The full flavor of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood
NEW YORK — Family-friendly Park Slope, ultra-hip Williamsburg, these are destinations for many visitors crossing the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. But just a few train stops away from these popular neighborhoods is Bedford-Stuyvesant, an up-and-coming community with a burgeoning food scene. In Bed-Stuy, you are not likely to see Bugaboo strollers or hip boutiques. At least not yet. You will notice a few boarded-up buildings and plenty of bodegas. At night, you'll see 20-somethings in red lipstick and thick-rimmed glasses emerging from the subway. This is usually a good sign, at least in terms of filling restaurants and unusual eateries.
If you know where to look, you'll find a spot the size of a phone booth selling Caribbean breakfast sandwiches; a lovely, light-filled cafe specializing in Czech pastries, run by a sweetheart from Texas; a gastropub opened by a "Food Network Star" before he got famous; and some of the best brisket in Brooklyn, made by brothers who aren't even Jewish.
We toured the Bed-Stuy food scene with chef and Food Network personality Justin Warner as our guide. After a day of eating around the neighborhood, we can only say, hop on the G-train to Bedford-Nostrand and come with an open mind and an empty stomach.
Scratchbread, our first stop, is serving from a takeout window cut into the side of a painted stucco building. The sight and smell of fresh-baked goodies is warming on a chilly morning. The window is piled high with gooey pecan sticky buns, pillowy rosemary focaccia, and my favorite breakfast treat: hearty-but-not-too-dense "oatmeal chunky," baked oats studded with currants and apples, like a granola bar-muffin. A few bites with sips of black coffee propel us to the next stop.
We follow our noses to David's Brisket House, which as Warner explains, is "Muslim guys serving Jewish food in a Carribean neighborhood." It's a winning combination. By 11 a.m. customers are pouring in for pastrami, corned beef, and brisket, all piled high, with sharp mustard on rye bread and a dill pickle. The meat is fatty, salty, and luscious. Owners Riyadh Gazali and Sultan Elsamet also have a location in Bay Ridge, another Brooklyn neighborhood. When I ask (between enormous bites) what their secret is, Gazali says, "There are only two ways to get the recipe: be born into the family or marry into it."
Next up is A & A Bake and Doubles Shop, a tiny Trinidadian takeout. A & A specializes in salt fish bakes, a kind of savory doughnut filled with salt cod or herring, and doubles, two pieces of fried bread stuffed with savory chickpea curry. Warner tells us they are famous for undoing the damage inflicted by a late night out. Judging by the salt to grease to carb ratio, we're inclined to believe him. I order a double, spicy. And it is, with hints of sweetness from house-made chutney. The menu can be confusing for a newcomer. Explains Warner: "The baked is fried, and the doubles is a single sandwich." If you aren't lucky enough to have a local order for you, ask the agreeable young woman behind the counter for help.
Kolache, a slightly sweet, yeasted Czech pastry, is popular in Texas, the home state of Brooklyn Kolache Co. owner Autumn Stanford. "I just thought, we have everything in Brooklyn, but no one is making kolache, so I'm going to do it," says Stanford, with an infectious laugh. Traditionally, the pastries are flavored with poppy seeds or apricot, but Stanford doesn't stick to tradition. She fills kolache with everything from house-made jam and sweet cheese, to savory egg, sausage, and jalapeno. On our visit, the comfortable, sun-filled bakery is quiet. Customers sip coffee and chat with friends or work on laptops; it's an oasis in the neighborhood. Melissa Hernandez, an Austin native and Brooklyn Kolache regular, chats with Stanford while she picks up a morning snack, "It's a taste of home," she says.
We end the crawl on another sweet note, at Dough. Doughnuts may be the new cupcake, and the doughnuts at Dough will win the hearts of any sweets lover. These sweet yeasty rounds are crispy, chewy, and decadent, in flavors like lemon-poppy seed and blood orange-hibiscus. Watch the bakers through a glass wall, rolling out and shaping the dough. My favorite is passion fruit glazed with cocoa nibs. Frenchman Thierry Cabigeos, a restaurateur who also owns Choice Brooklyn, a gourmet food shop and cafe, is a charming George-Clooney look-alike.
I return the following day without Warner. This time I am playing guide, bringing a recent Cambridge-to-Williamsburg transplant on her first trip to Bed-Stuy. We're dining at Warner's restaurant, the popular gastropub Do or Dine, of which he is a part owner. Before he became a fan favorite, and eventual winner of last year's "Food Network Star," Warner was working the line, washing dishes, seating customers, and dreaming up wacky, deeply delicious concoctions for the menu.
We start by dipping blistered shisito peppers into salts flavored with green tea, yuzu, wasabi, and hickory smoke. We tear into a plate of Nippon Nachos, in which fried dumplings get the melty cheese and pico de gallo treatment. We finish with foie gras stuffed jelly doughnuts (made at Dough), which satisfy the ever-present craving for something sweet and salty in a sinfully rich way that no chocolate-covered pretzel ever could. The lively dining room is a mix of neighborhood regulars, foodies, and the restaurant industry crowd, who trickle in late for strong drinks and an after-work bite. We meet a chef who runs a pop-up restaurant down the street, and a group of friendly neighbors, originally from New Orleans, who just moved to the neighborhood.
By the end of the meal, my friend, worried about sky-high rents in Williamsburg, is thinking she might move to Bed-Stuy before everyone else catches on.
A & A Bake and Doubles Shop
481 Nostrand Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., 718-230-0753
Brooklyn Kolache Co.
520 DeKalb Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., 718-398-1111, www.brooklynkolacheco.com
David's Brisket House
553 Nostrand Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., 718-789-1155, www.davidsbriskethouseinc.com
Do or Dine
1108 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., 718-684-2290
448 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., 347-533-7544
1069 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., www.scratchbread.com