Gowanus: Freek’s Mill + Ample Hills

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the dining room at freek’s mill

Brooklyn is no big secret these days, but Gowanus is a part of Brooklyn that still feels undiscovered. I ventured out there for the first time last week, and I felt like I was discovering a whole new world where the streets were broad, ice cream parlors came with rooftops and shuffleboard clubs were trending. It’s nowhere near as developed as Bedford Ave and has more in common with low-key locales such as Bushwick and Red Hook–lots of space and warehouses along the water. There is a pretty good restaurant scene in Gowanus, the most well known one is probably The Pines, and now Freek’s Mill, a seasonal, small plates restaurant on Nevins St, is a new addition that continues to bring the average up.

the charred radicchio with burrata, walnuts and currants
the charred radicchio with burrata, walnuts and currants
wood roasted oysters
wood roasted oysters

I’m a little over the whole seasonally driven small plates trend, but after my dinner at Freek’s Mill, I’m having a change of heart. In fact, the small plates concept actually worked in our favor, because that meant we could try more things on the menu, and since everything was so good, we definitely wanted to (and did!) add on to our original order. The charred radicchio, which came with a sweet and creamy burrata, was truly a pleasure. It’s like they broke all the rules regarding leafy vegetable prep, weighing it down with liquids and cheese and testing the limits of its frailty by charring it, yet somehow they came up far, far ahead.

octopus with fingerling potatoes and salsa verde
octopus with fingerling potatoes and salsa verde
dry aged duck with refried cranberry beans and rosemary honey
dry aged duck with refried cranberry beans and rosemary honey
the stracci pasta with lamb, olives and ricotta
the stracci pasta with lamb, olives and ricotta

I also had a lot of love for the grilled octopus. This is a small plate that’s been so overdone, appearing as an appetizer on so many menus, and the prep being nearly the same, but the one at Freek’s Mill, with its tenderness and meatiness, and the airy lemon aioli, manages to keep it fresh. The dry aged duck caught my eye, mostly because I didn’t know one could do this with waterfowl, and let’s just say that this duck aged pretty well. The cranberry beans that came with it was an interesting choice, I’m not sure if it was quite the right accompaniment to the duck, but the way the beans were repurposed as a hash as opposed to something boiled and stewed was something different. We were on such a roll that we ordered the stracci, a creamy ricotta pasta served with lamb, and this last minute gamble was a big win.

ample hills creamery
ample hills creamery
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two giant scoops

Afterwards we walked over to Ample Hills Creamery, which specializes in crazy, fun ice cream flavors like Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, which is amazing, and Snap, Mallow, Pop!. You can eat your cones upstairs on the roof deck, which is the best way to consume ice cream, and something you could never do in space constrained Manhattan. You really can’t ask for more on a perfect summer’s day. Some people summer in the Hamptons, I think I’m going to summer in Gowanus.

Freek’s Mill
285 Nevins St (between Union and Sackett St)
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 852-3000

Ample Hills
305 Nevin St (between Union and President St)
Brooklyn, NY 11215
(347) 725-4061

Cafe Dining at El Rey Coffee Bar

It’s been a crazy winter in New York. We’re already into March, yet the snow continues to fall and the temperatures continue to drop. I’m so over the slush and snow, and I can feel the mutual pent up frustration of others around me.

el rey - signage

Which is why I love hanging out at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette, because for a moment I can trade in the weather-induced anxiety for some laid-back California calm. Everyone here is very friendly, which is impressive, as the tiny cafe usually gets packed, but instead of losing their cool, the staff cheerfully tells you that things will be ok. If space permits, you can find seats in the very back by the small but functional kitchen, where you can watch Chef Gerardo Gonzalez create his wholesome, vegetable-driven small plates. Not surprisingly, he’s also a very nice guy who’s happy to tell you what’s in his green mole sauce (answer: everything under the sun that’s green) or to give you wine pairing recommendations (the sparkly Macabeo white was a good call).

el rey - kale salad with shaved almonds and pickled eggs
kale salad with shaved almonds, almond vinaigrette, lemon zest and pickled eggs
el rey - frittata one
“lost bread” egg frittata with shaved fennel salad and crushed avocado

