We’ve been fascinated for several months about the strange entrepreneurial magic that’s been brewing on Third Avenue in Gowanus. Formerly a sleepy crawl of vacant storefronts and assorted social clubs; of late, there have been several really excellent restaurants, cafes and small shops that have taken root up and down the strip. The latest place is called Runner & Stone. I had to look it up, but the name’s origin refers to the two stones used to grind grain in a traditional mill, the runner stone and the base stone. Wikipedia aside, what’s more interesting is that the kitchen is manned by a fairly dynamic duo: the former chef de cuisine at Blue Ribbon Brooklyn and the head baker from Per Se. I knew I wanted to try it but I’ll admit to being confused: What the hell is it? A bakery? A restaurant? A café? We went last weekend for brunch, and as it happens Runner & Stone is all those things. The interior of the restaurant is bright and minimalist, which is perfect because there’s little to distract you from the first thing you see when you walk in: the baked goods. Jesus, dude. I’m not a big sweets guy but what was on display looked so over-the-top we decided to be fatties and order what we decided to call a “pastry course.” We had an apple turnover, an almond croissant, and a cheese danish. They were honestly all varying degrees of perfection, but the almond croissant was hands down the most ridiculous thing ever. Please order that. But we expected them to be good, so no surprise. The surprise was the remainder of the brunch. I had the eggs Benedict over fish cake wrapped in pancetta. Take a gander at this plate. The eggs were perfectly cooked, the hollandaise was light and frothy and the fish cake/pancetta thing was crispy, salty and amazing. I sopped it all up with their fresh baguettes and creamy house-cultured butter. Pure friggin’ breakfast joy. One other note– get their hash browns. Courtney had them with her fluffy omelette, but I coveted them. Go ahead and double order them. And three cheers for Runner & Stone, we’ll be back next time for dinner!
For years out and about in the East Village, I’ve noticed this curious little florist hanging off the side of the magazine and smoke shop at the corner of East 6th and Second Avenue. I’ve seen it open during the day as well as when I’m coming home pretty late into the night. Like midnight late…which is not really that late. BUT, what florist stays open until midnight?!? Sunny’s Florist does and its proprietor, Sun Ja Hwong, is kind of brilliant at what she does. Lesa, Lu and I were walking home from dinner at Mermaid (fail) Saturday night and, for the first time, we picked up this bundle of loveliness for a whopping 10 bucks. Score!According to The Times, Ms. Hwong sees herself as the “mother of flowers” and it shows. This lady isn’t about the over-the-top ridiculous floral concoctions you’d see at your cousin Gino’s wedding in Cliffside Park. Nope. She keeps it low key and super tasteful with exquisitely put together arrangements of roses, hyacinths, hydrangeas and tulips mixed in with some gorgeous and green leafy things. And the kicker is she plants a few buds in each bouquet, so while other batches of flowers you’ve picked up for your darlin’ over the years would be rotting in the trash after a day or two, Ms. Hwong’s remain a stunning, week-long reminder to your sweetheart of how goddamn excellent you are for choosing a gift as ridiculously beautiful and smart-looking as this. So next time you’re close, go buy something at Sunny’s Florist. Totally worth it, even if you have to sidetrack for a block or three.
We are only a few days into 2013, and I’m wondering if I didn’t already have potentially one of the best meals of the year last week at a place called La Vara in Cobble Hill. A relatively new restaurant from the couple behind Manhattan’s Txikito, at face value it appears to be merely a sweet little tapas restaurant but there’s a unique geo-culinary fusion being applied in the kitchen that seriously works its ass off. What I’ve read is that La Vara seeks to explore the legacy of food that was created as a result of the Jews and Muslims who shared the Iberian Peninsula with Christians for centuries. What I discovered is that this legacy exploration business is a very, very tasty thing.Courtney and I ordered a whole bunch of plates, and there was honestly nary a clunker in the bunch. If you are fortunate to go, here are just a few of the plates we tried that we deemed must-orders:
- The bowl of crunchy paprika fried chick-peas. Compulsively munchable and a fun starter.
- The lightly fried tiny artichokes with anchovy aioli. This one provoked dueling forks for the final bites.
- The salt cod salad. They cure their own fish in the kitchen and this beautiful plate was bright tasting, citrusy and delicious. Never had a salt cod salad and I had no idea what to expect, and it was way better than I could have imagined. This dish was a total star.
- The suckling pig (a special.) I could have eaten a whole meal of just this… honeyed cracklin’ skin over tender and juicy pork paired with a delicious chimichurri sauce. Loved it.
One other standout worth mentioning; the service at La Vara really shone. The whole staff was so genuinely friendly, we couldn’t get over it. You know you’ve been living in New York City a long time when authentically pleasant service is noteworthy, but here we are. I realize this sounds like a love letter, and maybe we went there on a particularly good night, and it did happen to be my birthday– but this just seemed like a happy restaurant and they are frankly doing everything right. Great food, terrific vibe. Go. Eat there!
