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Posts from the ‘Cobble Hill’ Category

Pok Pok NY

As I approach my fourteenth year in NYC, I'm weaning myself from a no-longer-relevant ownership of everything Portland. Like somehow I would have an affinity for Atera or Pok Pok because Mathew Lightner cooked at Castagna or Andy Ricker made a name for himself in Portland. Never mind that I was long gone before any of this dining excitement was occurring, and that I didn't grow up in Portlandia.

 (Pre-twee Portland was working class when it wasn't unemployed, and unambitious and underdoggy with a chip on its shoulder–NYC certainly didn't make me this churlish–with a gun-loving, methy, murdery, white pride undercurrent. It's no coincidence that the aforementioned chefs are not native Oregonians.)

So, Pok Pok is purely new Portland, which means it's really good. And  Brooklyn Pok Pok isn't a letdown either. I'm glad to finally have something in the neighborhood to shut me up over the crappy state of local Thai food. Even the wait, which I'm averse to on principle, wasn't horrible. Initially, I balked at an hour-and-a-half quote at 9:30pm on a weeknight, but in reality it was 30 minutes (my city maximum–yes, I've waited double that at chains in the suburbs) which passed quickly with a tamarind sour in one hand and a menu to peruse in the other. I've waited longer in Portland standing on the sidewalk getting drizzled on my non-polar-fleeced self.

First off: Pok Pok is not a Sripraphai competitor, which I've heard/read, I don't even remember where. Pok Pok is not for curries and it's not all Thai things to all people; the food is mostly northern or Issan while Sripraphai is primarily Bangkok-style. And it's fairly obvious that Pok Pok has different aspirations. You will not find Mangalitsa pork, La Belle Rouge chicken, Niman Ranch ribs, drinking vinegars, nor Stumptown iced coffees (is there artisanal condensed and evaporated milk?)  at Sripraphai where I ordered a cocktail, a Thai mojito, for the first time on my last visit. I do miss the fridges full of desserts and nam prik, though. Well, and a lot of other things. You need Chao Thai, Ayada, and yes, Srirpraphai as much as you need Pok Pok in your world.

Also: Who cares if Andy Ricker isn't Thai? Or Harold Dirterle…or that I'm more Mexican than Alex Stupak (as if I were born knowing how to nixtamalize corn) and his food at Empellon Cocina hardly suffers. Does anyone question the ethnicity of chefs cooking French or Italian cuisine in the US, which is to say a large percentage of chefs in this country?

Oh, one other thing while I'm being a surly Portland transplant: Columbia Street is not Red Hook. Call it something invented like Columbia Street Waterfront District or Cobble Hill West, but you can no longer say an area is gritty when people are spending millions of dollars to live there. I just looked a house on the exact same block as Pok Pok  for $1.6 million and a condo down the street for even more. Er, not gritty (though also not prime enough to command those inflated prices). A diner actually asked where he was and was told Red Hook. I should probably be more concerned with people who manage to get to a restaurant without knowing where they are than with neighborhood demarcations.

Pok pok mangalitsa pork

Finally…the food: Mangalitsa pork neck. When I eat at restaurants years apart I often end up picking the same things I ate the previous visit without realizing it. I only recognized this dish when the side of iced mustard greens showed up. It threw me for a loop in Portland (and on this crisp spring evening) because it's such a tropical weather touch. Translating an authentic presentation when there's no fear of wilting produce was odd and charming both times (and yes, I realize the cooling effect is also meant as a relief from the chile heat) though I'm sure it will be appropriately stifling and toasty come summer with nothing more than a ceiling fan for ventilation in the makeshift tent-like back room. But yes, the grilled slices of pork (it was boar in Portland–I would have to try them side by side to taste the difference) were rich enough to stand up to the garlicky, tart dressing (citrus played a major role in all the dishes we ordered).

Pok pok black salted crab papaya salad

Papaya salad is where you should feel the heat, and the addition of salted black crab didn't just add serious funk but raised the spice level to a point that burned but didn't obliterate the flavor (the extra-spicy fried chicken at Peaches Hothouse last weekend, for instance, crossed the line into needless pain). I happen to enjoy the hot garbage/festering corpse smell of fermented sea creatures in condiments, which never taste as ominous as they smell,  but even smoothed out by lime juice and sugar this salad still retained a distinctive sludge color.

