You know a pizza place is good when David Chang and his camera crew decide to feature it in an upcoming episode of Lucky Peach. That’s what we stumbled upon when we stopped by Emmy Squared, the new pizza restaurant in Williamsburg run by Emily and Matt Hyland, the duo behind the very popular Pizza Loves Emily in Clinton Hill, for brunch. There were cameras in the back filming Chang and someone else digging into a plate of what looked like a very delicious and immense spicy chicken sandwich. With the Chang stamp of approval, expectations were sky high.Read More
Hotel restaurants are not my first choice for having brunch. Brunch needs to be in a place that has some character with a lot of locals mingling about, and the somewhat staid environment of a hotel lobby doesn’t really offer that. I would, however, make an exception for Reynard, the restaurant at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg. When you enter, you do feel like you are entering a very corporate version of what a nice Victorian-themed bar and restaurant should be like, and you wonder if you’ll find people wearing flannel shirts and raw denim jeans eating good old Americana-themed dishes like bacon-fat brussels sprouts or flap jacks.Read More
I was expecting Llama Inn, the new Peruvian restaurant in Williamsburg, to be a small, quirky place. It’s a little far removed from the action on Bedford Ave, near the Lorimer stop, a stretch that still reflects the scrappier aspects of Brooklyn. But much to my surprise, Llama Inn is a super slick restaurant that would fit in with the Cosmes and Uplands of the world in the very corporate Flatiron district. There’s a huge bar in the center with table seating on the periphery and a full view of the kitchen and the grill. Yet another sign of Brooklyn gentrification.
I’ve never been to Peru, and the only Peruvian food I’ve had is the chicken at Pio Pio, so I was expecting something Latin with a bit of spice. I found it interesting that the menu actually reflects some Asian influences, like tuna with ponzu and a beef tenderloin stir fry with soy sauce and scallion pancakes. I later learned that there is a sizeable Chinese and Japanese population in Peru, so in hindsight, the cultural melting pot that inspires the menu at Llama Inn is not all that surprising.
I knew I had to try some of the anticuchos or grilled meat skewers that were being cooked robataya style on that massive grill for all to see. Anticuchos are a popular street food in Peru, and anticuchos de corazon, or grilled beef hearts, are a very traditional offering. I wanted something off the streets of Lima so I ordered the beef hearts, with some trepidation, as well as the pork belly with char siu. The beef heart wasn’t too bad, it was like biting into a gamey sirloin with a bit of an iron-y aftertaste. It helped that there was a lot of tangy salsa to mask some of the flavor, but after a few bites, I gave the rest to Ruoxi. The nicely charred pork belly was more of my thing, although it was tremendously spicy. Nothing that a good scraping off of the red peppers couldn’t handle.
Peru is the birthplace of ceviche, so an order of the golden tile ceviche was a no brainer. I was a little disappointed to find that the fish itself lacked flavor. The surrounding accoutrements of plantains, onions and peppers were essential to making this work, otherwise you were left with a dish that was a plain Jane.
Shortly after our chicken for two arrived. Or should I say a huge bird crash landed on our table. As I bit into the chicken, I was confused by how it tasted so much like dry smoked ham. It had nothing in common with the golden, tender juicy bits that you associate with a spitfire chicken. And the three dipping sauces didn’t add all that much. Only the green sauce, which was the spiciest one, had a little kick to it, but the other two tasted like mayo. I never was a big fan of potato wedges, and these weren’t crispy or well seasoned enough to make me feel any differently.
I was feeling a bit ho-hum about this meal, but the silky chocolate, lucuma, coffee mousse turned things around somewhat. It was an excellent end to dinner, but not enough to inspire me to check back into this inn any time soon.
50 Withers St (between Meeker Ave and Lorimer St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Lilia, Missy Robbins’ new Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, is like the most popular girl in school. She has all the right friends–the New York Times gave her three stars while Eater awarded her two–and she is of course very pretty. The former auto body-shop on Union Ave was converted to a lovely, spacious loft style restaurant with great lighting and a sleek bar that is all very nice to look at. And not only is she pretty, she’s super nice! The staff receives you warmly as if you truly had a seat at the table, not as if you were lucky to get in at all, which is so not Brooklyn. She is, on paper, pretty perfect.
I knew I should like Lilia, but I couldn’t help thinking that everyone seemed to be looking at her through rose colored glasses. Oh the pasta, everyone raved, you can’t go wrong whether you order rigatoni or the papardelle. So on that recommendation, I ordered the sheeps milk cheese filled agnolotti and the malfadini, and I was ready to be blown away. The agnolotti did take my breath away, mostly by how much saffron was in there. It was like someone threw in a whole jar of saffron onto the plate. The flavor of the saffron was so pronounced and distracting that I couldn’t even really tell what else was in the pasta. I can only say it was interesting, and that’s a word you use when you have nothing nicer to say.
