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Brooklyn, Step Aside — Food Makers in the Bronx Are Incubating an Artisanal Boom

Move over Brooklyn — New York’s other “B” borough has an artisanal food boom all its own going on – everything from an eponymously-named hot sauce and a Puerto Rican moonshine to fermented foods and healthy snacks.

The Bronx is emerging as a natural incubator for small food companies. With Hunts Point (the world’s largest produce market), reasonable rents and a supportive community, it’s no surprise that the borough is attracting talent. “The Bronx doesn’t want to be Manhattan,” says John Crotty, co-creator of Bronx Hot Sauce.

And it doesn’t need to — as anyone who ventures to New York City’s northernmost district has discovered, the Bronx has a flavor all its own. We set out to sample some of the new culinary delights blossoming in the borough, an area already steeped in the food traditions of Arthur Avenue, City Island, and an abundance of authentic Caribbean and Spanish foods.

Michaela Hayes founded Crock & Jar in a Bronx community kitchen
Michaela Hayes founded Crock & Jar in a Bronx community kitchen

Crock & Jar
If you think you know what sauerkraut tastes like, think again. Crock & Jar uses your grandmother’s techniques to achieve a modern take on fermented classics. Founder and “Chief Food Preservationist” Michaela Hayes use sustainably grown, locally harvested produce and makes small batches out of a community center kitchen at the Mary Mitchell Family Center in the Crotona Park neighborhood. Hayes, a French Culinary Institute graduate, started off making chutneys for the acclaimed Tabla restaurant. She moved on to establish a pickle program for Gramercy Tavern. In 2011, she founded Crock & Jar. The products — all live, probiotic foods — are as healthy as they are addictive, and include a jalapeño relish that makes an instant guacamole when mixed with avocado; a spicy kraut with dried chilies, and a beet kraut flavored with apples, fennel and cabbage.

Salted Carmel Bars - a Sans Bakery gluten-free coffeehouse treat
Salted Carmel Bars – a Sans Bakery gluten-free coffeehouse treat

Sans Bakery
When Erica Fair realized she couldn’t eat gluten, she didn’t want to give up taste. She started her own bakery in 2010 and was baking about twice a week for five different accounts. These days she’s baking six days a week, adding customers steadily and building out her own kitchen space in the South Bronx. “Brooklyn gets all the hype, but it’s oversaturated and expensive,” says Fair. Her supplier is close by at Hunts Point and the rents are reasonable. You can find her delectable cakes at high-end coffee places around the city including Birch, Café Grumpy and Think cafes. For Aussie coffee spot Bluestone, she makes a salted caramel slice with an almond meal, coconut and sorghum flour cookie-crust, filled with caramel and topped with chocolate and sea salt.

Pulse Roasted Chickpeas
About a decade ago, Linda Kim shared a snack with a friend – Armenian roasted chickpeas. It was a bite that (eventually) launched this healthy Bronx-made treat. At the end of 2012, Kim started her snack company with 200 pounds of chickpeas. Now she orders 2,000-pound pallets. Thanks to an early flash sale on FAB.com she got great exposure, and her background in sales helped her get into Whole Foods. A buyer for Fresh Direct sampled her chickpeas at a benefit event and later got Kim to sell them on the company’s website. The snack is high in fiber, gluten-free and full of plant protein. Flavors include sea salt and garlic, spicy lemon zest, coconut sugar and truffle. Kim also created a cross between a sport and a chocolate bar with her latest Pulse product – a crunchy chocolate vegan bark using coconut oil, sugar and dark chocolate.

Essie Bartels's West African spice blend with an infusion of Asian flavors.
Essie Bartels’s West African spice blend with an infusion of Asian flavors.

Essie Spice
Essie Bartels likes to see herself as a mad scientist of flavor. Founded just two years ago, Essie Spice combines the seasonings of her native Ghana with the flavors of her travels around the world. “I blend the best of the cuisines,” she says. In her “Coco-for-Garlic,” Bartels mixes coconut oil and garlic, as well as roasted peppers and some West African spices such as nutmeg and Grains of Selim (also known as African pepper). Her most traditional spice mix, Meko Dry Rub, marries African and Asian seasoning including a roasted ground peanut powder and five-spice.