Pok pok catfish larb

I hate to say it, but sometimes I find larbs boring or overly healthy (probably because I make them with Costco chicken breasts) but with grilled catfish it was perfect because of the fluffy, crispy texture you might typically associate with yam pla duk fu served with shredded green mango instead of larbified with herbs and shallots. The flavors were really bright with lemongrass and mint; galangal sweetness peeked through. This might have been my favorite of the three.

And the most simple thing that garnered attention was the pandan-steeped water at each table. I'll never understand the audience for Mio water enhancers, i.e. people who don't like the taste of water, but if you're going to infuse water, vanilla-jasmine ricey-smelling pandan is the way to go.

Pok Pok NY *127  Columbia St., Brooklyn, NY


Oft-mentioned 2011 places to eat that I could walk to and only feel semi-guilty for never having visited. 2012, maybe?

Bien Cuit
Court Street Grocers (ok, late 2010)
Smith Canteen
Smorgasburg (er, not really walkable but it was mentioned so much it felt nearby)

However, after 7.5 years in Carroll Gardens I finally did try Saul. It's a solid neighborhood restaurant, no flash, not crowding or waiting for tables, serving the local, seasonal food that's become standard practice in Brooklyn. I couldn't help but think of Saul when I read Adam Platt's revised list of 101 restaurants and he knocked The Grocery off with the comment, " Almost everything on Smith Street now seems old."  Fair enough, restaurants that aren't viewed as exciting anymore, but aren't venerable enough to transcend their comforting sameness  (is there a Brooklyn Le Grenouille?) are in danger.

I only had an appetizer and an entree because it felt more appropriate than a tasting menu (and diners who came in after we did, left well before, emphasizing the  casual drop-in for a bite vibe).

Saul sweetbreads

The green beans , corn and squash accompanying the fist-sized portion of sweetbreads almost felt summery.  The fat, creamy tan beans, though, added heft and texture that was similar to the organ meat's soft interior.

Saul squab & farro

Squab was served two ways: rare breast sliced and spindly legs that had been confited. Green faro added a nice chewiness, though with the brussels sprouts, potatoes, and cauliflower, the amount of grain overwhelmed a bit.

Saul pine nut tart

I wanted to try the signature baked Alaska because come on–how often do you get to eat a mound of ice cream frosted in burnished meringue peaks? I'd ordered heavier dishes than I'd realized, though, so went smaller…sort of smaller. The pine nut tart wasn't exactly light, but it satisfied a desire for a caramelly cold weather dessert.

Saul * 140 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

Van Horn

1/2 Van Horn is one those places like Rucola, Strong Place, Court Street Grocers, Brucie, and countless others walkable from my apartment, that get enough chatter without me adding to it (plus, I haven’t eaten at any of them). Maybe you’ve heard of Van Horn’s fried chicken sandwich? Up until last week, I nearly felt like I’d eaten it already.

Van horn chicken sandwichNow I have. It was impressive in person, the lightly battered chicken breast bulging out of its sesame seed bun. The weird thing was that the red cabbage slaw tasted more like shredded beets in that dirty way the root vegetable can. It added a healthy aura too. This was haute Chick-fil-A , not a substitute.

Van horn pbtI prefer my Southern sandwiches to be less virtuous, though, and the PLB oozing with pimento cheese and further greased-up with bacon (then toned back down slightly with a lettuce leaf) was the exact late-ish night snack I had been looking for. The cheese blend was complex and hinted at more than mere cheddar and mayonnaise (in fact, they use garlic aioli).

Van horn hushpuppiesIt’s easy to poke fun at artisanal updates to classics (I’m still surprised that it took a mayonnaise shop to finally push the food world over the edge) but the hushpuppies–super light and nearly creamy inside–were better than anything I was served in North Carolina last month. The honey butter didn’t hurt their case.