What brings me back to El Rey repeatedly is the kale salad. With so much kale all over the place, I’m sure the trend for this superfood is probably on the outs, but El Rey’s version is a classic that should persevere when the fad fades. Almond is the key ingredient here that helps to differentiate the kale salad. Many places rely on heavy shavings of parmesan cheese to add depth to kale, but El Rey uses almond shavings instead. It’s an ingenious way of adding some weight to your leafy greens in a more healthful way. The vinaigrette dressing is a great blend of tangy, sour and sweet, adding a nice spring to your salad step. In the am you have the option of adding pickled or poached eggs–I would highly recommend the pickled eggs, if only for their bright pink color.

sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread
sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread

Any coffee bar worth its weight should have a selection of tantalizing baked goods, and El Rey doesn’t disappoint. I tried slices of the sesame banana and the sweet potato bread, both very good, but the sweet potato was divine. It was extremely moist with the right amount of sweet, and with the candied nuts on top, you almost felt like you were eating a slice of pecan pie.

With such a great breakfast and lunch menu, I returned to try out the dinner service, which was introduced just a few weeks ago. The coffee bar is less packed in the evening, as I’m sure not that many people know about the full dinner menu, and also most would prefer a guaranteed seat rather than risking the wait for one of the very few bar stools (I would guess there are roughly 15 spots).

papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions
papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions

With dinner, El Rey assumes more of a Baja California vibe. While Latin music plays in the background, Gonzalez starts cranking out funky tapas with flavors that are a little more spirited and in-your-face, and the heat factor really gets turned up. As an example, the sweet and sour papas bravas at first seemed deceptively mild, and the potatoes appeared to be coated in a harmless ketchup-like BBQ sauce. But then gradually the heat built, and I was taken by surprise by the tingling, fiery sensations coating my mouth.

marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic
marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic

Similarly, the chorizo was heavily spiced, absent the burning heat. I’m not totally sure what was in the marinade, but I could taste something like cumin and vinegar packed into every part of the chorizo sausage. If you ate the meat by itself, it would have been like eating a slice of pepperoni, which would be intense. Luckily the sweet roasted garlic cloves and the hazelnuts provided balance, as did the focaccia bread, although you could never quite shake off the presence of the marinade.

sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas
sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas

I preferred when the flavors were scaled back a little bit, more in tune with the tone set at breakfast and lunch. The sardines on tostada were fantastic–it featured such great textures and a good balance of flavors that were overall refreshing, never veering into salty, fishy territory as sardines tend to do, and not falling back on tons of rich aioli or a heavy poblano to cover things up.

green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za'atar bread
green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za’atar bread

The green mole burrata similarly impressed me with a complexity that still felt bright and clear. You could taste so many of the different herbs that had gone into the mole sauce, yet the multitude of ingredients served to enhance the mild burrata rather than overwhelming it.

shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
the breaking of the egg yolk
the breaking of the egg yolk

The shaved cauliflower was probably the lightest and most wholesome small plate of the night, but that didn’t mean it was boring. The thin slices of raw cauliflower were coated in a bright vinaigrette, which again exhibited the distinctive qualities of sweet, sour and tangy. Cauliflower’s cruciferous qualities naturally provided the dish with a lot of fibrous bulk, but the poached egg softened the edges so that things didn’t feel too raw and crudite-like, and it felt like a proper appetizer.

After dinner is over, I would suggest that you take a short walk to Morgenstern’s, an ice cream shop  whose owner is a partner at El Rey Coffee Bar. Even though it’s freezing out, the ice cream here is so good that it’s worth the trip. The raw milk in particular is outstanding–I’ve never had a vanilla flavor feel so creamy, rich and genuinely pure. They also offer ice cream breakfasts, which is an intriguing thought, and whether you take them up on it or not, a meal at El Rey or Morgenstern’s is always worth the gamble.

