who introduced us to his “family” on the walls. The Meatball Shop is decorated with old photos of Italian families—although it’s not clear whose aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas they are. There’s also a wall of old-fashioned kitchen tools, including an array of meat grinders. As the name implies, the place specializes in meatballs, and all the meat—pork, beef and chicken—is thoughtfully sourced and ground in-house
We sat at long tables and helped ourselves family-style to platters heaped with market salad, focaccia, a variety of vegetables and classic beef, spicy pork and vegetarian meatballs. Everything is customizable, so diners choose their balls and sauce; choices of the latter include pesto, classic tomato, spicy meat sauce, Parmesan cream and mushroom gravy. “We wanted to create a place that’s guest-driven, not chef-driven,” said Chernow, and the mix-and-match menu makes that happen.
The sides were really special for a casual Italian restaurant. I took a special liking to the freshly-milled polenta and went back for seconds. Roast vegetables and daily greens were also a few notches above the pack. For dessert, we had make-your-own ice cream sandwiches. Yum! Our next and last stop involved a visit with one of Brooklyn’s—and the country’s—most renowned brewmasters, so it was time to move on.
6. Whyte Hotel. This historic Williamsburg building on the Brooklyn waterfront is right next door to the Brooklyn Brewery, where Garrett Oliver, one of the foremost beer scholars, is brewmaster. It was a thrill to have him lead us through a beer and food pairing at the Whyte Hotel’s Reynard restaurant.
Oliver started with a little Brooklyn history. From the 1870s to the 1920s, Brooklyn brewed 10% of the beer in America, but the industry was destroyed by prohibition. Brooklyn Brewery began to resurrect the borough’s heritage in 1988, when it introduced Brooklyn Lager—a beer born in a Brooklyn brownstone but brewed upstate in Utica, N.Y. It took awhile for the craft beer to catch on, but in 1994, the founders hired Oliver to expand the product line and help draw up plans for a permanent Brooklyn location when “Williamsburg was a scary place,” in Oliver’s words. This year, the brewery is expanding its headquarters and will add a kitchen.
Oliver led us through a tasting of several of the brewery’s signatures paired with Reynard’s ingredient-driven menu items. We started with Brooklyn Local 1, made in a champagne bottle. The beer goes in the bottle flat and the yeast feeds on sugars to ferment the liquid into a golden Belgian-style brew. It went especially well with deviled eggs.
Our next glass was filled with Brooklyn Brown Ale, a beer made with roasted malts. Roasting creates caramelization, just as it does with coffee or chocolate, Oliver explained, making this beer a perfect match for wood-fired, roasted or fried foods. Juicy medallions of roast chicken nicely complemented the rich, complex brew. Our last beer was Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, a beverage with herbal notes of lemongrass, verbena and dill. It’s brewed from the unique hop called Sorachi Ace, newly discovered by a Japanese brewery in 1988. The clean, dry ale was a great match for a platter of artisanal cheeses.
Oliver is excited about the collaborative brewing trend that is emerging among craft brewers—something that was prevalent in the early days of beer making but was lost. “If you need someone to help, a business rival will pitch in,” he said, adding that this is happening among small food producers in Brooklyn as well. With thousands of artisan food products to taste, Brooklyn beer and locally made spirits to sip and restaurants serving both, it’s a delicious borough to tour. Wish I had more than two days—but I’ll be back for more.