By the way, these horrible photos were taken by my horrible phone, which I replaced with the new iPhone two days after this meal. Eventually I cave to most trends (though I’m stating right now that these scrunchy socks will never appear in my drawer or on my person). However, the jury’s still out on apps like instagram and foodspotting (hipstamatic is banned on name alone) and that’s because I’ve been trying to cut down on food photos, not increase my output (and I kind of hate social sharing, despite embracing Twitter and well, blogging before blogs formally existed, even though sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on something indefinable). I’m loathe to give up the SLR for portrait-worthy foodstuffs, even if it makes me a so-called food paparazzi, but I can’t see a camera phone, even a good one, replacing my real camera. Do people actually use both in one setting? I’m afraid of the future now.

Van Horn * 231 Court St., Brooklyn, NY

Em Thai

(spicy section only)

Living on the edge of Carroll Gardens in a corner apartment without a front gate, we rarely get the takeout menus that everyone else in the neighborhood tries warding off with menacing signs. I like reading menus, even pedestrian ones. When we recently found one for Em Thai, the glowing pink restaurant on Smith Street, my first inclination was to toss in the recycling bin, but my attention was grabbed by the large text on the first page, “New recommended spicy real Thai hot alert!! If you cannot eat real spicy food, we do not recommend all items on this menu.” Really?

That week James walked by after work and said the place was empty. Maybe they were desperate, trying new approaches. Friday night (and probably every evening) they were offering 20% off, not a tactic of a thriving restaurant. We had to move in quickly before the place went kaput.

Em thai larb

With each bite of the Brooklyn-style larb my hopes for the promised hot and spicy experience faded. Why is all the local Thai food two-note lime and sugar? The chicken larb from the regular menu was making me very anxious. They did use ground, roasted rice but I don’t think there was even a dusting of chile powder. My insides were jumping around, concerned that the entrees were going to suck. I really hate wasting a good meal.

Em thai pad cha pork

Pad Cha Pork Red Hot, the only dish on the special menu with four stars, came out next. I could see shredded krachai, crushed chiles and tiny branches of green peppercorns. Nice! And the first bite? Fiery in that way that almost tastes dirty, like the receptors in your mouth are being shocked and subsequently dulled as they get used to the feeling. Even though the pork was chunkier than what you might find in Thailand (I recall seeing mostly ground meat or fried pork belly) the flavor is the most Thai I’ve encountered in Brooklyn.

Em thai chile lime fish

The fish looks innocent, but it too was spicy from a coating of pure chopped garlic and chile, with a sweet-tart lime sauce. The steamed filet was flaky and almost too delicate for the garnish. I would’ve loved this with a whole crispy-fried fish, but was trying to balance the pork with a lighter choice.

So, I would stay away from pretty much everything on the menu except for the nine dishes in the special section—that is, unless you like cherries and pineapple with your duck and avocado in your panang curry. I’m definitely going to return for the Spicy Fried Wing Salad—that takes some audacity.

After five years in the neighborhood, I’ve finally found a Thai restaurant that makes me want to return—or at least order takeout—because they’ve done something to differentiate themselves from the slew of Smith Street blahness. Now, I just hope that they stay afloat.

Em Thai * 278 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

Henry Public

1/2 Henry public eagle's dream I was, and still am, more interested in the edibles at recently opened Henry Public. Cocktails are great too, but it's not as if we're suffering from a shortage of old-timey libations in this corner of Brooklyn.

But 11pm on a Friday is no time for sampling bone marrow and these so-called Wilkinsons I keep reading about (not so much the turkey leg sandwich). Too new, too crowded. Instead, I bolstered myself with some Italian salumi and cheeses at Bocca Lupo down the street first.

Almost closer in style to an early 20th century ice cream parlor than saloon, the booths—or at least the bench closer to the entrance—are also bygone era in size. James and I side-by-side were smooshed tighter than when an ample bottomed commuter wedges their way into the subway's middle seat during rush hour. 

This is an Eagle's Dream (gin, lemon juice, sugar, egg white and Creme de Violette). I always order a cocktail that uses Creme de Violette, especially if it's not an Aviation (nothing wrong with the latter—I just like seeing what they can do beyond the classic). True to form, this drink was more silver-gray than the lavender I always crave based on the royal purple liqueur in the bottle. I can't wait for the new Creme d'Yvette in the works (obviously, because I just mentioned it last week).