El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
100 Stanton St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 260-3950

Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
2 Rivington St (between Bowery and Chrystie St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 209-7684

Day in Brooklyn: Smorgasburg, Oddfellows, Dun-Well Doughnuts

The weather in New York this weekend was picture perfect–sunny and clear, with nary a cloud in sight. It would have been criminal to spend time indoors, which is why I took my meals outside and spent the day grazing on delicious grub from Smorgasburg, the outdoor food festival in Williamsburg.

There were nearly 100 vendors that set up shop on Saturday. At around 12, the crowds and the lines weren’t too bad, with the exception of the ones for Mighty Quinn’s bbq and that ramen burger place. There was a lot to choose from, but ultimately I felt like I was in an Asian mood, so I tried some dan dan noodles from pop-up restaurant Noodle Lane and an order of the nuoc mam cham brussels sprouts from Martha, a restaurant in Fort Greene.

smorgasburg - sign for noodle lane
noodle lane menu
smorgasburg - dan dan noodles from noodle lane
noodle lane’s dan dan noodles

Noodle Lane uses egg noodles as opposed to Shanghai-style noodles in their dan dan noodles. As a result, the noodles were sturdier and thicker, and it took a little more work to swirl them around in the savory sauce and other ingredients. The noodles were tasty, although I wish the flavors from the pork and the surrounding oil and sauce were stronger. It needed a little more savory kick to it. I also should have ordered it spicier. You get the option of mild, medium, hot and extra hot, and I chose medium, which ended up being extremely subtle.

smorgasburg - sign for martha
martha’s smorgasburg offerings
smorgasburg - brussel sprouts from martha
martha’s nuoc mam cham brussels sprouts

The brussels sprouts from Martha ROCKED. First of all, they were deep fried, a technique that can transform most ordinary vegetables into insanely good ones. The outer leaves had a fantastic wilted char that was packed with flavor. Smokey, salty and sweet, all three flavors were concentrated into the leaves, as well as the inner core. The hint of fish sauce in the sprouts was a unique way of imparting an additional depth of umami flavor to the dish. It was distinctive, comforting and delicious.

I also tried some of my friend Sylvia’s chicken arepa from Palenque, but it was frankly pretty dry and tasteless. After enjoying some wine and beer in the inner quad, we decided it was time for dessert. The lines by this point were a bit long, especially the one for The Good Batch’s ice cream sandwiches. Instead of waiting it out, we decided to leave the market and walked over to Oddfellows Ice Cream Co, an ice cream shop run by Sam Mason, former pastry chef at wd-50.

oddfellows - storefront
oddfellows old-fashioned parlor
oddfellows - burnt marshmallow and english toffee
burnt marshmallow and english toffee ice cream

We ordered the special flavors of the day–burnt marshmallow and english toffee. I’m not a big ice cream person, but I was immediately blown away by Oddfellows’. You know how most ice cream flavors are loosely inspired by a fruit or a dessert? The ice cream at Oddfellows is less an intrepretation and more of a true embodiment of the original inspiration, and it’s because the quality of their ingredients are so good. The english toffee actually had generous bits of crunchy toffee dispersed throughout, probably made fresh in their kitchen, as opposed to some expired, frozen, chopped up Heath bars. Same goes for the burnt marshmallow. The marshmallow was soft and pliant, as opposed to resembling rock hard frozen nuggets. Even the cone was delicious–I think there was a hint of cinnamon in the waffle mix. I am very excited that they are opening a second branch in the East Village in May!

dun-well doughnuts in east williamsburg
smorgasburg - dun-well doughnuts
dun-well doughnuts at smorgasburg

Because I had the time, I sauntered off to Dun-Well Doughnuts, a vegan doughnut bakery over on Montrose Ave in East Williamsburg. I’ve tried several varieties of vegan doughnuts, and the most successful creations have been cake doughnuts smothered in a lot of chocolate or strong toppings to mask its veganness. Dun-Well doesn’t hide behind a lot of flashy trappings, because their doughnuts speak for themselves. They can very well hold their own against the regular yeast doughnuts from your neighborhood doughnut shop. I was especially a big fan of the fruity lemon blueberry doughnut, which they were selling at Smorgasburg.