Gina Kim and her mother, Mrs. Kim, sell their handmade spicy kimchi at local markets
Gina Kim and her mother, Mrs. Kim, sell their handmade spicy kimchi at local markets

Mrs. Kim’s Kimchi
Gina Kim, who started a Korean food company with her mom after she retired, says she’s thankful for her Bronx artisanal community. “It’s like a family.” She often gets retail tips from the other owner/makers in the incubator kitchen they share. The mother-daughter team entered the retail market in 2014 after successful stints at local weekend food markets like Smorgasburg. What makes her kimchi so much better than mass produced versions? Besides using copious amounts of garlic and scallions, Mrs. Kim insists on hand selecting all the cabbage and other vegetables that go into the dish. “Mom is really particular and meticulous,” says Gina. She also adds whatever looks fresh, like Fiji apples and Asian pears. The Kims only use pepper flakes from Korea for the most authentic taste. They sell three versions – original, vegan and mild (great for kids).

A holiday pack of The Bronx Hot Sauce includes a special red sauce.
A holiday pack of The Bronx Hot Sauce includes a special red sauce.

The Bronx Hot Sauce
Here’s a product that’s all about community — literally. Last year, Small Axe Peppers, the partnership behind the Hot Sauce, donated serrano pepper seedlings to 23 community gardens in the Bronx with the agreement that they would buy them back from the growers at market price at harvest time. They made 5,000 bottles of the spicy condiment with the local peppers. Chef King Phojanakong, who is a Bronx Science grad and a nursery school friend of one of the pepper company’s co-founders John Crotty, created the sauce. This year enough seedlings for 30,000 bottles were distributed. Each bottle has deep roots in the area – Crotty is a developer of affordable housing in the Bronx and GrowNYC, the Greenmarket’s parent organization, supports the gardens. A majority of the profits from sales of the sauce will be returned to low income communities in the city. The next step: the team hopes to start selling half-gallon containers of the sauce to restaurants.

Some of the local Bronx peppers that make a sizzling hot sauce
Some of the local Bronx peppers that make a sizzling hot sauce

Port Morris Distillery
It took about two years for Port Morris Distillery to produce its first bottle of Puerto Rican moonshine, Pitorro Shine, in 2013. The three-ingredient family recipe uses New York state apples, local honey and brown sugar. “My uncle was a long time moonshiner on the island,” says Ralph Barbosa, who co-founded the company with his childhood friend William Valentin. They convinced Ralph’s uncle to move to the Bronx and legally make his hooch. The 92-proof liquor is often macerated with tamarind, honey or habanero. For the holiday season, there’s an infusion with coconut and cinnamon called Coquito. Pitorro Shine and Pitorro Anejo, an 80-proof version aged in oak barrels, are sold in stores and served in NYC bars and restaurants. The distillery offers free tours and tastings as well as a cocktail bar, and next year they’re planning to open a restaurant next door.

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Gift Guide 2015: Holiday Shopping Ideas for Food-Obsessed New Yorkers

With Hanukkah already lighting up the calendar and December 25 bearing down like Buster Poindexter behind the wheel of a Checker cab, time’s running out to stuff the stockings of the New Yorkers on your list who envy the five pounds of veal Frank Cross found under the tree in Scrooged.

To make their miracles happen, we’ve haunted the city’s best culinary pop-ups, websites, and shops for Nordic cookbooks and bottled cocktails, handcrafted chests of chocolate and automated nut milkers — all of them as appetizing in Christmas wrapping and tinsel as butcher paper and bakery twine.


Sure, the Soho bookstore stocks this year’s top recipe tomes, from Magnus Nilsson’s whale-braising manual, The Nordic Cookbook, to The Food Lab, J. Kenji López-Alt’s manual for better eating through chemistry, but what separates McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street, 212-274-1160) from its more noble competition is a bounty of hard-to-find foodie periodicals, like feminist quarterly Render and the stylish Spanish Tapas, that make flying home for the holidays so much more bearable when you’re delayed on the runway.

 

While seeing a Starbucks shutter is a gift in its own right, its outpost on the corner of Union Square West has just been replaced by the Food52 Holiday Market (41 Union Square West, no phone). Open until December 20, the online cooking community’s real-world pop-up stocks culinary quirkiness like raw-pine Pieboxes, pancake-flavored Minocqua popcorn, gently used Food Network props, and a schedule of special events from book signings to pie-latticing workshops.