The drink was like a muted Sweet Tart candy even down to the chalky finish, attributable to the egg white. Pleasant and breezy enough, though I switched to a more straight ahead sweet-tart option, the whisky sour, for my second glass. I do love the small, dark homemade maraschino cherries I've been encountering lately.

Henry Public * 329 Henry St., Brooklyn, NY


Dining at 10pm on a Friday in the Carroll Gardens environs isn’t as easy as you’d think. I wanted Middle Eastern but not Zaytoons, and that still left plenty of Atlantic Street options. Normally, I would head to Waterfalls but they close at 10:30pm. Yemen Café, another favorite, didn’t strike me as a promising candidate either. I felt remiss in never having tried Lebanese Tripoli, which on the surface is the grandest of the lot.

But not so grand that bringing a bottle of Charles Shaw Shiraz caused much shame. Honestly, I thought the bargain wine was a better than decent, fruity compliment to the rich food. We all conceded that it was more likeable than the random red "Vinos de Madrid” we’d been drinking earlier that cost three times as much.

Tripoli appetizer plate

This was an appetizer plate shared among three. There was plenty of everything: salty cheese cubes, olives, hummus, babaganouj, falafel and my favorite, pickled beets.

Tripoli kibbee mishwiye

I was expecting the kibbeh, or as it’s called here, kibbee mishwiye, to be cut in squares like at Waterfalls, but these were dense ovoid lamb patties. Beyond cracked wheat and onions I’m not exactly sure what rounds out the ground meat mix. That’s fine, it’ll keep me coming back for more. I saved the second blob and some salad for later, and with a smear of hummus, it made a great sandwich enrobed in toasted multigrain bread (pita would’ve been ideal but I didn’t have any).

As to my never fully explained phobia of being the last diner in a room, it still came true. I thought we’d be safe with an 11pm closing time but we still ended up victims of lights being turned off and chairs being shuffled. Either I need to get over my irrational concern or find later night restaurants in the neighborhood.

Tripoli * 156 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, NY


You think I would have the good sense to steer away from Cobble Hill Thai food in a restaurant with a DJ booth. I shot down suggestions of Grand Sichuan House and Anselmo’s in the name of open-mindedness and the quest to give seemingly so-so neighborhood restaurants a fair shake. Now, I’m afraid my mind has been shut for good. I had issues (actual screaming matches) with a scary, marathon-running, MBA know-it-all coworker from a few jobs back. She insisted Joya was the best Thai food she’d had in NYC and I wasn’t having any of that nonsense. But I was able to garner one of my favorite quotes that I’m positive I’ve mentioned many times before. Picture this being said in the nastiest, condescending, 5’1 tough office lady voice, “Have you even been to Thailand?!" Ok, you win, Brooklyn pad thai is totally the same as street food in Bangkok. Better, even. And so I went to Joya. Hmm…I don’t know how to say this without coming across racist and/or elitist (and for the record, that dijon kerfuffle is utter crap. My family totally ate Grey Poupon on our backyard-grilled burgers in a blue collar suburb 20+ years ago. It was mainstream then, and certainly is now) but it’s a genuine question  Why is Joya, a mediocre Thai restaurant in a gentrified, overwhelmingly white neighborhood, filled to capacity with Long Islanders (this wasn’t a judgmental inference based on the usage of dawtah and cah [that would be daughter and car], the two loud tables I was sandwiched between were talking specifically about Long Island and how far they’d driven into Brooklyn) and well, black people? I’m not all “Stay out of my neighborhood.” Frankly, you can have it. It’s more, “Why are you coming here for this restaurant?” Do they know something I don’t? Everyone seemed to be having a good time, so who am I to ruin their fun with my killjoy spirit?And the food was barely passable. I didn’t even bother with photos. The chili basil mussels we started with were fine enough but the stir fries and curries were flat and flavorless, even more so than your typical Americanized Thai. I like “bad” Mexican and Chinese, but I can’t abide bad Thai because it doesn’t even translate into craveable greasy junk food (hard shell tacos, sweet and sour pork) it just ends up pale, bland and sad. I tried to take the when in Rome approach, and maybe after a few glasses of Yellowtail Reisling, the fortyish woman next to me who’d clearly been downing cheap white wine all night, would cease hurting my spinal column with her shrillness. But there’s no ignoring deafening shrieks about farts, queefs and explicit sex acts (now, I really will get blocked by work filters) punctuated by maniacal laughter. There’s a time and a place, people. And this is coming from a loudmouth who likes to drink.I freakin’ love New Jersey but Long Island scares the crap out of me. And now, so does Joya. No matter who tries bullying you into thinking this is good Thai food, do not listen. This is no time to be open minded. In an unprecedented move, I am downgrading the two shovel rating naively bestowed on the restaurant in 2003, when I was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, to one shovel. (5/15/09)

