We’re all finally awake, aren’t we? Everyone wants to get out and embrace life again. In Brooklyn, this can mean all sorts of things. Which is wonderful, because all sorts of things are available to us, right outside our doors. Doors, up until now, that were shut tight to seal off the swirling dirt squalls and detritus of a torturous winter.
There’s art to see—I will insist my kin travel with me this weekend to see Kara Walker’s mind-blowing Marvelous Sugar Baby at the former Domino Sugar factory. There are glorious parks to explore. The expanses of Prospect Park for sports and picnics and soon, outdoor concerts. Brooklyn Bridge Park for biking, beach volleyball, and the democratic grilling of food on shared barbecues. There are thriving outdoor flea markets, and though I fear they’re growing more expensive—like all things in Brooklyn—than fleas have any right to be, it still feels like a triumph when you score a teal dress from 1982 that fits like it was made for you in 2014. My friend just bought a silky, pale pink bomber jacket with gigantic shoulder pads at the flea in Fort Greene. It was the highlight of my weekend just observing the transaction.
There are teeming playgrounds for playing on until long after bedtime. And, every couple of houses along my street, there are lemonade stands. Often with bonus cookies. I’m going broke on the gallons of teeth chatteringly-sweet lemonade I’ve had in the last few weeks. You know, for the kids.
In my family, spring renewal and the embracing of life often means the eating of Good Food. We picnic, we eat out, we are deeply intimate with Seamless dining. There’s a lot of promising talk about chia seeds and goji berries and overall longevity elixirs, which is valuable and useful info. Some of it even tastes great. But this is still chock-full-of-eats-Brooklyn, and there are many important things to devour that aren’t designed specifically for liver and colon vitality. There are the Devils on Horseback served at Five Leaves in Greenpoint, for example (medjool dates wrapped in bacon), the enthralled consumption of which I will think about on my deathbed without a shred of regret. In fact, I’ll feel bad about all of the Devils on Horseback I didn’t get to eat. I don’t know that I’ll lament the chia pods I’d missed. Maybe. This is probably misguided, but I will be nearly dead so it Will. Not. Matter.
I live with a man who would like to grill every morsel of food he eats from March until October—sausages, fish, vegetables, Cheerios, birthday cakes, you name it. It’s oppressive, all the grilling. He makes our morning toast outside in the yard, on a gas grill. But when he’s not barbecuing the entire contents of the kitchen, we can’t help eating out. You can sit outside now, on the sidewalk, in rickety chairs while people and their small dogs walk by and examine your plates! The food doesn’t taste any better out there—it’s not like we’re having lunch al fresco in a field of Provençal lavender—but being out of doors to dine is still just nice.
Sometimes the experience includes a refined, destination-dining spot we are compelled to visit constantly—like my ain true love, La Vara, where they know us well, and know what we like, and then always feed us the most inventive and thrilling flavors imaginable. We go for birthdays, anniversaries, Tuesdays. Our conversation is the same each time: Can you believe this place is here, right around the corner from us and we can just walk in and eat This Food? Moorish/Jewish/Spanish cuisine on any old weeknight? As celebrities like to say, We Are So Blessed.
Other times, we travel farther afield. Like the tiny, super-casual Fritzl’s Lunchbox on Irving Avenue in Bushwick. The lighting is too bright, but otherwise, this 19 seat, cozy spot is charming. The staff is warm, and everything we ate was terrific. One night, it was the just two of us and a pair of on-duty cops at the next table with their walkie-talkies down low. Our meal was great and the radio static was somehow romantic.
As daylight hours extend and you have more time during which to eat, and to drink, be sure to get out and test the selections below. Think of them as nearby spots for some of the Very Best Brooklyn Bites. And Sips. As for the chia, ancient grains and extracted nutrient nectars, you can eat those at home whenever you’d like.
–The Berenjena Con Miel at La Vara. This small miracle is composed of delicate pieces of crispy eggplant with honey, silky melted cheese, and nigella seed. The dish is yellow and black and striking to behold. I do believe it’s even better then their acclaimed fried artichokes. Yeah, I said it.
–The salt cod and egg salad sandwich at Fritzl’s Lunchbox. It’s served on thick slices of toasted white bread. We also had the linguini with clam sauce. Every twirled forkful contained the perfect amount of littlenecks, a hint of crunch from the breadcrumbs, and heat from the chili flakes.
--Veksler’s Rice & Egg. A soft-boiled duck egg is served over garlic rice, pork (or tofu) and swiss chard. Like everything about Veksler’s, somehow protected from the din of the BQE on Hicks Street, it’s unpredictable and very right. I was here recently with a big group, and everyone seemed to order something different. The menu is incredibly varied. There’s Arctic char, Shanghai Soup dumplings, and burgers. It sounds crazy but makes very good sense.