Gustiamo (1715 West Farms Road, Bronx; 718-860-2949) is the place for small-production Italian specialties you can’t find anywhere else, all carefully sourced and imported to the company’s wholesale warehouse in the Bronx. Owner Beatrice Ughi and her small, dedicated team make frequent trips to Italy, ensuring each producer is staying true to Ughi’s high standards. This year, Gustiamo put together a variety of themed gift boxes, which can be rustically packaged in crates salvaged from the city’s produce markets. Find them online, or in person — every Saturday through December Gustiamo is opening its warehouse doors to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Karen Tedesco)

Gwyneth Paltrow brings Goop Mrkt (10 Columbus Circle, no phone) to the Shops at Columbus Circle at the Time Warner Center through Christmas Eve. Fans of the lifestyle guru’s ascetic indulgences can enjoy Chalait’s green-tea lattes by day and Dewar’s by night while perusing Soyabella nut milk makers, Staub cocottes, and custom-wrapped copies of Thug Kitchen.

If you’ve ever had to settle for a hightop table in the front room at Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria (53 Great Jones Street, 212-837-2622), you know too well the temptations of the deli cases, countertops, and breadbaskets piled high with Umbrian flavor. Stock up on house-label olive oils (which can be refilled behind the counter), perfect for pairing with head baker Kamel Saci’s country loaves, or resist all temptation with an already bowed-up pain d’épices. Impossible to resist? You can also opt for packaging you can eat through, like pastry chef Genevieve Meli’s wood-grained chocolate box of chocolates.

DUMBO’s Mouth.com keeps an ear to the ground all around the country for the best regional purveyors in every major food group, including chunky half-pound fruit and nut bars from Los Angeles’ Valerie Confections, Tuscan salami from Portland, Oregon’s Olympia Provisions, bottled Saratoga cocktails from Fluid Dynamics, and Chicago bar snacks like Bee’s Knees chipotle-lime peanuts. Even better, there’s same-day delivery in the city, perfect for homesick visitors who don’t like anything New York has to offer, except for everything they’ve ever wanted from their own kitchen.

Filling the void left by Ruby et Violette, and in all their customers’ bellies, Schmackary’s (362 West 45th Street, 646-801-9866) sates Hell’s Kitchen’s bakery cravings with eight daily cookies both chewy and eclectic. Even better, Schmackary’s is open late, so when the lights go out on Broadway it’s not too late to fill a tin with a dozen of its seasonal variations, like cream-cheese-frosted dark-chocolate Dirty Peppermint, cinnamon-dusted eggnog, and the place’s classic Super C, which studs a sea-salted chocolate chipper with holiday M&Ms.

Astor Wines (399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500) is downtown Manhattan’s unofficial party supply warehouse for a reason, and this season it’s stocked with new and exclusive holiday bottles smoky, fizzy, and fruitful, like Tamworth Distilling’s tamarind cordial (probably the first liqueur ever inspired by nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt), Compass Box’s coveted fifteenth-anniversary expression of its Flaming Heart scotch, and Champagne for day and night like Nicolas Feuillatte’s Land of Wonders and Taittinger Nocturne.

Ample Hills Creamery (305 Nevins Street, Brooklyn; 347-725-4061) solves the problem of how to stay up while binge-watching the last six — er, three — chapters of the Star Wars saga. Order a four-pack of pints in flavors like the marshmallow Light Side, studded with the dark forces of cocoa crispies, and the espresso chocolate Dark Side, lightened with white chocolate pearls. Sure, the movie’s out before Christmas Day, but it’s not like whoever’s receiving this isn’t going to see it again.

Looking for smoked salmon and a smoking gun? Head to Soho’s flagship Dean & DeLuca (560 Broadway, 212-226-6800), where every pantry provision from Siberian caviar to walnut cutting boards look as cinematic as the white-aproned fromagers and charcuterists immortalized on screen in Basquiat and The Night We Never Met.

The Museum of Food and Drink, a/k/a MOFAD (62 Bayard Street, Brooklyn; 718-387-2845), has a lot more to offer artful gourmandizers than MoMA’s still lifes of Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes or Michael Anthony’s edible re-creations of them at the Whitney. And if the opening exhibition, “Flavor: Making It and Faking It,” isn’t engaging enough, package it with tickets to Dominique Ansel’s January chocolate sauce workshop.

