When the first Dutch settlers arrived in New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan it did not take them long to discover the rich farmland just across the East River in an area they named “Breukelen” after a town in the Netherlands. Today the food of Brooklyn is still a draw for those in Manhattan and points far beyond.
It used to be that Manhattan was the place to find the “latest thing”, especially in food. Restaurants aplenty could be found to feed its 1.6 million inhabitants, serving any cuisine you could imagine. But as rents went through the roof, experimental restaurants were priced out, so ambitious chefs looked across the East River to open their own restaurants.
Traveling abroad, the Brooklyn “brand” has been gathering steam for some years now, and mentioning “Brooklyn” summons images of hipsters making cool things from scratch. Being a proud resident of the borough, I am always a bit surprised to hear people’s impressions. But finding the Brooklyn that the world imagines is a bit more difficult than one might think. For every uber-cool workshop, bar or shop, there are acres of old Brooklyn. But that makes the discovery of great places all the more special.
Because Brooklyn is the ultimate American melting pot, it’s the perfect place to experience the best of contemporary American dining. It’s an easy place to blend Latin, Asian, and Mediterranean dishes with food-pickling techniques and fresh produce from nearby farms in New York and New Jersey. (Unfortunately, those Breukelen Farms have long ago given way to blocks and blocks of brownstones.)
1 Delaware & Hudson
We start our Brooklyn food adventure at Delaware & Hudson, right in the heart of Williamsburg. Chef Patti Jackson, a longtime New York restaurant veteran, opened here, her first solo endeavor, in 2014. Originally trained as a pastry chef, here she takes on the whole menu of innovative baked savory dishes and our favorite, her pretzel rolls.
Delaware & Hudson is named after the North-East transportation system of the same name which included a network of canals and railroads in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The network was used to transport Pennsylvania coal to New York City and points along the way, and Patti’s great grandfather worked for the Delaware & Hudson Railway.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, early on Patti started collecting the out-of-print American cookbooks that she would come across in yard sales and antique stores. Her passion for the literature has made her a bit of a kitchen historian. And in researching the different dishes that came to America with successive waves of immigrants, she tracked the evolution of the national cuisine as new Americans adapted their cooking techniques to the produce they found here in their new home.
You will likely find an eclectic selection when you visit. Depending on the season, Patti’s dishes may feature shrimp pate, lamb, meatballs, crab cakes, or potato latkes, all prepared to harmonize perfectly with her unique take on traditional cooking. In this epicenter of hipster Brooklyn, it is refreshing to dine on food grounded in such solid craftsmanship.
In talking to Patti we found we both have a common love for cottage cheese. You just don’t find it served much in restaurants these days. I am glad that Delaware & Hudson might bring this back along with all the rest of Patty’s classic American menu.
2 Four & Twenty Blackbirds
The dessert pie in a pan is a uniquely American dish, a claim proved out by the phrase “as American as apple pie”. But not just apples. I would argue that all manner of fruit, nut and even vegetable-inspired pies bear testament to a national taste for sweet (or savory) things encased in pastry.
But the pie itself is not originally American, at all: just something adopted, with a twist added, and claimed for the nation. In fact it is thought that the Greeks were the original innovators of pie, discovering that mixing flour and water, wrapping it around meat and baking it over a fire, made for a satisfying dish. In medieval England, the “Pye” gained popularity through its portability. Eventually, the idea made its way to America with the pilgrims where, with the addition of a shallow metal pan and apple filling, it found its American form.
Now you can find a decent pie pretty much anywhere in America, and Brooklyn is no exception. But we are not interested in just “decent” pies. We want great pies. And for that we need to head over to the “shores” of the Gowanus Canal. There, sisters Melissa and Emily Elsen of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, daily deliver a batch of fresh pies to satisfy the pie eating public in New York and beyond.
Melissa and Emily hail from the rural farm town of Hecla in South Dakota. Their mother and aunt run a popular diner there, so for Melissa and Emily, working in the kitchen is in their DNA.
Their grandmother Liz was a great pie maker and sparked a passion early on in the sisters. After coming to New York to explore their careers, they finally decided to draw on their roots in the family diner, and the love of pies instilled by their grandmother, to create a business of their own. In 2010, Four & Twenty Blackbirds was born. And pies have been flying out of their kitchen ever since.
