In a city estimated to have some 24,000 restaurants, and every cuisine under the sun, it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. From brunch with a Southern Italian accent to high-end healthy eating, Estella Shardlow samples the best newcomers on NYC’s dining scene…
Brunch is a serious affair in Brooklyn. Queues stretch round many a brownstone block, these hipsters hungry not so much for the avo toast and Bloody Marys as the lazy Sunday decadence and festivity of it all; an event so indulgent it spills across conventional mealtimes and assumes a portmanteau. Never mind the fact we could make pancakes or scrambled eggs just as well in our own kitchens.
Well, when it comes to indulgence, the Italians are usually able to teach others a thing or two. Williamsburg newcomer Barano certainly thinks so. Taking its inspiration from the Neapolitan island of Ischia, where chef Al Di Meglio’s family hails from, it reimagines brunch fayre with rich wood-smoked flavours that nonna would be proud of. Though the façade is so unassuming I walked past twice without realising, inside it’s an inviting blend of old school glamour and trattoria charm – all dark oak panelling, leather booths, the pearly gleam of antique tiles and mirrors.
A charred Bellini sets up the theme perfectly: something familiar, with a twist. Using white peaches blackened in a wood-firing oven (the skin is then removed before pureeing) creates a smokiness that takes the edge off a cocktail that’s often cloyingly sweet. Sangria gets the luxury treatment, too, with a blend of bruleed lemon, elderflower and vermouth in the ‘White’ variety, blood orange and rosemary in ‘Red’, or grilled gooseberry with rose water in the Sparkling Rosé.
The open-fire grill and wood-burning oven are big fixtures on Barano’s brunch menu – also the case come lunch and evening, when pizzas and hearty meat and fish dishes come to the fore – creating such delights as a doorstop wedge of wood-fired brioche with caramelised bananas and house-made nutella (more intensely chocolatey than the jar variety). The wood-fired frittata arrived in a casserole dish thick with melting mozzarella, sweet tomatoes and roasted squash. Whatever the time of day, it would be wrong not to sample Barano’s house-made hand-pulled mozzarella in some shape or form; for brunch, it’s served with a pumpkin caponata and drizzle of aged balsamic.
Loyal to those Italian roots, croissants are banished here in favour of Sfogliatelle, where a shell of crispy many-layered pastry hides a Semolina Custard centre and ricotta-stuffed Cannoli. There’s a round of chewy, lightly salted pizze bianche in place of toasts, with a trio of either sweet or savoury accompaniments. I opted for the latter and received generous portions of fresh cured salmon, chicken liver pate and a creamy roasted eggplant caviar. That’s not to say everything on offer is going to trouble your waistband – a bowl of farro, broccoli pesto, kale and Giardinera (a pickled vegetable relish) to the health-conscious.
As much as all this pays tribute to Di Meglio’s ancestral home, when it comes to sourcing produce Barano doffs its cap to local vendors. They make a point of listing some 28 of these on the menus, among them Wild Hive and Upstate farms in New York state, cream from Ronny Brook Dairy in Pine Plains, and soft drinks by Brooklyn Seltzer Boys. Even the aprons are from Brooklyn’s own Jones of Borum Hill. Extra virgin olive oil and Prosciutto, must still come from the motherland though, naturalemente.
Barano, 26 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY. For more information, visit www.baranobk.com.
Rouge Tomate Chelsea has also been busy scouring New York State for fine produce. Vineyards in Finger Lakes, the Catskills and Long Island join the four-figure bottles of Domaine d’Auvenay on its epic wine list, including a Bloomer Creek Gewürztraminer bursting with rose-petal florals and a brambly, peppery red by Element Winery. The restaurant has a wellbeing and sustainability slant (“great food without compromising people’s health and that of the planet”, founder Emmanuel Verstraeten writes on the website), but it’s just as much an oenophile’s paradise and has some 1,600 bottles are stashed in the cellar.
The brand is not new per se; in a previous incarnation Rouge Tomate was a Michelin-starred vegetable-focused restaurant on the Upper East Side, which closed its doors in 2014. As of September it’s installed in an historic carriage house among Chelsea’s art galleries, the offer recalibrated to be somewhat more accessible and intimate. The interiors are accordingly more down-to-earth, with architects Bentel & Bentel incorporating plenty of reclaimed wood, exposed bricks and slate floors. A living plant wall nods to those eco credentials. After all, Rouge Tomate ticks all the boxes for three-star SPE® certification (awarded for commitment to sustainability, nutrition and wellbeing), even though you certainly don’t fell like martyr when you’re tucking into its beautifully balanced dishes.
The menu is similarly stripped back, allowing seasonal produce to shine over and above fussy techniques. Each dish is simply a list of ingredients, leaving you to anticipate – or ask the server, if you don’t like surprises – what form they will take. The Ling Cod [fennel / clams / gnocchi / lettuce]was a fine meaty slab resting on a pool of silky puree with the charred leaves, sautéed morsels of potato and shellfish at once crisply fresh and comforting. And for cockle-warming autumnal flavours you couldn’t wish for more than the two ruby slices of Venison, umami-rich with king trumpet mushrooms, butternut squash and roasted beetroot.
Much like our beloved Ottolenghi and Grain Store across the pond, Rouge Tomate’s on-trend menu places plant-based dishes centre-stage. “Zucchini” (quinoa / baby bok choy / smoked onion) and “Broccoli” (walnut / hen of the woods) get equal billing alongside snapper and chicken main courses.
With its emphasis on healthiness, puddings were likely to be the let down of the evening. Yet big flavours and seasonal fruits more than make up for excess sugar; the natural caramelized sweetness of roasted pair was the winner for me, with sheep’s milk curd providing the perfect balance of creaminess and tang, plus a melt-in-the-mouth morsel of almond polenta cake. The chocolate mouse was topped with granola-like layer of toasted coconut and a kick of juicy blood orange; it could almost have been a (rather delicious) breakfast.
Finally, it’s not often a restaurant’s crockery gets a salute, but Rouge Tomate’s rustic plates, laden with such delicately presented food, cry out to be photographed. Some were handmade especially for the restaurant by Brooklyn ceramic artist Wynne Noble (http://nobleplateware.com/), others were sourced from Boston potter
Jeremy Ogusky of Ogusky Ceramics (http://www.claycrocks.com/home). “Perfection” was one food blogger’s comment beneath my Instagram image of those burnished pears, a pop of pomegranate pink against the slate-coloured dish; she got it in one.
Rouge Tomate, 126 W 18th St, New York, NY. For more information, visit www.rougetomatechelsea.com.
Best of the Rest: New NYC Restauarants
The Wild Son The prefect spot to fuel up before hitting the Highline, this Meatpacking spot serves wholesome, heart-warming breakfasts and lunches – think buckwheat pancakes with honey butter, cauliflower steak sandwiches or an egg-topped ‘greens and grains’ bowl. Not one for a boozy lunch – an array of house-made sodas and juices, plus nitro cold brew coffee and iced coconut milk latte, replace alcoholic cocktails.
Sunken Hundred There aren’t many firsts left to be had in New York, but Sunken Hundred manages it as the city’s only Welsh restaurant to date. Expect to tuck into fresh seafood, from razor clams to seared mackerel with whisky glaze, rather than cheese-laden rarebit (although Bara Bryth does get a look in). There’s even a Wales-specific lending library to peruse.
Aska If money (and time) is no object, Aska’s tasting menu is one of the hottest tickets in town. Fredrik Berselius’ 24-seat dining room in Williamsburg (strictly reservations-only) promises a “culinary journey of Scandinavian flavours and techniques”, using ingredients from a neighbouring urban farm.