BKLYN Larder (228 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-783-1250) is stocked with screen-printed sandwich art good enough to eat alongside every outer-borough condiment in history worthy of a smear, from A. Bauer’s horseradish mustard to Sam Mason’s sriracha-hot Empire mayonnaise.

Where do you find a hand-formed terracotta tureen by Astier de Villatte topped off with a white glazed Snoopy? ABC Carpet & Home (888 Broadway, 212-473-3000), which is also the place to find what to stew inside it. And in-house restaurant ABC Kitchen offers an annual ABCSA which every summer delivers ten weeks of the same organic Hudson Valley grass-fed meats, eggs, cheese, and vegetables used by the restaurant.

 

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Lay Out on a GG’s Pepperoni Grandma Slice This Weekend

Have you ever wanted to lounge on an ice cream cone, or get a massage with your face shoved into some avocado toast? Restaurateur and erstwhile fine-dining pastry pro Nick Morgenstern already runs three certified city hotspots, and now he’s aiming to give Martha Stewart a run for her money with a trio of drool-worthy beach towels emblazoned with signature dishes from each of his establishments.

Priced at $35 each, the towels were created for Morgenstern’s takeover of the Summer Shift pop-up in the Rockaways (95-19 Rockaway Beach Boulevard), which has been hosting a series of local chefs throughout the summer. You can also pick them up at their respective locations, or order them as a set for $100 online. Morgenstern tells the Voice that they’re selling out, and fast, in Queens. However, he’s unsure if he’ll order more once the current stock runs out, adding, “Ice cream and pizza are recognizable, but with something like the avocado del sur, where it’s a dish that’s so specific to the restaurant, we’ll see how people like it.”

The cotton-polyester blend towels were conceived organically, and feature photography from artist Jessica Che, who also drew Morgenstern’s famous choking-victim poster. “I worked with each of the stores to come up with a narrative that made sense for us. We have a lot of autonomy, so we can do fun stuff like this,” Morgenstern says of the fashionable foray.

Slam your beach bod down onto a glistening grandma slice from GG’s pizza, without the danger of pressing piping-hot melted cheese against your skin. Or relax with the super-chill avocado del sur — depicting chef Gerardo Gonzalez’s enlightened treatment of the fatty fruit splashed with chimichurri and pickled onions from El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette. There’s also a broken salted caramel cone from Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream that you can blame for that third scoop scarfed down on the boardwalk.

While you’re soaking up the rays, hike over to the pop-up for one of Gonzalez’s San Diego–style fish tacos — his aunt’s recipe — which Morgenstern says he’s begged the young chef to put on his menu for over two years.

With Labor Day approaching, food-loving beachgoers and other culinarily-minded sun-worshippers still have time to whip out the Hawaiian Tropic. Morgenstern’s is running things at Summer Shift until Monday at 7 p.m. And of course, when the temperature drops, you’ll look especially tasty wrapped up in one of these after a shower.

Seasons be damned: We just received a Thanksgiving press release in August, so here’s your September holiday gift pick — perfect for the NYC dining scene junkie in your life.

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Reward Your Beach Body With a Crab Boil, Celebrity Chef Bagels, and Taste of the Terminal

Guest Chef Bagels, Black Seed, 170 Elizabeth Street, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.

If you’re looking to switch up your standard corn muffin and coffee breakfast, Black Seed’s Nolita location is offering another series of guest-chef bagels starting with Ken Oringer of Toro. Starting Monday and available through Sunday, diners can order Oringer’s everything bagel with trout roe cream cheese and charred broccoli. Additional specials include a sunflower bagel with avocado, fresh tuna, and egg crumble from Ava Genes in Portland as well as L.A.’s jam specialist Jessica Koslow, who created a smoked vidalia onion jam, baked eggs, and creamed-spinach bagel sandwich. The five specialty bagels, available for one week each, will begin this Monday and run through the week of August 3.

Jamaican Jerk Crab Boil, Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe, 109 Avenue A, Monday, 5 p.m.