It’s days like these that make New York so awesome. Hoping more sunny weekends spent noshing outdoors come our way in the following months!

Foodie Day Trip to Hudson, NY

Every greenmarket restaurant in New York seems to source its local ingredients from the Hudson Valley. Seeing all the menu shoutouts to pigs and chickens raised there made me very curious about this green and bountiful region of upstate New York. Is it a land of milk and honey, where a lot of fat, happy cows graze in wide open grass pastures, while bearded men and women in braids sell corn and strawberries out by a dirt road? Sort of like miles and miles of farmers’ markets at every turn? Naturally, there was only one way to find out, and that was to see Hudson Valley in person. 

A train ride from Penn Station to Hudson, NY takes about two hours, and a car ride with mild traffic is about the same. Most of the action revolves around Warren St., the main road that stretches through the downtown area. When we drove into the city, I expected to see food cooperatives all over the place, but really Hudson, NY looks like a blend of downtown Montreal and Ithaca. I have never been surrounded by so many antique stores in my life. How do they all stay in business? What makes one rusty lamp different from the others? Do some stores procure things from Asian junkyards versus New England yard sales? It was fascinating and confusing at the same time.

I was a little bummed to have missed the weekly farmers’ market that takes place every Saturday from 9am -1 pm. But, no matter, a lunch stop at the local favorite Baba Louie’s on 517 Warren St. was in order. Baba Louie’s is known for its signature wood-fired sourdough crust topped with gourmet ingredients. It’s essentially a more rustic and higher-quality version of California Pizza Kitchen. You don’t come here looking for a Brooklyn-style, red sauce pizza slice, you come here because you want exotic calamari, figs and pears on your pizza. We ordered a small Phoebe’s Greek Salad to start, which ended up being the largest Greek salad I have ever ordered, as well as the tastiest, and then split a large pizza pie.

Baba Louie - Phoebe's Greek Salad
the massive phoebe’s greek salad

The great thing about Baba Louie’s is that they let you split the pizza with different toppings. We decided to go half Dolce Vita and half Puttanesca Pizza. The Dolce Vita was simply amazing–the mozzarella and gorgonzola cheese was so fresh, and the figs lent some nice texture and just a hint of sweetness. They probably picked all the ingredients and milked the cows right in their backyard, that’s how good everything was. The Puttanesca, on the other hand, was a little too intense in flavor. To be fair, the menu was pretty upfront about the ingredients. Shrimp, anchovies, roasted garlic, olives. These are all things that no amount of Altoids can mask afterwards. But that being said, the anchovies were extremely salty, and after one slice I couldn’t eat another one. The Dolce Vita, on the other hand, no slice was left behind.

Baba Louie - Puttanesca and Dolce Vita 2
top half – puttanesca pizza, bottom half – dolce vita

After the hearty lunch, we decided to walk some of it off by making our way down Warren St. We stopped by a few galleries, including Terenchin on 533 Warren. This gallery was very strange, there didn’t seem to be any particular rhyme and reason to the collection. We gradually made our way down to Musica, a music store that sold sheet music, instruments and random knick-knacks like Kim Jong-un toys. We arrived just in time for The Chandler Travis Philharmonette’s free live performance. 5 old men in colorful pajama pants and 1 drag queen started jamming out on the small stage. Their sound can best be described as happy jazz and old people’s ska/big band music. I know it sounds really unappealing, watching aging hippies sing on a makeshift stage, but they were actually very good. A $5 donation was in order.

After 30 minutes, we decided to leave the performance and continued our way through Warren. We came across Lick, an ice cream shop that came highly recommended by all the food blogs. This wholesome and colorful store effectively recreates the childish excitement that you feel when ordering an ice cream cone. The flavors are listed on a blackboard, and while the usual suspects like Vanilla and Rocky Road are available, there are also more intriguing options like Green Tea + Ginger and Mango Lassi. I ordered a scoop of the Coconut Almond Joy, which basically tasted like my favorite Girl Scout cookie Samoas in frozen form. The Green Tea + Ginger was also very good; the tea flavors were very subtle, the texture was perfectly creamy, and the actual chunks of candied ginger were a nice touch. This is possibly the best ice cream I’ve had, EVER.