Everybody knows that Luke’s Lobster makes one of the best, if not THE best lobster roll in NYC, but last week they rolled out something a little different. The Lobster Grilled Cheese. I was in there to grab one of those sweet and amazing rolls when I saw a fellow patron’s basket with something grilled and cheesy inside. I politely inquired what it was only to find out that they had just put this looks-like-mom-made-it creation on the winter menu earlier that day. I went for it.Oh man, this sandwich was amazing! They take Luke’s succulent lobster meat and some Gruyère cheese then grill them up between two good old-fashioned buttery slices of white bread. This decidedly low/high brow combination makes for one hell of a party in your mouth. I had mine with a cup of their delicious seafood chowder and a Maine Sarsaparilla Soda and I’m seriously craving that combination again as I write these words. I’m not going to trade the Lobster Grilled Cheese every time for my cherished Lobster Roll at Luke’s, but I am certainly going to alternate while it’s on their winter menu. And if you haven’t tried Luke’s Lobster, you must. They keep it simple, fresh and so damn good in everything they do. And, goddamn! They are up to nine locations now! Seems like they just opened their first on East 7th Street yesterday.
Although I developed a fond relationship with the lady in midtown who gave me haircuts for five years, I never really felt like it was “my place.” Maybe it was because it was a “salon.” Perhaps you know the kind… Big framed pictures on the wall of various people alternately sporting Cybill Shepard ‘dos and Rod Stewart coifs and the whole place appears to be lit by klieg lights. Where all the sinks resemble scalloped peach seashells and the people cutting hair speak loudly in Russian to one another. A place where Anita Baker reigns supreme over the hi-fi. And not a trace of irony to be found anywhere. But when I moved to Brooklyn two years ago, I needed to find a closer place to get my periodic trim. On a lark, I stopped in Persons of Interest on Smith Street, and realized what I’d been missing. The chill factor.For starters, the décor is pleasantly minimalist with a little 70’s vibe. Maybe it’s the wood paneling, I don’t know. They’ve got a rotation of great music piped in, a stack of great alternative lit magazines (and the odd vintage Playboy) and a there’s green metal cooler off to the side, fully stocked with ice cold beer and sodas. I guess it’s sort of like a cool rec room where people cut hair. Anyway, I always try to get there early. There’s not too many occasions these days where I can quietly sit and drink a beer, read a magazine, listen to some good b-sides… I think what they call this behavior “relaxing?” Yes. It’s so nice to relax, and you can relax at Persons of Interest. And thankfully, they also give a kick-ass haircut and shave. If you go for cut, ask for Tony. He’s the man.
Let me come clean and say I’m guilty of paying whatever the going rate is for the promise of an amazing burger. What’s the going rate these days? $12? $18? $25? OK, fine, if we’re talking about a transcendent beef experience. But I have also learned that an open mind pays culinary dividends in this town, so when I saw the long line of people for the burger truck in the filthy covered parking lot of the Home Depot in Red Hook, my interest was instantly piqued.Sure, the backdrop is as shitty and gritty as a parking lot can get, but the fact is New Yorkers simply cannot resist a line. It is pure catnip to us. A line implies that there’s something great to be had, and if you’re not in line you are missing out. But eating in the Home Depot parking lot is not something to take lightly so I observed the line for a while. Most of the customers in line seemed to be ordering the same thing: a “cheeseburger with everything.” And when it came to be my turn to give the man in the window my order, I went with the consensus (you saw that coming) and then stepped to the side out of traffic to wait. 5 minutes later, I was handed a large tinfoil wrapped bomb. They have a picnic table set up in the neighboring parking space and as pastoral as that sounds I opted to go eat this thing sitting in my parked car. I never said this was a story about dignity.It was delightfully awesome. They toasted the sesame seed bun nicely, and the burger was a handmade patty, juicy and tender with some nice char from the broiler. “With everything” apparently includes fresh shredded lettuce, some dill pickles and old school American cheese slices. They also pre-ketchupped it for me. It was a tasty and satisfying burger, and set me back all of $3.50. What a surprise! I came for the weather stripping, and I left full and happy. I love New York.
Over the past few years there has been a cupcake war raging on this long and skinny slab of mayhem on which I write. I still see lines around the block outside one over-blown West Village institution that serves up these little round soldiers. I have had many of them in my day and most are ho-hum. Whatever. Fine. BUT, there is one establishment that makes a cupcake that literally blasted my boots off the first time I dug in. Ladies and gentleman, may I present to you the Pistachio Cupcake from Sugar Sweet Sunshine.It is (or, usually, they are) the best confectionary creation I have ever stuffed in this flapper of mine. Seriously. It’s ridiculous. The cake is perfectly…I’m about to say it…moist and tastes almost as if you’re downing a bowl of that amazing instant green pudding your mom used to whip up when you needed something sugary. And then you have the perfectly buttery “Moose” on top with a sprinkle of genuine roasted pistachios. The combination makes for a wonderfully nostalgic and sublime culinary journey that makes my taste buds and eyeballs spaz in unison every time I enter this warm and welcoming cake shop. If you’re not into those little green nuts, every other cupcake at Sugar Sweet squarely slams the competition so make sure to try them all. They also have incredible cakes, pies and puddings that all feel as if they just came out of Grandma’s oven. No highbrow here. Just damn good down home darn sweet cooking.