Beginning this week and taking place every Monday through Labor Day, Miss Lily’s in the East Village is offering a Jamaican twist on the traditional summer crab cookout. For $38 per person (before tax and tip), guests receive a bowl of jerk-style blue crabs, corn, potatoes, and banana pudding for dessert. Buckets of Red Stripe will also be available as a drink special. Guests are encouraged to make a reservation for the offer by contacting the restaurant, though walk-ins will also be able to rock a bib and mallet upon request.

Nitehawk Presents: BuzzFeed Throwback Theater, 50 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, Tuesday, 5 p.m.

Revel in the glory of a young Adam Sandler with a free screening of his cinematic masterpiece Billy Madison. Though guests will have to bring their own Snack Packs, treats from Oddfellows Ice Cream Co., the Meat Hook, and Luzzo’s (among others) will be available for cash-only purchases. Beer and wine will also be available and film fanatics are encouraged to bring their own blanket. If you’re not available this week, a free screening of Mallrats with a live pre-show Q&A featuring Kevin Smith and co-star Jason Mewes will take place Tuesday, August 4.

Hour of Good Cheer, King Bee, 424 East 9th Street, Tuesday through Friday

Looking to shake up your happy-hour routine? This Acadian East Villager is offering a summer happy hour menu featuring a lineup of specialty sandwiches, including fried cod-cheek tacos and a muffaletta. The bar is also offering $8 glasses of Chateau de Manissy Tavel rosé and a rotating daily selection of East Coast oysters.

Taste of the Terminal, Grand Central Station, East 42nd Street at Lexington Avenue, Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Enjoy free samples of pretzels, coffee, and even beer during your lunch break or evening commute at this weekly event, which runs every Wednesday throughout the summer. This week’s participating vendors include Oren’s Daily Roast, Jacques Torres Ice Cream, and Murray’s Cheese; a full lineup of participating vendors and future offerings can be seen on the Grand Central website.

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Funky Barbecues, Vintage Cocktails, and Hot Dog Eating: Epic Ways to Celebrate Fourth of July Weekend


Funk N’ Cue,
Governors Island, 10 South Street, Friday, 5 p.m.

George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic host this holiday eve barbecue, which offers guests the chance to funk-up Governors Island in full view of Lady Liberty. The menu includes summer favorites like pulled pork, barbecue chicken, burgers, hot dogs, and grilled corn, with additional dishes available for purchase. Additional musical guests include several members of the band (not the vegetable) Lettuce and Fonky Kong. A cash bar will also be on hand. Tickets start $35 for general admission and do not include food or drink; reserve them here.

Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, Nathan’s Famous, 1000 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, Saturday, 10 a.m.

The Super Bowl of competitive eating is taking place this Saturday. Though you might eat hot dogs a little differently, this Fourth of July tradition which started in 1916 is a fun for all ages event. Local New Yorkers “Crazy Legs” Conti and Yasir Salem are a few of the participants looking to take the title belt from returning champion Joey Chestnut, while “The Black Widow” Sonya Thomas looks to maintain her championship status.

Fourth of July Clambake Extravaganza, Extra Fancy, 302 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, Saturday, 12 p.m.

Grab a glimpse of the fireworks at Extra Fancy’s backyard patio or head to the nearby Williamsburg waterfront after filling up at this all you can eat clambake. Chef Sean Telo’s version offers guests littleneck clams, Bangs Island mussels, sausage, and shrimp to feast one, with a can of Budweiser thrown in as part of the $40 per person offer. The bar will also have plenty of cocktails on hand including a line up featuring the new Patrón Citrónge mango tequila for fans of seasonal drinks. Tickets will also be available for $45 at the door, though guests can save in advance by purchasing a ticket here.

Mad Men Vintage Cocktail Series, Alder, 157 Second Ave., Saturday and Sunday

Fans of Mad Men can unleash their inner Don Draper thanks to a new cocktail series by Alder’s beverage director Travis Brown. The bar purchased spirits based off those used on AMC’s Mad Men, and is creating special cocktails with them; available nightly for $25. The menu includes a Manhattan made with Four Roses bourbon as well as a martini rosso vermouth, with drinks including the martinez and daiquiri also making an appearance this summer.

Gospel Brunch, Melba’s 125, 163 W 125th St. – 3rd Fl., Sunday, 12 p.m.