I was relieved to find that the malfadini was actually good, not interesting good. The al dente noodles were generously coated in what seemed like butter and cheese, and the staccato of pink peppercorns was a nice accent to this simple dish. Cacio e pepe, mac and cheese, the malfadini continued the winning tradition of combining carbs and melted cheese in a comforting, satisfying fashion. And it was so fun to eat. Squiggly like ramen noodles and crinkle cut fries. Playing with food was never so fun.
The appetizers we ordered weren’t bad, but I felt like with each one I was waiting for something more. Like a missing punchline to a joke or an invitation to a party that never came. The cacio e pepe fritelle, a fried cheese ball that resembled a popover and a gougere, wasn’t exponentially better than an hors d’oeuvres at a really nice cocktail party. Even more disappointing was the very fancy sounding bagna cuda, which turned out to be mostly uncooked vegetables served with a warm balsamic dressing-like dipping sauce. I was hoping for some grilled robust veggies, but instead I was like a rabbit gnawing through raw turnips and parsnips. To be fair, there were a few pieces like the roasted caramelized carrot that were pretty stunning, but moments like that were rare. The cured sardines, on the other hand, I couldn’t really complain about. I do like fishy fish, so be warned that these sardines are pretty strong, despite the dose of citrus.
The olive oil cake with blood orange was a pleasant enough end to the meal, but I’ve had better olive oil cakes elsewhere. I wondered if I was being a hater, one who was jealous of Lilia and was finding any reason to pick her apart. But the couple from Toronto next to me didn’t seem to be all that impressed either, and everyone knows Canadians are so nice. Maybe it’s time for Lilia to take a break from the fanboys and spend time with people who can keep it real with her with some constructive criticism.
567 Union Ave (corner of North 10th and Union Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
A typical Korean breakfast for me growing up was rice, soup and grilled fish. The fish was usually something a little fishier than your typical salmon or cod–think mackerel or pike. And the line up of banchan side dishes would change from time to time, but I was always very partial to the jeon and jangjorim. It was clearly different from all the cereals and Pop Tarts that were advertised on TV, and while there were times I wanted to fit in and eat all that sugar, in hindsight I’m glad for my mom’s nourishing meals.
The popular Japanese breakfast at Okonomi in Williamsburg reminded me a lot of the Korean one from my childhood. Not a huge surprise since these countries aren’t too far from one another. Structurally they are pretty much the same. No meal is complete without a bowl of rice, accompanied by grilled fish and side dishes. Of course, the breakfast set at Okonomi is served on beautiful ceramics in a tranquil setting with good feng shui, which transforms one of the most hurried and neglected meals of the day into a small luxury.
I was pretty excited to see bluefish as one of the protein options, which is a fish you don’t normally see on the menu. It tastes like a very mild mackerel and a wonderfully fleshy hamachi collar. I asked Yuji Haraguchi, who runs the restaurant, where I could get this fish. Turns out Yuji himself is going to start selling it at his own store, pending funds from a Kickstarter campaign. I can’t wait to support his campaign, but I do wish I could get my blue fish a little sooner than that!
A lot of things come out in the Japanese breakfast, but the portions are pretty small. What it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty and nourishment. The bright green blanched collard greens, the earthy multi-grained bowl of rice, the roasted purple sweet potatoes, they were like little dabs of color on Yuji’s palate. They say you eat with your eyes, not your stomach, and I felt like this was very true at Okonomi.
On a side note, I forgot to mention that Okonomi only accepts walk-ins, so we had to wait about an hour for our table. Thank goodness for Blind Barber, a bar next door to Okonomi that sells $5 cocktails and some very decent bar food while you wait. It’s things like $5 cocktails that make me want to move out of Manhattan and drink in Brooklyn everyday.
While we were waiting, we stopped by a tea tasting pop-up run by Kettl, a NYC-based tea company that imports artisanal teas from Japan. Zach Mangan, one of the founders of Kettl, was brewing some complimentary samples of the company’s soba cha and a very interesting varietal of green tea.
His story is an interesting one. Mangan partnered with some Japanese entrepreneurs who had connections to the country’s best tea producers to bring this award-winning product to the States. He explained how the farming process is such where tea leaves can be farmed to a certain taste. If a customer wants something more earthy or bitter, the farmers can basically blend different harvests to achieve this, much like how a vineyard might resort to blends to make a consistent bottle of wine every year.
Kettl sells its highly sought after small batch teas to some very prestigious Michelin star restaurants, and as you might expect, the teas are on the pricier side. And the shelf life of the loose leaf teas is only a month, so best of luck if you open a bag and need to go on vacation soon after. But some tea varietals like the soba cha, which comes in tea bags, are very accessible in both taste and price point. The pop-up is taking place every weekend, so if you’re ever curious to know how a green tea can be spicy and unctuous and need to wait out a table at Okonomi, now is the time to learn.
Okonomi and Kettl Pop up
150 Ainslie St (between Leonard and Lorimer St)
New York, NY 11211
524 Lorimer St (between Ainslie and Powers St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211