Lick - menu
the menu at Lick
Lick - Coconut almond joy
coconut almond joy
Lick - Green tea and ginger
green tea + ginger

There was still some time left between now and our dinner reservation, so we hung out for a bit at SWALLOW, a small coffee shop on 433 Warren, checked out the gourmet food offerings at specialty shop Olde Hudson on 421 Warren and then drank some beers while browsing our iPads at Spotty Dog Books & Ale on 440 Warren. If you haven’t noticed already, EVERYTHING is on Warren St. Walk up and down the entire street, that’s pretty much 90% of the whole town.

For dinner, we made our way to Helsinki, a restaurant that is, shockingly, not on Warren St! It’s two streets over on 405 Columbia St. The space at Helsinki is really interesting. It looked a whole lot like my wedding venue The Foundry–an old factory warehouse converted into a modern restaurant and event space. At the time we went, Sandra Bernhardt was going to perform a comedy act, but tickets were all sold out. Not that we really wanted to pay $55 to see Sandra Bernhardt. The inside dining area is dark and resembles a pub, whereas the outside resembles a pretty flea market garden. Even though it was raining, we opted to eat outside, since the tent did a good job of keeping the rain out, and there was a nice and somewhat annoying neighborhood kitty cat to play with.

Helsinki - bad kitty
that darned cat!

We were still pretty full from the large pizza at Baba Louie’s, so we took it easy and split a Holmquest Farms Kale Salad and an order of the Backyard Applewood Smoked Ribs. The bread basket came out first, and the addicting herb butter that came with the bread was an unexpected highlight. The kale salad, as expected, was a light and refreshing start to the meal, but I thought the ratio of pear to kale leaves was a little too much. While the pear slices provided the dish with some sweetness and slight acidity, I would have liked more kale to balance out the somewhat burdensome crunch. The cheese coated the kale leaves in the perfect amount and wasn’t too heavy and salty, and the roasted garlic was a nice touch that helped offset some of the crunchy pear imbalance.

Helsinki - bread basket
slices of country bread and herb butter
Helsinki - kale salad
holmquest farms kale salad

I thought the smoked ribs were solid–they were moist, tender and had that fall-off-the-bone quality, which I loved. Were they as good as Might Quinn’s or the ribs at Big Apple BBQ? Not quite, but it gets the job done very well. The cornmeal fried green beans that accompanied them were interesting. I thought the crust of the cornmeal was delightfully crunchy, but it was a bit inconsistent with the extreme water content of the green beans inside. The side of sweet potato salad was also a winner–the mayonnaise dressing wasn’t too heavy and the potatoes offset the smoky heaviness of the ribs.

Helsinki - smoked ribs
backyard applewood smoked ribs

So maybe Hudson, NY wasn’t the big hippie food commune that I had envisioned, but the food experiences I had here were positive all around. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city, and a 2 hour train ride is a hassle-free way of doing so. After a few hours, you’ll probably get bored browsing through store after store of antiques and furniture, and then you can easily fall back on the city from which you came.

Nicoletta’s Soft Serve is the Bee’s Knees

fior di latte soft serve - the saving grace of the doomed Nicoletta
fior di latte soft serve – the saving grace of the doomed Nicoletta

See this picture here? It’s a picture of the best soft serve in Manhattan. This soft serve is sweet and creamy but amazingly light. It almost tastes like marshmallows because the texture is so fluffy. Where can you get this divine cup of soft serve? Oddly enough, it’s available for $5 at Nicoletta, the critically panned pizzeria in the East Village. It’s probably the only edible item on the menu. One critic even said “Michael White’s future might be in soft serve instead.” He’s definitely right, because Nicoletta’s future as a pizzeria was practically dead on arrival. Here’s hoping they get their act together and transform this shipwreck into a 24-hour soft serve parlor.

160 Second Ave.
New York, NY 10003
(212) 432-1600