If your Fourth of July celebration means a slow start to your Sunday, recuperate with an all-you -an eat gospel brunch. For $19.99, guests can dine on chicken and eggnog waffles, omelettes, and a selection of select Southern-inspired entrees.  Drinks and dessert are available for an additional cost; reservations can be made by contacting hello@silvertint.com or by calling 212-864-7717.

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Stage Restaurant Launches Fundraising Campaign to Fight Eviction

Stage Restaurant, the beloved East Village diner, has set up a fundraising campaign to help cover lawyer fees as it fights an eviction notice from its landlord, Icon Realty.

We wrote about the eviction notice just a few weeks ago — Stage had vowed to fight to remain in its address. On the fundraising website, Andrew Diakun, the son of Stage’s longtime owner and proprietor, Roman Diakun, outlines in clear detail why Con Edison issued a stop-work order on the building, and details his grievances against Icon. “Stage Restaurant received an eviction notice from the landlord stating that Stage had to leave the premises by the end of April,” he writes. “The landlord’s reasoning behind the eviction relates to false and malicious claims that the Stage had been siphoning gas before its meter.”

The stop-work order placed on Stage occurred just three days after the East Village gas explosion, which decimated three buildings on Second Avenue, a few hundred yards from the diner.

Stage has held down its cubby in the East Village for 35 years. As of this article’s publishing, it has raised more than $1,200 of the $10,000 goal.

We’ve reached out to the Diakuns for more information on their plans; we’ll update this post if we hear back.

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Where You Can Find the Best Hummus in NYC

It was just after our order had been taken that the water in my glass slowly started to ripple, like that scene in Jurassic Park. But instead of being on an island in the middle of nowhere with a large dinosaur lurching about, I was in Bushwick, about to enjoy the most soulful Middle Eastern food in the city, and a band in the studio space next door had just started “practicing.” But by the time my halloumi sandwich was gone (more on that later), the rumbling bass was the last thing on my mind.

Situated on an industrial, slightly out-of-the-way block just a short walk from the Montrose L train, Newtown (55 Waterbury Street, Brooklyn; 347-984-6215) is exactly what this part of Brooklyn strives to be: authentic, funky, and truly wonderful without trying too hard. It’s run by two former roommates: Omer Shemesh (35) is a trained pianist from Israel; Alexandra Costin (23) is a beauty from southern Sweden who came to NYC to attend culinary school. They’ve been the owners and head chefs of the hole-in-the-wall space, named after the nearby Newtown Creek, for over three years. The restaurant was formerly known as Yummus Hummus — arguably both the worst and best name in history — until they took ownership and completely changed the menu, creating one of the most delicious (and coolest) spaces around.

The food at Newtown is really amazing. It’s also all vegetarian. Start with hummus, which is made simply, with cooked chickpeas, garlic, and tahini, and then move on to that exceptional halloumi sandwich — pan-fried halloumi cheese (a semi-hard cheese from Cyprus), roasted portobellos, and herbed cream cheese served on a twice-risen, twice-kneaded focaccia.

The space seats about fifteen people around homemade wooden tables that sit a few inches too low. Eclectic Middle Eastern music that sounds like it could have come from a Wes Anderson soundtrack plays overhead. Neighborhood regulars take advantage of the BYOB policy, sometimes bringing nice bottles of Bordeaux.

This is a makeshift operation. “We cook with camping equipment and the oven my mom gave us,” says the smiling and bearded Shemesh. Just behind the small counter, where locals stop in for coffee, you’ll see the owners making all food to order with portable stoves and a small oven. “It’s actually less than what most people have in their homes,” says Shemesh.

The Best Egg Sandwich in NYC
The Best Egg Sandwich in NYC

But out of that small kitchen come full flavors, like the egg sandwich with melted cheddar cheese, tomato herb spread, and greens on ridiculously good black-salt rosemary focaccia. Salty and nicely textured, it may supplant your deli egg sandwich if you’re lucky enough to live in the neighborhood. Pair it to the simple pickle plate of cauliflower and cabbage and cucumbers, all brightness and crunch.

As a bonus, prices are more akin to Omaha than Brooklyn — two people can get in and out for less than $30.

It’s a good excuse to pick up a bottle of wine and enjoy Brooklyn the way it should be enjoyed.

