Once Manhattan’s poor neighbour, famed for its Italian restaurants, Brooklyn’s restaurant scene these days is less one-trick pony, more Champion the wonder horse of culinary and cultural cross-pollination. (You can check out our guide to the best restaurants in Manhattan here)
Ballsy Bushwick – one of its up-and-coming areas – might not have an organic supermarket yet (Williamsburg and Gowanus both have branches of Whole Foods Market, the latter’s complete with solar panels, rooftop beer garden and free Friday urban agriculture greenhouse tours) but, among the not-yet-gentrified warehouses and factories, it’s peppered with gourmet pitstops.
Hops and Hocks, for one, is a craft beer store, growler filling station (a growler is a reusable beer bottle or flagon) and charcuterie with gourmet sandwiches to go and beer, cold-brew coffee and kombucha on tap.
It was one of the places recommended by my Airbnb host, Jamie, an artist by day, bartender by night and gardener at the weekends. Her backyard is a tangle of vines and vegetables: carrots, tomatoes, grapes, you name it. Staying with a food-obsessed local is a great shortcut to the area’s off-the-beaten-track gems. I took her advice, breakfasting at the Bushwick Bakery and lunching at Roberta’s Pizza.
Behind Roberta’s graffitied walls is a joint with attitude and one mean pizza oven. I tucked into Roberta’s ‘Famous Original’ the crispy base smeared with rich tomato, creamy mozzarella, caciocavallo, parmigiano, chilli flakes and oregano. It looked plain but packed a punch.
I’d moved to Bushwick from downtown Brooklyn and the boutique Nu Hotel. The hotel is within walking distance of Brooklyn Bridge and the neighbourhoods of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Park Slope. And Gowanus.
Gritty Gowanus has, for years, been an industrial backwater and culinary black-spot but it’s now attracting entrepreneurial chefs and producers such as Chad Shaner whose restaurant Freek’s Mill looks back, with his farm-to-table ethos, to the time when the local canal was the Gowanus Creek, a tidal inlet with natural oyster beds surrounded by farmland.
Ample Hills Creamery is a few steps away for ice cream in a pretzel-, gluten-free-, chocolate chip- or M&M-cone. My choice? ‘It Came From Gowanus’, the saltiest chocolatiest, most orange-scented, brownie- and hazelnut-packed ice cream I’ve ever tasted. If you need a reason to traipse across the bridge to Brooklyn, here it is.
Another is Frekrik Berselius. Williamsburg is Brooklyn’s chicest neighbourhood and close to the flag-flying summit of its culinary heights. Among our favourite Williamsburg restaurants is Aska Berselius’ New Nordic restaurant opened in summer 2016 and is not just worth the trip across the bridge from Manhattan; it’s worth crossing the Atlantic for.
Berselius is Swedish (his sister, Michaela, is Edinburgh chef Tom Kitchin’s wife). The large, square dining room is darkly dramatic, the walls, ceiling and ablecloths black, the floors wooden, the columns industrial.
The 19-course tasting menu started with a bread basket topped with a giant rye crispbread (Berselius’ grandmother’s recipe) and served with cultured butter and salty, molten pork fat. Next came a langoustine wrapped in hay-like burnt chamomile and sprinkled with nasturtiums, a pungent langoustine-head sauce spooned over it. Another dish of razor clams with juniper oil and pine beamed me straight to a fir tree-backed beach and thundering ocean, while a delicate scallop dish with a fragrant elderflower broth was exquisite.
Aska is the Swedish word for ash and the signature dish of lamb heart is a mound of black powder. It is plain to the point of unappealing – cured lamb’s heart cooked in straw, charred and pulverised to a fine powder. But beneath the mound of meaty black cinders is a sweet, nutty jerusalem artichoke cream – an, eye-popping surprise, it’s plate-scrapingly delicious and proof that you should never judge by appearances.
A mention has to go to the sommelier, who matched a crab dish with a red wine from Croatia (the Bura vineyards on the Dalmatian coast) that smelt of anchovies. A fishy red wine might sound laughably wrong but was seriously right.
The next day at the Brooklyn Winery, I nosed an old-vine zinfandel that conjured up strawberry jam. Brian Leventhal and John Stires gave up lucrative day jobs to found a winery in an old dairy in Williamsburg and it’s doing so well they’re expanding, opening another near Washington DC.
Not many grapes grow in New York (they should contact my Airbnb host) but with the help of winemaker Conor McCormack they source grapes from across the States. You can book a tour and enjoy a tasting in the wine bar with its tables and chairs made from old church pews.
Perched at the bar, I sipped an unoaked chardonnay that was light and bright with nectarine on the nose – more like a sauvignon blanc and perfect for lunch-in-the-sun quaffing – and that jammy zinfandel while nibbling a moreish fig and ricotta crostini and East Coast cheese plate with honey, pumpkin seed brittle and candied walnuts.
Williamsburg is full of restaurants, from Mccarren Park Farmers’ Market to Smorgasburg (brooklynflea.com), a Saturday waterfront fixture with food stalls selling everything from doughnuts to oysters, New Orleans po’ boys to popcorn.
Gourmet stores range from the Bedford Cheese Shop to Mast Brothers, which offers factory tours and chocolate tastings (don’t miss the goat’s milk flavour), and Zen-like tea emporium Puerh Brooklyn, which stocks 70 hand-picked teas and exquisite teaware.
It’s no accident that the Museum of Food and Drink is based in Brooklyn. What started life as a nomadic exhibition travelling around New York with a cereal-puffing machine to educate the public about contemporary food issues found its permanent home in an old warehouse in Williamsburg at the end of 2015. “There are so many established food cultures here, from Italian restaurants to Polish to Dominican,” founder Peter Kim explains. “Brooklyn is a microcosm of New York.”
For my last supper, however, it had to be Italian – and not just any Italian restaurants. Chef Missy Robbins’ Lilia restaurant is one of the hottest tables in town. Try the sheep’s milk cheese-filled agnolotti with honey, saffron and dried tomatoes and you’ll understand why.
HOW TO DO IT
Return flights from Gatwick to New York JFK cost from £298. Double rooms at Nu Hotel start from $199, b&b. More info: explorebk.com
Written by Lucy Gillmore