–Bien Cuit, the bakery on Smith Street, makes some of the very finest breads and pastries anywhere in the entire city. And easily as fine as many I ate in Paris. If you leave the shop with the gorgeous, nut-brown, enormous Miche, a loaf of blended rye and wheat flours, which boasts a 68-hour fermentation, I can promise you’ll tear many hunks of it from inside the bag long before you arrive home. Their croissants will wreck you for all other croissants permanently, and then wreck the lap of your pants with delicious crumbs—though not permanently, because you’ll collect every last sliver of the flakes with your fingers and eat them. Final Bien Cuit facts: Their tarts and cakes are pretty little pink, yellow, peach and caramel-colored works of art. Their breads are chewy and crunchy-firm in perfect measure. And people who love me bring me their Diamond Chocolate Chip Shortbreads. Or perhaps they brought the shortbread first and then I grew to love them.
–The smooth, minty Stinger at the Jake Walk on Smith Street. This actually isn’t on the cocktail list, but…if you ask, they’ll make you the best one you’ve ever tasted. Sometimes you need a Stinger. Jake Walk understands things.
–The chicken sandwich at Bar Bruno on Henry Street. Usually just the words Chicken Sandwich overwhelm me with malaise, crushing boredom and anticipatory TMJ, but their version shares nothing with the usual boneless/skinless miscarriage of justice. I’m starting to think it may not be a chicken sandwich at all.
–By all means, the iced coffee at Mazzola on Union Street. I love the New Orleans Iced Coffee at Blue Bottle on Dean Street when I’m feeling splurgy, but Mazzola’s, even without the roasted chicory and 18-hour brewing technology, is just as good. In fact, it’s an over-achiever. It’s strong and freezing cold, and also up the straw and gone far too quickly. A perfect infusion for the walk to the subway on a humid morning.
–The turkey leg sandwich at Henry Public is still one of my favorite things to eat in Cobble Hill. The turkey is braised in milk and served on slices of thick bread with fried onions. It impresses and satisfies with remarkable consistency. In fact it’s so huge and delicious and peppery, I’m usually impressed and satisfied well into the next day.
–After Henry the 8th-ing your turkey leg, wander across the street to the Long Island Bar on Atlantic Avenue and have any drink they make. They’re all good. Most important, the golden light and warm wood and red booths will make you look and feel better looking than you would in another bar.
–Visit Toum, the Lebanese food truck, which is usually parked at the Parade Grounds by the soccer fields on weekends. If it’s not there, I recommend finding it with the truck tracker on their site, and then paying them to hand you some food from the window. (They’ve been in Dumbo lately.) The falafel sandwich is dripping, literally, with pickled vegetables and flavor, and is excellent enough to distract from the most crushing loss your kid might be experiencing during their soccer game. For you at least. The kid’s playing. You’re eating.
–Dub Pies in Windsor Terrace makes an outstanding Cortado, which is half milk, half espresso. More milk than a macchiato, more coffee than a cappuccino.
–Paired with their mushroom ramen, Dassara’s non-alcoholic ginger drink, called the Calm & Stormy is perfection. Spicy, sweet and refreshing, it’s just what you need in between slurps of the rich, steaming ramen.
–The granola with stewed fruit and yogurt at Smith Canteen is usually the best thing I eat all day. Popping in there for a breakfast meeting or a just a procrastinatory morning “errand” always fills me with well-being. And granola.
–Rucola, a Northern Italian place on Dean Street, feels intimate if you’re having a quiet date, and boisterous if you’re with a group. Each of these vibes makes the other possible somehow. The balance of sexy/lively/fun/private at Rucola is addictive. I find I always want to eat there. Order the veal spiedini with anchovy, lemon and parsley. And then the spaghetti with green garlic. Or the pork schnitzel. Or…you get the idea.
–Hunter’s, an underestimated sleeper on Smith Street, serves an almost ridiculously tasty wild mushroom Pot Pie. Pot Pie demands caps. I promise myself I’m not ordering it again every time we’re there, but then I realize that’s just silly, and food promises are a waste of our precious time on this planet. Who am I to leave flaky, mushroom pastry unordered? I’m not doing that.
–Any and all bites/sips/slurps/shovellings listed above should be followed by a slice of Salty Honey pie from those talented and famous midwestern sisters, Emily and Melissa Elsen, at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus. Or followed by more than just one slice. They are a full-service pie shop after all and pie slices come from Whole Pies, which means if you think ahead you can get yourself one of those. The Salty Honey Pie is the best pie that humankind has yet made. I have their fantastic cookbook, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, and I use it to visit photos of the pies when I’m not with them in person.
Happy eating, Brooklyn. But don’t overdo it, if possible. The crinkled ball of swimsuits in your drawer will soon be out, uncrinkled, and interested in menacing you.
This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on May 15, 2014.