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What NYC’s Restaurants Could Learn From the East Village’s Prune

In the hustle of New York City, it is rare to feel instantly comfortable and at home at a restaurant. You need an inviting dining room, a stellar front-door team, and servers who don’t seem like they have somewhere else more important to be. Get those things right, though, and a first impression can turn into a lasting love affair. Prune (54 East 1st Street, 212-677-6221) gets it right, and other restaurants should learn from its example.

Prune opened in 1999 (the same year Santana and Rob Thomas got together to make musical history, you might recall), and it has been a strong pint-sized voice in the dining scene since. Headed by chef and lauded author Gabrielle Hamilton, its light-pink color scheme and effortlessly quaint design make it feel like an excellent neighborhood restaurant located far from New York City, like, perhaps, Savannah, Georgia. But what separates it from the rest of the cookie-cutter NYC restaurants is this: It’s independent and confident, and it doesn’t get caught up in the competitive-trend rat race that brings down lesser joints.

My lady friend and I dropped into Prune at 8:30 on a recent rainy Saturday night. After walking in, general manager Hannah Norwick glanced over at us with a large smile and said, “Hello again!” We’d only been there once before — we’d stopped by the week prior for a drink, and wound up chatting with her and the bearded and lovely bartender, John. “I can’t believe she remembered us,” my lady friend said. We were off to a good start.

A few minutes later, our coats were checked and we were seated at the last two bar stools. Some cool music was playing (I think it was the Specials). Prune is an easy and small place; you feel a little older and hipper when you dine here because it doesn’t have the frantic vibe of new places. It’s calm but not boring. Guests here know there way around a wine list, and they’ve always collected records.

The food at Prune doesn’t try too hard, either — the most famous dish is, arguably, sardines and Triscuits. There are radishes served with a little salt and butter, and a sexy plate of head-on grilled shrimp, for which the prawns are plated over tangy and smooth anchovy butter. The latter is one of the best dishes on the menu.

The sexiest grilled shrimp in NYC
The sexiest grilled shrimp in NYC

And Prune excels at small details. Just before our shrimp arrived, two small espresso cups appeared. “Here’s a little mushroom broth to get you started,” said our server. “It’s great to have you back.” A small few sips’ worth were placed in each cup; the soup was rich and mellow, a perfect fortification against a drop in mercury or a rise in your forehead temperature. It was like a liquid mushroom — as if you’d snapped your fingers above a shiitake and it turned into a drink.

Get that soft butter workin'.
Get that soft butter workin’.

More evidence of Prune’s attention to detail came with dessert, when we ordered the coffee tart with sweet cream ice cream. The slice of tart was served next to a chilled glass in which the ice cream sat. This solved the problem of your cold ice cream melting into your warm tart before you could finish it.

When you ask for a check, a few small rough chunks of dark chocolate come with your bill. It’s part of the way the staff here says thanks.

Two hours after we began, we were outside, full and happily buzzed. Prune is a classic that still delivers, sixteen years into its run.

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Head to Pelham Gardens for Rare and Authentic Albanian Burek

Albanian cuisine is not the easiest to track down, even in a city as diverse with dining options as NYC. Given its strong Mediterranean influence, it’s not uncommon to find traditional dishes in restaurants specializing in the region’s food. Many a pizza parlor, for example, offers authentic burek, the savory pie hailing from the Balkans. But it’s rare to find a spot dedicated solely to the Albanian mainstay. For that, head to Dukagjini Burek (758 Lydig Avenue, Bronx; 718-822-8955) in Pelham Gardens.

The shop looks like any old New York pizza shop: A refrigerated counter is flanked by a bulky steel pizza oven to the back; a concise menu with removable letters sits above; a handful of Formica-covered tables line the walls up front. Unlike your average pizza place, however, the actual show here is different. You’re not going to see rounds of dough flying overhead. If you peer around the kitchen wall, you can watch the chef stretching and folding dough; his arm quickly circles through the air with a thin strip of dough before folding it over again, and again. He’s making phyllo, and each round takes about four of five minutes of flapping the dough by hand.

That fresh phyllo is the base of the burek ($4 a slice, $16 a pie). Offered with meat, spinach, and feta, or a cheese that’s somewhat similar to ricotta, the fillings are layered between the striated layers of dough, resulting in a pastry that’s soft and chewy on the inside and crisp and flaky on top. Each one is served in a massive triangular portion that barely fits on a paper plate. For an additional $1.50, there’s homemade yogurt to layer on top — each coffee-cup-sized portion is rendered down from a gallon of milk.

