Llama Inn

llama inn
a posh stay at the llama inn

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.

the llama del rey cocktail
the llama del rey cocktail

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.

the anticuchos, grilled skewers of pork belly and beef heart
the anticuchos, grilled skewers of pork belly and beef heart

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.

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golden tile ceviche with lime, dashi, plantain, habanero, red onion and cilantro

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.

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whole roasted chicken with fried potatoes and aji sauces

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.

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chocolate dessert with lucuma and coffee

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.


Llama Inn
50 Withers St (between Meeker Ave and Lorimer St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-3434

Lilia

lilia on the corner of n. 10th st and union ave
lilia on the corner of n. 10th st and union ave

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.

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the attractive bar and interior
sheeps milk filled agnolotti
sheeps milk cheese filled agnolotti with saffron, dried tomato and honey

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.

malfadini pasta with pink peppercorns and parmigiana reggiano
malfadini pasta with pink peppercorns and parmigiana reggiano

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.

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the cacio e pepe fritelle
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cured sardines with capers, dill and fettunta
the bagna cauda with warm anchovy and garlic sauce
the bagna cauda with warm anchovy and garlic sauce

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
the olive oil cake

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.


Lilia
567 Union Ave (corner of North 10th and Union Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
718-576-3095

Okonomi + Kettl: Breakfast + Tea

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.

breakfast set with grilled tuna belly
japanese breakfast set with grilled tuna belly

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.

breakfast set with blue fish
breakfast set with blue fish

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!

rice and soup, staples of a proper breakfast
rice and soup, staples of a proper breakfast

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.

$5 bloody marys at blind barber
$5 bloody marys at blind barber

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.

tea set for sale at kettl
a kettl tea set
founder zach mangan making tea
founder zach mangan making 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
(718) 302-0598
http://www.kettl.co/

Blind Barber
524 Lorimer St (between Ainslie and Powers St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 599-2435

YUJI Ramen Omakase

entering yuji ramen
entering yuji ramen

Nestled on a quiet residential stretch of Ainslie St. in Williamsburg is Okonomi, a tiny Japanese restaurant that is known for its traditional ichiju sansai breakfast sets. At night it operates as Yuji Ramen, which features the creative ramen bowls that chef Yuji Haraguchi served at pop-ups in Smorgasburg and Whole Foods Bowery. On the weekends, Haraguchi takes even bigger risks with his broths and noodles in an intriguing ramen omakase dinner that will hold your attention for hours.

in the kitchen
the yuji kitchen

As I mentioned before, the space itself is small and cozy, seating at most 12 people. The Danish word hygge comes to mind as the way to describe the atmosphere. It feels very warm and inviting in here, and with the jazz music on the background, it’s festive without being frenetic. I could sip sake the whole night and never want to leave.

place settings
place settings
house sake
house sake

I initially thought that I would be served 10 bowls of ramen in the omakase, but luckily it wasn’t that boring and literal. Soup and noodles were certainly inspirations, and Haraguchi seemed especially intent on rethinking the broth. There was a fragrant, lemongrass broth made from fish bones which was especially memorable and made me wonder why fish wasn’t incorporated more prominently in more soup bases. One that seemed really out there was the muscat grape broth, yet somehow the fruitiness paired remarkably well with the naturally unctuous mackerel meat. All of these unexpected broths made the finale course of a traditional shoyu ramen bowl seem downright conservative.

course 1 - roasted japanese vegetables chilled in a sweet soy dashi
course 1 – roasted japanese vegetables chilled in a sweet soy dashi
course 2 - ika somen, squid noodles and seaweed in a squid broth with watermelon and radish
course 2 – ika somen, squid noodles and seaweed in a squid broth with watermelon and radish
course 3 - miso risotto with six grain rice and ginger
course 3 – miso risotto with six grain rice and ginger
course 4 - boston mackerel sashimi lightly torched in a muscat grape broth
course 4 – boston mackerel sashimi lightly torched in a muscat grape broth
course 5 - shio ramen with onigiri rice ball
course 5 – shio ramen with onigiri rice ball
course 6 - bonito sashimi with grated cucumber and plum sauce
course 6 – bonito sashimi with grated cucumber and plum sauce
course 7 - buckwheat ramen in a mussel broth with peppers and dragon bean
course 7 – buckwheat ramen in a mussel broth with peppers and dragon bean
course 8 - seaweed ramen with Maine uni and thai basil
course 8 – seaweed ramen with Maine uni and thai basil
course 9 - shoyu ramen with scallions and nori made in a fish broth from previous courses
course 9 – shoyu ramen with scallions and nori made in a fish broth

The most memorable course, in my opinion, was the smallest one, but by no means the least. It was a spoonful of seaweed ramen paired with uni and Thai basil, arguably the most perfect bite of food to be had. Who knew the waters of Maine were home to such treasures? The ingredients were pure and prime, but it takes a master to arrange them at their full potential, and Haraguchi has got the skills.

the perfect bite
the perfect bite


YUJI Ramen
150 Ainslie St (between Lorimer and Leonard St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 302-0598
Email ramenomakase@gmail.com for omakase reservations.

Semilla’s Vegetable Tasting

There’s a classic interviewing brain teaser that goes, “Why are pot hole covers round and not square,” and you’re supposed to demonstrate your on-the-spot creativity by coming up with as many logical reasons as possible. I felt like I was watching this type of ingenuity unfold when I had the tasting dinner at the vegetable-driven restaurant Semilla in Williamsburg.

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inside the kitchen

Semilla’s ingredients are based on what’s seasonal and what’s available, and on the night we happened to be there, it seemed to be a lot of tomatoes. However, the repeat showings of tomato were not tedious or disappointing, because Semilla managed to extract all sorts of different qualities and flavors from the tomato. Sweet and acidic in a cold gazpacho? Check. Roasted and juicy? Done. Cooked in a tart with shiso like a Japanese pizza? Yes, please. This tomato has a lot of layers.

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tomato gazpacho with smoked peaches and radish and arugula
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roasted tomato with corn and parmesan
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sweet corn chawanmushi
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roasted eggplant with pepper leaves and mussel broth
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house sourdough bread with buttermilk butter

It’s important to note that Semilla is vegetable-driven and not purely vegetarian. They do incorporate meat and seafood in their courses, but the proteins are very much on the sidelines. Some have complained that the tasting menu left them hungry, but that was very much not my experience. Having a bowl of smoky, hearty chicken of the woods risotto will fill you up, and the amazing house sourdough bread will take up even more room, as you take multiple slices and slather on the buttermilk butter.

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tomato salad with cucumber and scallops
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tomato tart
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chicken of the woods risotto
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peach saffron and bitter almond
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tarragon profiteroles with wild blueberries

The restaurant attracts a cerebral food-minded crowd. You could tell that people here were really thinking about what they were eating, but not in an obnoxious sort of way. The atmosphere is relaxed and casually elegant, and the counter seating maintains that informal vibe, despite the serious food that’s coming out of the kitchen. The staff is friendly and not standoffish in that Brooklyn hipster sort of way, and they are more than happy to answer any questions that you have about the menu. One conversation you’re sure to engage in is with your food. Sometimes it can be puzzling, other times it can be thought-provoking, but for the most part it is very enjoyable.


Semilla
No. 5, 160 Havemeyer St (between S 2nd and S 3rd St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 782-3474
Two seatings daily from Tues-Sat