I don’t know why, but The Cardinal and I have been like two opposing magnets since it opened a while back on East 4th Street near Avenue B. Every time we planned to go, something else got in the way and a down-home southern meal at this simple and warm charmer got thwarted. Well, we finally connected late last week.Lesa and I headed there early with one of the kids and bellied up to the window seat that looks out over the neighborhood’s minions coming home from a long day’s work. It’s a great seat if you can get it. To start we tried the Pimento Cheese on crispy toast and Blue Crab Hush Puppies. They were both insanely good and plentiful. Between the three of us, we were basically full when we got done with those, not knowing what was in store. Just as we were all mentally cramming our downed food into the corners of our bellies, the massive main courses arrived with the oh-shit-we-over-ordered sides. The 10-year-old had a damn good lookin’ cheeseburger with hand-cut fries and bubbly mac and cheese in front of him. Lesa had a smoked-last-night pulled pork sandwich with a pile of creamy slaw on top and a bowl of swiney greens on the side. Both served perfectly…on a Martin’s Potato Roll. Delectable!I just about got cow shock when my plate arrived. The Strip Steak was perfectly cooked medium rare with a fabulously crunchy and tasty dark crust on the outside. I’m guessing it was about 24 ounces. I ordered the mashed potatoes and corn and tomato succotash for my sides and both were just as they should be at a joint like this one…straight up, simple and wonderful. We rolled out of the Cardinal after about an hour of stuffing ourselves figuring we over-ordered by about $75. Oh well, it was worth it. Next time we’ll skip lunch before we go.
Before kids, before meaningful responsibilities and certainly before this forum of ours moved from infancy to toddlerdom, there was a cozy and rustic tavern tucked away in a nook at the crossroads of Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Many long afternoons were spent at the perfectly worn zinc bar with great friends and loves nibbling on Devils on Horseback and Smoked Trout, sipping on French 75’s. Sadly, that tavern was too long forgotten by this writer and unfairly so.Freemans at the end of Freeman Alley just off Rivington is back on the radar and it’s as great as it has ever been. No matter how many times you’ve been, Freemans always feels like a find…like you really have to know the underground byways and secret handshakes of this town. When you enter the blue door at the end of the graffiti adorned lane, you are greeted with what they describe as this “rugged clandestine Colonial American tavern” with walls loaded with peeling paint and vintage taxidermy. The menu follows the same mantra, “simple, rustic and inspired by early American traditions.”For brunch, the Piedmontese Cheeseburger is amazing and the Smoked Trout is second only to the ones I smoke at home…but, I digress. The Roast Pork Sandwich is one that also must be tried with its blanket of thinly sliced pickled zucchini and garlic mayonnaise piled between two slices of grilled peasant bread. Dinner brings other fantastic goodies. To start, go for the House Made Country Paté, the Hot Artichoke Dip or Steamed PEI Mussels. For the main, their Whole Grilled Brook Trout is always a winner as is whatever their Daily Market Fish happens to be. Or for something a little meatier, go for the Grilled Pork Loin or Colorado Lamb Stew.Whichever your culinary poison, wash it all down with one of their classic cocktails or traditional old-world wines. If you’ve never been to Freemans, go now. If it’s been a while, let this serve as your reminder. If you go all the time, call me an idiot and have a nice day.
With things being totally upside down lately, sometimes what you want is a little return to normalcy. Since we were both home from work today, Courtney and I were craving some comfort food and a cozy spot for lunch so we hit up Boca Lupo in Cobble Hill. That place is the terrific antidote for a crazy world. I particularly love the feel of the restaurant’s interior: it’s been opened up with floor to ceiling windows that make it bright and cheerful, and it affords you with a really nice view of the gorgeous Henry Street brownstones.And the food was top notch — never been there for lunch before, but I’ll be back. We had perfectly crusty paninis for the main course (I loved mine: sausage, broccoli rabe, taleggio & ‘shrooms) but I think next time we’ll make an entire meal just from their inventive and delicious bruschetta menu. We shared three that were amazing, and this was our ranking in order of their awesomeness: 1) Creamy mushroom, leek & truffle cheese, 2) Butternut squash & gorgonzola, 3) Goat cheese, eggplant, jalapeño spice raisins.It was really good to have a few laughs and enjoy some solid chow. Here’s hoping all of you out there get some good food and drink this weekend, and let’s all hope next week is little more back to normal.