From the smoky, low-lit bars of the beat generation, Estella Shardlow leaves the cradle of ‘the village’ and crosses the East River into the hipster hangouts of Brooklyn for a bite to eat…
Small plates, seasonality, exposed brickwork and decaled concrete, lots of kale and heirloom tomatoes… so far, so Shoreditch. Indeed, there’s not much about the so-called ‘New Brooklyn Cuisine’ (or NBC) that seems novel to a Hoxton-dweller like myself. But of course it’s what the chefs do with those local, seasonal ingredients in their tiny brick-walled hangouts that counts – and in Brooklyn some are doing very good things.
Take Lulu & Po in Fort Greene, for example. From the scale (a cosy 30 seats, no reservations) to the décor (bare bulbs, locally salvaged wood, novelty rooster on the concrete wall) and menu (“local-and-seasonal small-plates”), it’s checking all the Zeitgeisty buzzwords. Yet not one of those little sharing plates offered up by the open-fronted kitchen was same-y or try-hard; they were simple, creative and downright delicious. A perfectly grilled fillet of trout topped with dark, crispy slivers of spring onion and a dollop of aioli, charred, thin slices of pizza dough for dunking in a mound of creamy home-made ricotta, silky ribbons of laganelle pasta bound in a sweet roasted squash puree and lashings of brown butter. Even the ‘deep-fried’ Brussels sprouts turned out to be beautifully caramelised rather than the battered onion-ring style treatment I had feared. There’s also a small but serious cocktail list that includes a Moscow Mule made with muddled fresh ginger, plus homemade cordials and house-infused vodkas.
Owner and chef Matthew Hamilton says his aim has been to create a cosy neighbourhood haunt. While it certainly has this ambience, relaxed and friendly, with Matt’s adorable daughter Lucy (the eponymous ‘Lulu’) skipping between the kitchen and tables, this jewel of a restaurant is definitely worth a subway ride, too.
Over in the hipster epicentre of Williamsburg, year-old Japanese grill Salt + Charcoal is a similarly stylish and diminutive space lit with vintage pendant lamps and a few cosy leather booths that nod to old-school American diners. Perhaps the best seats in the house, however, are on the kitchen-side counter, where you can watch executive chef Jiro Iida at work through the heat haze of his robata, skewers slowly cooking over glowing binchōtan coals. It’s this centuries-old barbecue-like cooking method that makes Salt & Charcoal unique in Brooklyn, while the other part of its name comes from the fact each fired recipe is seasoned with a specially selected salt, such as the delicately flavoured umi no ko sourced from the Goto Islands.
The menu is lengthy – offering everything from homemade buckwheat noodle dishes to Wagyu beef – so out of a combination of laziness and curiosity I plumped for the chef’s prix fixe selection ($60 per person). It began with a silky tofu soup, a whole block of the stuff in a delicate soya milk broth with tosa soy sauce on the side (the kelp and bonito fish added to this give it a stronger flavour). A bento box of wonderfully fresh sashimi followed, then a selection of salmon and eel nigiri. Berkshire pork belly marinated in a sticky black sugar glaze was the star of the mixed robata platter.
Though each course was beautifully presented, these were not the dainty morsels of most tasting menus but rather more substantial full-size plates (welcome to American portioning), so just make sure you’re hungry if you’re going to commit. I’ll admit I was struggling, but somehow polished off most of the sweet potato cheesecake as well as several of the Salt + Charcoal house cocktail, a brilliantly punchy, piquant blend of Sauza tequila, lime juice, suze, jalapeno and a lava salt rim.
So, cheers to the talented chefs of Brooklyn who are packing such big, memorable flavours into cooking that could give far grander establishments a run for their money. Though both Lulu & Po and Salt + Charcoal have been reviewed (positively) in the New York Times, they’re still young and low-key enough to draw a blank when I mention the names to a couple of Manhattanites; for that reason, pay them a visit before the word gets out and the rest of New York wants a slice.
Lulu & Po, 154 Carlton Avenue, NY 11205. www.luluandpo.com
Salt & Charcoal, 171 Grand Street, NY 11249, www.saltandcharcoal.com