Tapas at La Vara in Cobble Hill

sunday supper at la vara

La Vara is one of those very “Brooklyn” restaurants where you feel like you’re surrounded by a diverse group of people who listen to NPR and volunteer at the local food co-op. On an early Sunday evening, there was the lesbian couple having a date night, the Millenials having a grown up day out, the locals taking their regular seats, and the bridge-and-tunnel Manhattan people (us) seeing how the hipper half live.Read More

Can’t get into El Celler de Can Roca in Girona? Go to Restaurant Nu instead

the streets in old town, girona
maybe arya from game of thrones ran down these stairs…

Girona, Spain is a picturesque medieval town in the coastal region of Costa Brava. The well-preserved buildings in the Barri Vell or Old Quarter are perfect backdrops for some sort of a knight’s tale or a merry band of thieves, which makes the city a very popular filming location for movies and TV shows. In fact, you might recognize some of the narrow alleyways and stone roads in scenes from Game of Thrones when a blind Arya was running from The Waif, only to destroy her in total darkness.Read More

Korean Banchan at Atoboy

atoboy place settings

At the core of a Korean meal is rice and banchan side dishes. The quality and variety of banchan can really make or break your experience. I know it’s going to be a good day when a restaurant throws in a steamed egg or pan-fried tofu, and on the flipside, it’s always a sad day when all I get is kimchee and some limp bean sprouts. Atoboy, a new restaurant in Flatiron run by Junghyun Park, the former Chef de Cuisine of Jungsik, rethinks the banchan side dish as the main dish, where you can make a meal out of several of them. The menu is divided into three sections of small plates, which is differentiated by portion size, and for $36 you can pick a dish from each one of the sections along with a bowl of rice, the traditional white rice or the rice special of the day for an extra $2. As an fyi, you really should pay up for the rice special, otherwise you will miss out on something amazing like the bacon and scallion rice.Read More

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

Postmodern Bar Food at Alder

Alder isn’t really a place to go to for a proper sit-down dinner. It’s more of a place to go when you’re in the mood to drink, and the food revolves around accommodating your buzz. In essence, it is a modern day gastropub. But, this being a Wylie Dufresne restaurant and all, the bar food here isn’t your run-of-the-mill burger and fries. Expect highly inventive takes on familiar favorites that we typically pair with our beer or wine. This is extremely refined hangover food, which means it will taste good even after you sober up. Unlike that dollar 2 Bros. pizza you ate at 5 am in the morning, which tasted awesome at the time but horrible in a sober state of mind.  

Alder is seriously the third “small plates” restaurant I’ve been to in the past month that seems to offer a menu consisting entirely of appetizers. I guess this whole “let’s do away with entrees” movement is here to stay. This makes me a little sad, because I have a big appetite and I actually enjoy eating a full-sized entree in addition to appetizers. And a meal of small plates is exactly the reason why I hate tapas–I feel like I’ve nibbled on a lot of things but I’m not particularly satiated. I also find it very curious that these appetizers are priced like entrees. $21 for a “small plate”? Seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Despite my reservations about the small plates trend, I would definitely come back to Alder solely for its pigs in a blanket dish, an absolute culinary smashing success. Pigs in a blanket is a pretty standard if uninteresting offering that makes the rounds on the hors d’oeuvres circuit, but Alder’s rendition is like the hot Asian mistress to the homely wife. The traditional frank was swapped out for Chinese sausage, which provided a distinctive and unique tangy flavor, and the pastry enclosing the meat was so rich and dense in the best possible way. This is one of my favorite dishes of all time.

alder - pigs in a blanket
pigs in a blanket

I’m going to backtrack now and talk about the cocktails we ordered at the start of dinner. The pigs in a blanket was so good that I felt it was necessary to single it out in the beginning. Alder offers a menu of creatively named cocktails like Pinchelada, Bikini Season and Spring Fling, as well as a thoughtful selection of wine and interesting beers. We ordered the Red Zeppelin, a fizzy and refreshing strawberry cocktail that resembled a spiked artisanal Boylan’s soda, and the Hey Rube, a Pimm’s cup with a very generous pour of gin.

alder - hey rube
the hey rube
alder - red zeppelin
the red zeppelin

I gave so much of my love to the pigs in a blanket that there wasn’t much leftover for the other small plates we ordered. Sort of how a parent really fusses over the first child and then pays less attention to the younger siblings. Despite this, the other dishes were able to hold my attention, which is a testament to the cooking at Alder. Some tasted better than others, but they were all very cerebral in their execution, which I appreciated.

The pickled beets was my second favorite dish of the night. This was another example of Alder breathing new life into a pretty conventional and somewhat boring dish. Who really gets excited over beets and goat cheese? Nobody, really, unless you swap out standard goat cheese for a beautifully fluffy and creamy coconut ricotta, as well as throwing in some fragments of Thai basil croutons for exotic flair.

alder - pickled beets
pickled beets

I really wanted to like the rye pasta. The notion of deconstructing a pastrami rye sandwich into noodle form seemed so fun and playful, but the dish did not live up to expectations. I felt like I was eating pasta that had been infused with liquid pastrami smoke. It was very strange. This was a reinvention that was inferior to the original. I would have much preferred a thick, juicy sandwich from Mile End.

alder - rye pasta
rye pasta

The fish and chips were surprising in how conventional they were. It’s like Alder didn’t do enough of the out-of-box thinking here. I thought the fish was fried perfectly, and I did really enjoy the chips, which in this case consisted of extremely crunchy and satisfying potatoes. It was an extremely solid dish, but it lacked the mad science genius that characterized the more memorable small plates.

alder - fish and chips 2
fish and chips

For dessert, Alder had some zany and experimental sweet treats on the menu. We decided to split an order of the root beer, despite my hatred of the beverage. I chose to do this as a test: if Alder could make the extremely strong and polarizing flavor of root beer edible, then it was further proof of its remarkable culinary skills. Plus the waitress really sold me when she said that she too hated root beer but considered this her favorite dessert. The cold and creamy dessert was refreshing and certainly made root beer very edible, but at the end of the day I wanted something more conventional like banana pudding.

alder - root beer pudding
root beer pudding

The moments I enjoyed most at Alder were when I was savoring the delicious flavors of a dish rather than thinking about its experimental qualities. This is why I enjoyed the pigs in a blanket, which was unbelievably good in its own right, and why I didn’t particularly care for the rye pasta, a dish that was too self-consciously postmodern. There’s no doubt that the kitchen staff is extremely intellectual and talented, let’s just hope that their fervor for the odd and inventive can be tempered with great flavors for every dish.

157 2nd Ave (between 9th and 10th St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 539-1900