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Char No. 4

1/2 The tickly smell of smoke did hit me when I entered Char No. 4 but it wasn't an assault. I'm afraid that I've become desensitized to the strong fragrance due to periodic household experiments with a mini smoker. Venting the fumes towards an open door helps but keeping the apartment from smelling like a piece of jerky is nearly impossible.

I chose to use my experience with smoked food as fodder for my Spanish class response to "What did you do last week?" a question I stumble through every Thursday. But it only caused my teacher to ask if it was normal to keep a smoker in one's apartment and if that didn't bother the neighbors (he lives directly above Caputo's and says that smoke wafts into his apartment–what do they smoke in house, I wonder?). Well, as long as those neighbors continue to use the tiny foyer, a.k.a. the ten feet in front of my door as a stroller parking lot, I don’t care if the entire building reeks like a giant campfire. But I couldn't say this in Spanish because I didn't know the word for stroller or foyer and besides, it's tough to convey humor coupled with disdain in my painfully slow, dimwitted second language style.

So, post-11pm is a good bet if you insist on weekend dining since that's when the ratio of bar drinkers to back room sit-downers begins to shift. The restaurant may look mobbed from the street but it's just whisky sippers crowding the space in the front.

Char no. 4 bourbon

With 100+ choices ranging from one ounce of Fighting Cock for $3 to a $100 portion of Old Grommes 121 Proof, there’s something at all price points (none of that $120 per glass MacCutcheon Scotch). If I were feeling more flush I would experiment a bit more. As it stood, I tried a two-ounce pour of Woodford Reserve. Not so adventurous.

Char no. 4 fried pork nuggets

I was most interested in the fried pork nuggets and they weren’t disappointing. The soft centers contrasted with the crispy surface of the cubes like a meaty petit four. What they refer to as Char No. 4 hot sauce seemed like Sriracha to me, not that I mind since it’s my condiment of choice for nearly all fried food. Something about the heat cuts the fattiness.

Char no. 4 cheddar cheese curds

While I expected greatness from the above pork, I actually preferred the fried cheddar cheese curds (once the fried food floodgates have opened there's no stopping). The firm chewiness worked even better with the crusty exterior. I assumed the creamy (bucking that hot with fatty trend) lightly spiced dipping sauce was remoulade but it’s described as pimento sauce. That’s a lot of orange on one plate.

Char no. 4 pork sandwich

The city is rife with pulled pork sandwiches, so many that I’m not always sure I should bother. They can't all be special. I do think this one was above average because of the whole package. The meat was moist, more chunky than shredded, and mixed with a barbecue sauce that tasted vaguely creamy and mustardy. The bun was toasted, which is very important to me, and the pickled onions and peppers added just enough heat and tartness. The baked beans weren’t bad either.

Char no. 4 smoked chicken

I shied away from the proper entrees because after a few ounces of whiskey priced in the double digits, the bill adds up. James wanted to try the smoked chicken, though, since it’s a meat we haven’t attempted in our smoker yet. Wanting to learn more about the preparation, he piped up, “I had a question?” to which our waitress responded a bit defensively, “The pink?” Clearly she was tired of explaining the poultry's doneness despite the deceptively rosy color. Uh no, just the details on how they keep their chicken juicy and not overly smoked. The answer, as it turned out, was using a pickle brine, and smoking at 225 for one hour. We’ll test it out.

Char No. 4 * 196 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

Clover Club

While I would’ve been content sitting at home with a Hitachino red rice ale watching bad SCI FI monster schlock like Wyvern, around midnight I decided a Valentine’s drink was necessary even if it was technically the 15th by then.

