I remember when my friends who lived in Manhattan, or were visiting the city from far-off places, couldn't be bothered to take the train or cross the bridge into Brooklyn. Now, they want to eat in Brooklyn all the time. The food scene in the borough is beginning to overshadow Manhattan's, and getting much-deserved international attention. From an under-the-radar spot serving the decadent Georgian-style cheese bread everyone's talking about to a restaurant specializing in gorgeous Japanese breakfasts (no menus or reservations!), these are five of my favorite Brooklyn spots that only the locals know about. And to find out about secret underground restaurants and food experiences in other cities, check out all six episodes of BravoTV.com's Going Off the Menu, where I'll take you to more of my favorite new finds.
Traditional Japanese Set Breakfast at Okonomi
On a sleepy street, far from the hustle and bustle of nearby Williamsburg, is this tiny little Japanese gem. Okonomi wakes early to nourish guests with beautifully presented set Japanese breakfasts, and there are no menus and are no reservations allowed during these morning hours. Just grab a seat, and let the chefs course out miso soup, rice, roasted fish, vegetable and egg for a healthy start to your morning. The fish and vegetables change with the season, allowing every week to be a new surprise, depending on what's available from the local coastline and farmlands. With the slate-colored interior, quiet atmosphere and less than 12 seats, the experience itself is a meditation.
Peruvian-Inspired Sandwiches and Cold Brew Cocktails at Llama Inn
Debuting over a month ago, Llama Inn's Peruvian sandwich board is so unique, so different and so thrilling, I'm still in awe that sandwiches can still enlighten me this much. Chef Erik Ramirez is a sandwich lover, and there's no question about that once you taste all the detail put into these hand-held creations. Grab a seat at the bar, order the charred squid number, and smile as the bitter radicchio, scallions, aji panca chilis and rocoto salsa—a Peruvian hot sauce—transports you to a tropical daydream. The soft, spongy bread wears just the right crust to create a barrier for holding in all the aromatic homemade condiments—especially for the juicy short rib stir-fry sandwich, which drips with melted fontina, cream and a fried egg. Of the seven sandwich options, the shining star, believe it or not, is the avocado and roasted mushroom w/jalapeno mayo and peppery arugula. Just something about it reads meaty, as the various mushrooms contend for center stage. I wouldn't normally tell you to chase this down with a cold brew cocktail, but the Coffee Buzz with its orange wheel is a dance in itself—the zesty tonic a refreshing respite to cut through the rich sandwich fillings.
Thai-inspired Ice Creams at SkyIce
Peer into the deep ice cream fridge at this little Park Slope cafe, and you'll find dozens of flavors you don't typically see in the grocery store. White Miso w/Sliced Almonds, Black Sesame Seaweed, Lychee Rose Sorbet, Roasted Thai Coconut, Thai Iced Tea, Mangosteen and the infamous fruit Durian are just some of the not-to-be-missed flavors. The owner and head ice cream maker started the business because she yearned to share the ice cream flavors of her home town in Thailand with her new community in Brooklyn. Order up the SkyIce Palette, and you can get a mini-scoop of their 12 greatest hits all in one sitting. With flavors so bright, unusual and gripping, and textures so smooth and luscious, I must say, this is the ice cream deal of your dreams.
Weekend Dim Sum at East Harbor Seafood Palace
If a peaceful, easy-going, tranquil Saturday or Sunday morning ritual is your routine, then you might want to pass on East Harbor Seafood Palace for dim sum brunch (appropriately named a "palace" because the banquet room is enormous!). I love it here because it's all the crazy, authentic feels I want in a dim sum feast: the full-on traffic of people, families, steamy food carts, relentless chatter and endless piles of bamboo trays coming on and off of tables. The dim sum is high quality too. When the carts start hovering at your round table, point to the taro root with minced meat filling, the whole-shrimp-filled rice noodle roll and the minced seafood stuffed eggplant. Hunt down the cart with the BBQ roast pork buns, beef ribs and the pork shu mai. Really, the fun is in the trying. So don't be shy. And don't forget the fried red bean sesame balls for dessert! If you get here late, at say 10am, then you'll find yourself waiting in a line. A LONG LINE. So get here early, ideally around 9am to skip the line; but keep in mind that even then, parking can be hard to find.
Imeruli Khachapuri Georgian Bread at TONE-Cafe
To me, nothing is better than pizza; however, present me with a pizza box filled with a heated wheel of handmade, cheese-stuffed Georgian bread, also known as imeruli khachapuri, and I might, just might, change my mind. I'm not saying that this pillowy, salty, cheesy gift from the baking gods IS pizza—nor that it's derived from pizza—I'm just saying, they probably exist in the same food arenas that inspired words like "cravings" or "addictions". At parties, its aroma and delight-giving powers make it the talking point of the room. I've SEEN it happen! There are a number of places that sell this style of bread in Brooklyn, but my favorite spot is TONE-Cafe. They cost only $10-12 there, and you can point to a large one in the window to take home and share with friends. Or take a seat in the small restaurant to devour one there. If cheese and bread is your weakness, it's certainly worth the trek to Brighton Beach. Call ahead. Some days it sells out fast!
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