The moment we crossed the East River on the bridge connecting Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, I was like a woman possessed — I could not stop looking all over the place for any Barbra Streisand references. Our travel guide was having a tough time getting me to understand that the famous songstress now lives in California because I kept sticking my head out of the van window and calling out “hello, gorgeous!” to anyone with blonde hair, with the hope of finding Streisand wandering around her home state. I had no luck with my endeavour, but to give credit to my persistence, our guide didn’t either.
Thankfully, it was not a search for her that we were on in Brooklyn that day — it was to explore its food culture. New York City’s cuisine is very well represented by the many ethnic groups that have entered the US via the Big Apple. Across its five boroughs, New York City contains the world’s best cuisines in several thousand delis and bodegas, most of which are open every day of the week.
Brooklyn is especially multicultural, with individual suburbs more famous than others for specific fare — Bedford Stuyvesant (where Babs is from, incidentally) is good for West Indian food, Carroll Gardens is famous for Italian, Kensington has a lot of Bengali and Pakistani food while Midwood is where you get the most authentic Jewish fare. It is where some of Brooklyn’s most conservative Hasidic communities live.
While Manhattan — which I loved on sight — felt like it was whizzing around me and I had to just allow myself to be swept along, Brooklyn is more relaxed. Narrow, tree-lined roads by stunning brownstones connect one suburb to another and, in the afternoon sun, it is gorgeous. The main roads are wider, which is odd considering there are far fewer people and cars here. There is also a distinct hipster vibe in Brooklyn, evident from carefully curated street art and artisanal food and drink producers that have flourished in recent times.
A large number of food tours of Brooklyn are available, but sifting through them can be quite a task. We are about to save you the trouble — here are four locals-only dining destinations worth considering if you have a day to spare. Our pro tip: bring comfortable shoes, loose waistbands and a huge appetite.
DeKalb Market Hall
The good thing about food courts is that they work for large groups with varied tastes — each person can choose their own thing to eat, then everyone sits down to enjoy it together. This makes DeKalb Market Hall a great place to start your eating tour of Brooklyn, as it is also a great showcase of the cuisines that have made this borough home. Located in the basement of the City Point Shopping Centre (hello, retail therapy), DeKalb is home to 40 food vendors that have been carefully curated to reflect local diversity, raising Brooklyn’s profile as a hub of innovative cooking and dining experiences. It is one of the largest of its kind in New York City with a design that is meant to channel this city’s particular brand of cool.
The hardcore carnivores in our party headed straight to Foragers Rotisserie, Katz’s Deli and Kotti Berliner Doner Kebab, so as the token vegetarian I got my protein fix from Bella Cheese — the owner arranged a gorgeous cheese platter with generous chunks of Stilton, Idiazabal and a superbly sharp and salty New York cheddar along with dried fruit and crackers. Bella Cheese was not my only option, though, because the US is generally very vegetarian-friendly and most vendors offer a meat-free option of their star products. We then satiated our sweet tooth from Ample Hill Creamery, Cuzin’s Duzin and Eight Turn Crepe, and those who still had space washed it all down with wares from Brooklyn Juicer and Nobletree Coffee.
Weekdays are busy enough to lend DeKalb a spirited air, but weekends are really quite fun — we shared a table with a family and their children, later on a group of young people and, before we left, a troupe of senior citizens. There is a lively buzz, and people watching is a real treat — and there is a lot of food to keep you company, too. What is also great about DeKalb is that you can stretch your legs ahead of the next binge fest at the City Point Shopping Centre right above, with retail offerings that include crowd favourites Trader Joe’s and Target, cult design label Flying Tiger Copenhagen and local brand Prince Street Jewellers.
Because Greenpoint is more famous for its Ukrainian and Polish food, brothers Zach and Alex Frankel thought it would be nice to bring some Jewish fare to this quiet suburb. A family-run establishment, Frankel’s Delicatessen specialises in small batch cooking, offering curated selections of smoked fish, smoked and braised meats, bagels and fresh salads. The brothers worked together with chef Ashley Berman, who looked through the Frankel family recipe books and her own grandmother’s repertoire to give Jewish classics a new life.
But how much does the average Southeast Asian traveller know about traditional Jewish food? Pretty much nil, so we could not really judge how authentic — or not — the food was. What we did all agree on was that it was all very tasty, and how charming the service was. Occupying a corner lot, Frankel’s feels like something that belongs in an 1980s crime show — this is where the plain-clothes detectives would hang out to talk to potential witnesses. A cheerful bell rings as the deli’s doors swing open, and whoever it is behind the counter greets you with an enthusiastic smile and of course, that standout Brooklyn accent.
The whitefish salad was a crowd favourite among our party of six, while I opted for a bagel with a generous smear of cream cheese and a sprinkling of greens. After all the influence American TV has had on our collective psyche, we also went for iconic Jewish dishes we had heard about — potato latkes, beef brisket and Matzo ball soup. A can of soda sealed the deal, and we were quite happy to hang around Frankel’s, absorbing the atmosphere while waiting for the food to settle before we set off again.
Fine & Raw
In the spirit of how dessert ends a meal, a chocolatier was the final stop for our food tour. The brainchild of a South African immigrant to New York in search of a career in finance, Fine & Raw is painfully hipster in all the right ways — burlap sacks filled with cacao beans line the walls on shelves made from repurposed pallets and in the factory’s rear, a spinning disco ball serves the needs of the occasional event that is held there. I have to say, a party in a chocolate factory sounds like an absolutely brilliant idea.
As it names suggests, the store specialises in raw chocolate — rather than roasting cacao beans they are left to dry naturally, which preserves nutrients such as iron, zinc, magnesium, copper and vitamin C, similar to uncooked vegetables. It is also claimed that raw cacao contains higher levels of antioxidants than the roast variety used in most chocolate. More people eat chocolate for the taste than the nutrition, though, and this is where Fine & Raw’s appeal comes in — everything is really tasty.
Keep it simple with plain chocolate bars, or pamper your palate with more exotic varietals like Alderwood smoked salt, ginger and Habanero salt. Then, there is the nut-filled chocolate as well, with almond or hazelnut. Spreads include hazelnut chocolate, coconut dulce de leche or sweet hazelnut butter. Produce from a coffee machine up front is the perfect ending to this sweet retreat in the heart of Brooklyn.
The article first appeared on Oct 15, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.