The pie menu changes seasonally but has some popular favorites on the board year-round. For instance, the salted caramel apple pie, my personal favorite, the bright green matcha pie, a recent and very popular addition, and the bittersweet chocolate pecan pie, have emerged as regular favorites. You can be confident that your cravings for those will be consistently satisfied any day of the year.
Emily and Melissa also love to share their pie-making skills so they recently published a book to get the word out on how to make great pies. Their popular book, “How to make the perfect pie”, is so popular that it has been republished in French — it looks like the French are catching on to the American version of fruit in pastry.
The biggest pie day in America is Thanksgiving, and Four & Twenty Blackbirds prepares over 4,000 pies for the day. When the day comes don’t forget to put your order in. It will be just like grandmother makes!
3 The Finch
In the quiet neighborhood of Clinton Hill, on the ground level of a repurposed brownstone, Chef Gabe McMackin opened The Finch in 2014. Having lived in the neighborhood for several years, and with a surge of new restaurants opening on this side of the East River, it was an easy choice for Gabe to establish Finch’s home nearby his own.
The menu is unpretentious, with an emphasis on detail. The fresh, seasonal, modern-American dishes bring together surprising flavor combinations, and are a feast for the eye as well as the palate. My favorite is Finch’s squid ink tagliatelle with shrimp, brussels sprouts, and basil, lemon and chili — one of Gabe’s signature dishes. It’s tasty, and with Gabe’s plating, just a beautiful dish.
The room features clean lines, with contrasting glimpses of the building’s past. Exposed brick and old plaster walls are punctuated with modern oak benches and a collection of artwork harkening back to the brownstone’s heyday.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Plenty of neighborhood regulars show up for dinner or a quick drink at the bar and a small dish. The kitchen is open and in the center of the room, letting you feel as if you are part action.
Rustic comfort, great service, and beautiful food. The Finch really gets it right.
A compact and perfectly designed neighborhood restaurant, Olmstead is the creation of Chef Greg Baxtrom. In contrast to many new upstart restaurants in Brooklyn that put on a good show but don’t deliver, Greg’s Olmsted is the real thing: great and interesting food, served with passion in a dining room that is built to last. All good signs of a restaurant that has the legs to go the distance.
Knowing a bit about Frederick Olmsted, I thought maybe there’s a garden component to the restaurant or possibly a tie-in between the cuisine and legendary landscape designer — maybe something to do with a constructed nature, manipulated for the public’s delight. As it turns out it’s both. The “Olmsted” ethos is integral to both the food and the space.
Chef Baxtrom’s creations are in concept and planning driven by the seasons and bending the fresh produce available on a given day to a selection of highly creative and flavorful dishes. Good landscape design does the same thing. It just appeals more to the sense of sight rather than taste. Frederick Olmsted would have picked up on the similarities right away.
Taking the goal of “local” produce to its ultimate expression, Greg even has a small garden on site, which produces enough to supply about one dish a day. But that small garden is not used just for the food. Designed by Ian Rothman, Greg’s long-time friend and collaborator, it is integral to the dining experience. In the summer months, you can enjoy the garden, with simple wood benches in the midst of the raised beds.
The third leg of the stool at Olmsted is the bar. Complete with its own beverage director and tea connoisseur, Jeff Ruiz, you will be delighted by Jeff’s deep knowledge of teas, either in the form of a soothing hot drink or refreshing cocktail.
Frederick Olmsted was once described as ”a genius of place”, based on the amazing parks he designed for Manhattan and Brooklyn. He believed that every place has a spiritual and ecological quality. Greg and his team have made a place true to Olmsted’s ambitions. Were he alive today he would certainly be a regular.
1. Delaware & Hudson: For information, reservations, hours and directions go to: www.delawareandhudson.com. If you show up last minute and can’t get a table, check out Delaware & Hudson’s The Tavern Next Door. It offers a great a la carte menu.
2. Four & Twenty Blackbirds has two locations, The Pie Shop and an outlet at the Brooklyn library. For information about hours and directions go to: www.birdsblack.com
3. The Finch: For reservations, hours and directions go to: www.thefinchnyc.com
4. Olmsted: For reservations, hours and directions go to: www.olmstednyc.com
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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