Favorite Brooklyn Restaurants, Part I – Arthur Schwartz

I have been doing some spring cleaning, clearing my desk, making room for more clutter. What I have here, among chits of paper to remind me of something, email printouts, business cards, and whatever, are a number of menus from restaurants I keep meaning to tell you about. So here it is.

First, I must confess that I have very little interest in new restaurants in Manhattan. My friends tell me about them. I read about them in the New York Times, in New York magazine, and in Time Out, and whenever I am hearing about them or reading about them I am thankful that I no longer have to eat in them. I mean, not being on the radio or in daily newspaper print — and for the first year in 36 years — I am very, very thankful that I don’t have to be a restaurant know-it-all anymore. I get to eat at home, which is where I mainly like to eat. Incidentally, too, although I am eating very well at home, I have been dropping weight almost painlessly because I am not sitting in a restaurant for 2½ hours every night. Well, it helps that I am exercising more regularly, too.

However, I have been eating in Brooklyn restaurants because I am still reviewing for BKLYN magazine, and I live here. It’s convenient. And it’s significantly less expensive than eating in Manhattan. I can afford it.

Here in Park Slope (I am answering what I know is your next question), I have many favorites.

I am partial to Tempo for special occasions, or when I want to show off how sophisticated Brooklyn can be. The menu is eclectic with Italian and other Mediterranean leanings. The service is absolutely professional, but friendly. The room is stylishly spare and contemporary. The sound level and comfort level are perfect.

I love Bonnie’s Grill for hamburgers and the best, the best, the best buffalo chicken wings, not that I eat chicken wings that often. I usually sit at the counter of Bonnie’s, and watch the ballet of the short order cook. I have always enjoyed doing that. And the beer. Whatever’s on tap, which is always something different and interesting.

I love Al Di La, but the whole city seems to love Al Di La’s mostly Venetian style food. You hardly need me to tell you about it.

I love Osteria Convivium, where they have a great steak (for two), great salt cod dishes many delicious Italian, Spanish and Portuguese things to eat in a country house atmosphere. Interesting Iberian wine list, including sherrys and ports. And Convivium’s romantic garden must be open already.

I love the Red Café, a tiny place where the owner is the chef and he just cooks simple food that suits his fancy, and many others, including mine. The room is sophisticated: on the red walls are hung black and white photos of famous reds – both of hair (Lucille Ball) and political persuasion (Karl Marx). The cooking is more or less homey, sometimes even a little trendy.

I love Brooklyn Fish Camp, an outpost of Mary’s Fish Camp in Greenwich Village. It is a nearly perfect restaurant, and I only use the word “nearly” to hedge my bets because something always has to go wrong – everywhere, anytime – and I don’t want you saying “Schwartz said it is perfect, so what’s up?” I always try to order the salt shrimp for the table, but be prepared to crunch through the shells, too. Don’t peel them. It’s the only way to go. The shellfish bouillabaisse is great if you like spicy, which I do. The classic New England lobster roll is famous, and it comes with a mountain of great shoestring fries. The lobster pot pie is pretty wonderful, too, and there is always a list of the fresh catch prepared in various ways, even just plain as plain. A lot of great food here in a simple room with an open kitchen and professional friendly service. There’s a big garden here, too.

Those are just my favorites at the north end of Fifth Avenue, and the list doesn’t include some of the terrific places further south on Fifth – like the acclaimed Stone Park Café (stars from the Times, reviewed in the Michelin Guide); Belleville, a good French bistro with very popular outdoor seating; the Mexican Sandwich Shop, where everything is a quesadilla (I like the shredded duck); the Chip Shop, a fish and chips joint where my friend the shepherd’s pie aficionado actually enjoys the shepherd’s pie more than the fried fish. But, if you ask, he’ll tell you the best sheepherd’s pie is at the Park Slope Ale House on Sixth Ave., where we both adore the manager, Kristyn, and go for her as much as for the food.

My other favorites in what we now seem to call “brownstone Brooklyn” are Downtown Atlantic on Atlantic Ave. near Hoyt St., where you can get everything from a wonderful hamburger to a trendy plate (and great jazz on Sundays). Downtown also has a retail bakery that carries some of the best baked goods in the entire city, including the only cupcakes that the New York Times testers really liked. I go for the chocolate banana cream tarts myself.

Down at Fulton Landing, where the amazing, glamorous and elegant River Café is still going strong at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, is a more modest restaurant I love – 25 Front Street, its address. It also has a garden, and it is also the sister restaurant to 12th Street Bar & Grill, on 12th St. and Sixth Ave. in Park Slope, which is another Park Slope favorite. It has a particularly good three-course dinner special – I think about $22 these days.

There’s also Ici on Dekalb Ave. in Fort Greene, where the eclectic menu is hard to characterize, but suffice to say it is being cooked by a young Mexican-American chef from Austin, Texas, who has French culinary training and Italophile tendencies. I like everything, including the spare dining room (and another garden).

Frankies Spuntino 457 on Court St. in CarrollGardens, may attract the trendiest crowd in Brownstone Brooklyn. I hear that there have been Heath Ledger-Michele Williams sightings there. The couple lives nearby. I go for the food, which is essentially southern Italian and conducive to sharing and grazing – spuntino is a word for snack in Italian — although I can’t say it also isn’t fun to pretend I belong in this room full of attractive under 40s. Yet another wonderful Brooklyn garden.

I have to say that Sette on Seventh Ave. and Third St. in Park Slope also attracts a very attractive, vivacious young crowd. I hear they have improved the noise problem they had when they opened, so now I am eager to get back and enjoy the food, which I’d have to call creative Italian-American. And terrific.

Enough for now. If I continue with my adventures to restaurants outside the brownstone zone this will become entirely too long and tedious to read. I promise to continue soon.

Meanwhile, Mother’s Day is coming up and it is the second biggest cookbook-buying holiday of the year, closely following Christmas. Permit me to remind you that a cookbook written by me, especially if inscribed by me to the recipient, makes a very nice Mother’s Day gift. My cookbooks still in print are Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food: An opinionated history with legendary recipes, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, and Soup Suppers. Clicking on any of the preceding titles will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book, then forward the receipt to me at mavensmail@aol.com. I will send you (or the recipient – you tell me where to send it) a book plate made of handmade Amalfi paper and sporting my personal stamp, as well as personalized greeting. I am leaving for Italy on May 6, so I will have to receive the receipts very soon in order to get them out.