These authentic house-made pastries are worth the trip up to the Bronx; owner Marjan Kohlnrekaj and his son Gjon use recipes passed down through the family for the past century to make the specialty pies — the family has a burek shop in Kohlnrekaj’s hometown of Dukagjin, Kosovo. Much of the food of the region has been strongly influenced by Turkish cuisine, and the burek is no different; similar pastries can be found all over the former Ottoman Empire. In Albania, burek are commonly sold by street vendors, who peddle them along with other traditional pastries and drinks.

New York has residents from just about every country in the world, and many of them have opened restaurants dedicated to their homelands’ cuisine. We’re celebrating the resulting diversity of this city’s dining scene by eating around the globe, from A to Z, without leaving the city limits. Every week, we’ll be hunting down a restaurant that represents a different country, from Afghanistan all the way to Zimbabwe, and everywhere in between. .

 


 

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Stave Off Winter Chill With a Trip to the Islands in Prospect Heights

I had never heard people argue about oxtail before. A nearby gentleman was under the impression he had received an incorrect takeout order size, and voices were rising. It didn’t bother me, though. I was sweating and out of breath, and I was trying to finish at least half of the soulful and spicy calypso shrimp dish that lay before me. Plump shrimp were swimming in a coconut curry sauce. It was a snowy night and a good night to be at The Islands (803 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-398-3575).

Located a quarter-block from the Brooklyn Museum, the Islands is a postage-stamp-sized restaurant specializing in Jamaican cuisine. It’s authentic and soulful and more reliable than just about any other restaurant I know. Eating at Islands feels like eating at a Jamaican family’s home. The menu doesn’t change, unless the restaurant has already sold out for the day of one of many staples, such as jerk chicken, curried goat, and a wide array of fish and vegetables.

With windows that are always fogged up, it’s hard to tell exactly what lies past the narrow wooden doors of this restaurant. But take one step in and you’ll find yourself in the center of this small, trapezoidal place, where the ceilings are low and steep-as-hell steps lead to a lofted, kitschily decorated dining room. A mere three or four feet away, just beyond the three-stool bar, is the smallest of kitchens, where you’ll typically find one of the co-owners, Marilyn Reid or Shawn Letchford. Childhood friends from St. Ann’s, Jamaica, the women, both in their fifties, opened Islands in 2001 with recipes from their parents and grandparents. About half of the business here is to go, so you’ll witness a constant flow of people stopping by.

The Islands’ menu is full on flavor and light on frills. “The dishes need to speak for themselves,” says Reid. Everything is made in house and each dish is prepared fresh. Because of this, the food and service are laid back, befitting of an island vibe. Oh, and Islands is BYOB, so bring whatever you enjoy with spicy foods, from dry Rieslings to crisp ale.

Calypso shrimp
Calypso shrimp

I would suggest dipping into the fowl section and trying the stewed chicken. Slowly simmered with fresh gravy that is both sweet and pungent, it is — along with every other entree — served with deeply flavored jasmine rice, steamed island veggies, and a small salad with golden raisins. The Islands is known for jerk seasoning (Reid would only tell me their house mix contains onions, garlic, and scotch bonnet peppers), and it may be best showcased on the jerk leg of lamb, which is sliced and served with sharp and electrifying mint chutney.

On my most recent visit, Reid was standing behind a large cast-iron skillet frying up what looked to be chicken, slowly turning each piece. “Frying chicken?” I asked, trying to make conversation. “Nah, a very special snapper dish,” she replied. It turned out to be escovitch snapper, fried and served with a simple vinaigrette sauce.

It is a weird dichotomy eating great Jamaican food when the mercury sits below 20°F. But what a dichotomy it is! In the summertime, Islands sets up a few folding chairs and tables just outside on the sidewalk, creating arguably the best and easiest outdoor seating in Brooklyn. And when it starts to get hot, do yourself a favor and order one of the ridiculous homemade lemonades or the gingery and sharp sorrel sodas.

To leave Islands without one order of soft and white rum-heavy bread pudding is to leave one note short. It is the only dessert I have ever gotten a real buzz off of, and it’s sweet and tastes like love.

A meal for two runs around $60 with tip. It’s worth it.