I’d never been to Clover Club, having lost interest after a failed mid-week attempt right after they opened. They’re about seven months in, right? Time for a spot check. The bar looked full from the outside but there were a few open two-seaters. Perfect.

Clover club improved whiskey cocktail

I like my spirits brown—and manly, apparently. Only dudes had this drink in front of them. I don’t like sweet beverages and The Improved Whiskey Cocktail was a fine example of this dry genre. Rye, Maraschino, the requisite absinthe (is there a cocktail that doesn’t either employ the once forbidden spirit or elderflower liquor?) and a dash of bitters created a bitter, herbal cherry blend. The massive cylinder ice cube could either be construed as thoughtful measure to ensure little dilution or as a way to make small amounts of alcohol look more plentiful. Glass half-empty or half-full?

Clover club southside fizz

The Southside Fizz, not mine, kind of riffed on a Pimm’s Cup with cucumber, mint and gin and club soda. I know there isn’t any mint in a Pimm’s Cup but similar idea, and with a big fat leaf, no less.

Clover club cheese plate
I couldn’t tell you what the three cheeses on the cheese plate were because our server was completely unintelligible and I didn’t have the heart to make him repeat himself. We originally tried ordering something with bacon (I can’t even remember what) but it turned out we’d incorrectly been given the brunch menu.

The namesake Clover Club cocktail (gin, lemon, dry vermouth and raspberry syrup) and a ginger cocktail that I drank but can find no evidence of online (I don’t understand eating and drinking establishment that set up websites, then never add anything beyond a homepage).

Clover club namesake & ginger cocktails
By 1pm the large room had thinned out considerably. Unsurprising, since South Brooklyn is sleepy that way. Yet I shouldn’t have spoken so soon because within ten minutes of each other two giant groups showed up and commandeered rows of tables on both sides of us, pinning me in claustrophobically. It’s like when a subway car is 20% full and two people decided to inexplicably sandwich you on the bench. 

So, yes I scoff at the Cobble Hill elderly who can’t stay out past 1am, then I become the
fuddy duddy when surrounded by raucousness. It didn’t really matter; two $11 cocktails is my financial limit anyway. We moved on to Brooklyn Social where it’s not exactly rock bottom either but at least I had a settee to myself.

Clover Club * 210 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY


After hearing that Patois, one of the Smith Street pioneers, was closing this weekend, James made reservations for Friday. Of course, now it seems that they will simply relocate across the street, but at least I had the opportunity to try one of the many eateries along South Brooklyn’s restaurant row that I normally walk past without a glance.

And Patois was very much what I expected: charming in a rustic cozy way (who can resist a roaring fireplace in the dead of winter?) with serviceable food. I can see why a French bistro would be something to celebrate in 1997. Now, there’s a lot of competition. Restaurants in this Gallic vein can be found all over Smith Street (Provence en Boite, Café Luluc, Robin du Bois, Bar Tabac) and environs (Jolie, Pit Stop, Quercy).

Patois pate

The slab of pate (on the right) was creamy, spreadable and more memorable than the coarser country-style slice beneath it. The accompaniments–cornichons, grainy mustard and tart vinaigrette–were all sharp, almost too much so. A stronger sweet component would’ve added balance. And now that I'm looking at the photo, I realize there are blobs of what must've been a fruity syrup yet I don't recall tasting it at all.

Patois steak frites

I loved the fries in my steak frites. The medium-rare beef was also well cooked. The only detraction was the cornstarch-thickened poivre sauce. We were sitting next to a drafty windowed door (completely my own choice. I initially liked the less hemmed in corner table. It wasn’t until we got settled that I realized how much of the frigid air was seeping through the wall behind me) so it didn’t take long for the thin peppery sauce to cool off, exposing a gluey consistency. Not that this deterred me from taking home leftovers.

Patois financier

The financier was larger than I had expected and not overly sweet. The insides were springy and studded with bits of melted chocolate, the outer edges golden and firm. What sold me was the scoop of coffee ice cream, though. I tend to choose based on extras not the feature.

Everything at Patois was perfunctory but lacking in small harmless ways. I left without a strong feeling one way or the other. I’ll be curious to see how the new location will differ, if at all, though I don’t know that I will return in the immediate future. It might be worth it for the mid-week prix fixe.

Patois * 255 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY