In the shell of an old chrome diner, the new restaurant M. Wells sits like an aluminum hermit on an otherwise deserted block. It doesn’t look like much, this diner, perhaps an entry in the ledger of yesteryear, but from its cramped kitchen, Montreal chef Hugue Dufour, 33, turns out some of New York City’s most imaginative cooking: sea snails with blood sausage; veal brains in Grenobloise sauce; and Korean bibimbap with scallops and oysters. There’s only one catch: M. Wells isn’t in Manhattan. It’s in Long Island City, a largely industrial neighborhood in Queens, though home to the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 campus. Dufour isn’t alone in eschewing the island. With Manhattan rents as high as ever, the brightest rising stars of New York cooking are hanging their shingles beyond the grid of orderly streets and the vertical comfort of skyscrapers.
Three bridges connect Manhattan and Brooklyn, and two join the island to Queens. All are less than three miles long. Yet there’s something about the outer boroughs that makes it seem as if one might need a passport to get there. In Brooklyn, things sprawl and buildings are slung low. At times one can walk a mile and not see another soul. Among the differences, until recently, was an especially troubling one: Manhattan had fine dining; the outer boroughs didn’t. The top-tier spots all boasted city ZIP codes: Le Bernardin, 10020; Daniel, 10065; Jean Georges, 10023. Even Momofuku Noodle Bar, the iconoclastic restaurant opened in 2004 that heralded the end of white tablecloths, was East Village–born. Fine dining stopped at the East River.
That’s changed, though. Dufour, watching a dish of pommes de terre fondant (potatoes confited in duck fat topped with summer truffles) whiz by on the Formica counter, says, “I still don’t consider this fine dining, but we use fine products.” This isn’t your typical diner; it’s not even your typical restaurant. Dufour, who was a partner in the lauded Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, is happy with that. During one slammed dinner service, a tureen of velvety tomato soup with foie gras grilled cheese arrived in front of a pair of men in baseball caps at the counter; canoes of bone marrow laden with garlicky escargot bobbed by; a massive meat loaf accompanied by foie gras was delivered to a wide-eyed table of four who greeted it with fear and relish. “I have no boundaries here,” Dufour says. “I can serve Peking duck using an old smoker from the kitchen and have veal brains on the same menu.”
In late 2009, when Dufour and his wife and M. Wells co-owner, Sarah Obraitis, were looking to open a restaurant, they saw in this no-man’s-land freedom and possibility. “Manhattan doesn’t inspire me,” Dufour says. “Here, the place is as important as the food; the people, the neighborhood, the building dictate what I do.” Indeed, M. Wells’s mélange—construction workers during lunch, Manhattanites drawn by enthusiastic reviews at dinner, families for brunch—is a hallmark of the new crop of restaurants. In Brooklyn and in Queens, there’s space for chefs to be daring, to deliver fine ingredients imaginatively wrought in informal, idiosyncratic and deeply personal spaces.
Much of this trend is financial. “We never could have used as high-quality an olive oil if we were paying Manhattan rent,” says Frank Falcinelli, who with his partner, Frank Castronovo, pioneered Brooklyn fine dining in 2004 with their comfortable yet elegant haute-red-sauce restaurant Frankies 457 in Carroll Gardens. “If you’re young, talented and want to open a restaurant, the outer boroughs give you that chance.” No longer so young, the Franks, as they’re known, have turned their restaurant into a mini-empire (with two outposts in Manhattan) and recently opened Prime Meats, a restaurant heavy on charcuterie and dark wood paneling, three doors down from the original Frankies. Like many Brooklyn spots, Prime Meats traffics in impeccable cocktails served by men in beards and suspenders in a carefully weathered atmosphere. “It’s a lifestyle,” says Castronovo of the laid-back urban rusticity incubated at Frankies, “but you can’t breathe easy and live that lifestyle if you’re paying $25,000 a month in rent.”
That logic led Chris Parachini and Brandon Hoy to open Roberta’s in 2008 in an abandoned warehouse in Bushwick, a northern Brooklyn neighborhood full of cement factories and metal fabricators. “When we first opened,” says Roberta’s chef Carlo Mirarchi, 30, “we didn’t have gas or electricity. I was cooking on two butane burners.” Despite the limitations, Mirarchi and his team were ambitious, heating the water for fresh mozzarella in a pizza oven and making their own dough daily. Roberta’s soon began to venture beyond pizza, and Mirarchi’s cuisine—charcuterie, tender roast chicken drawn from his mother’s Panamanian culinary traditions, expertly slow-cooked lamb breast, a nod to his father’s Calabrian roots—gained notice first among neighborhood hipsters, then intrepid gastronomes willing to brave befuddled cabbies and the vagaries of public transportation, and now nearly everybody. This year, Mirarchi was voted one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. The restaurant and his vision have grown apace. Today, Roberta’s has gas and electricity, houses a radio station and maintains beehives in the garden. “We just harvested 25 pounds of honey,” Mirarchi says. (It’ll be used to accompany cheese plates.) In Long Island City, two of Roberta’s co-owners helped open Brooklyn Grange, a one-acre rooftop farm that supplies the restaurant with fresh produce. Roberta’s space may feel like a college dorm room—Christmas lights year-round, Creedence on the stereo—but the menu is grown-up. On a recent summer night, tattooed Brooklynites, families and adventurous Manhattanites were there for Mirarchi’s cooking: a snap pea salad finished unexpectedly with smoked ricotta, pickled rhubarb and breadcrumbs; a sweet intensity of sea urchin that found counterpoint on a pillow of stracciatella finished with edible flowers, caviar and nasturtium granita; a Red Wattle pork chop roasted with garlic scapes, those woefully underused shoots, peaches and farro. Roberta’s menu combines the puckish—there’s a pizza named the Cheesus Christ—with the refined.
For the very lucky, Mirarchi offers a private tasting menu to one party on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. that has achieved mythic cachet among the city’s foodies. A recent 15-course tasting included, in some capacity, caviar, Wagyu steak, Normandy duck, pizza and three desserts. “I’ve heard it’s pretty epic,” says Amanda Kludt, New York editor of the restaurant website Eater.com, but Mirarchi is reluctant to publicize the dinners. “For now,” he says, “they’re just for friends and family.” Mirarchi has the freedom to remain silent since the dinners are booked for months. But his silence illuminates a double-edged trend of haute Brooklyn dining. Freed from so tight a tether to the bottom line, these chefs aren’t here to serve. Their personalities, quirks, tics and flaws drive them to follow their truest expression. Customer be damned. In some kitchens, like those of M. Wells and Roberta’s, the abiding spirit is laissez-faire, modesty in all. But it’s not always the case.
Perhaps the best emblem for the promise (and the price) of Brooklyn can be found at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, a tiny restaurant in a cubbyhole kitchen of a grocery store. In 2010, it won the borough’s first and only two Michelin stars, making it, at least according to the tire manufacturer, “worth a detour.” Yet the chef here, Cesar Ramirez, a hulking, bespectacled man with a shaved head, rules over the room in ways unheard-of, at least in America, at least in the past 40 years. Ramirez prints his terse, serious rules on the menu: No note taking, no pictures, no cell phones. Woe unto the diner who violates them. (NB: In 2010, I had an unpleasant encounter with Ramirez about which I wrote in the New York Press.) But Ramirez deserves credit for his brilliant menu, as well as for the purity of purpose with which he pursues it. The meal is a somber and transcendent parade of small, expertly crafted flavors: Kumamoto oyster with lime, crème fraîche and oyster gelée; langoustine with Iranian saffron; foie gras and sea urchin custard. That it happens in Brooklyn is almost immaterial. In fact, though these restaurants could’ve sprung up only in the outer boroughs, they, like all superlative cooking, go beyond time and place. As Mirarchi tells me, “It has nothing to do with being in Brooklyn. We’re just a restaurant trying to do a good job.” And it just so happens they’re succeeding.
Editor’s Note: As success follows these outer borough restaurants, so, too, does worry. As this issue went to press, M. Wells announced it would close at the end of August, after being unable to reach an agreement with its landlord. The owners happily plan to reopen. “One thing is for sure, we’ll stay in Long Island City,” says co-owner Sarah Obraitis.
Where to Drink in Brooklyn
Dram: At the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, Tom Chadwick draws from a deep bench of cocktail knowledge and rows of homemade syrups for perfectly crafted drinks, like an Oaxaca old-fashioned. At 177 S. 4th St.; drambar.com.
Maison Premiere: With 30 types of oysters and a curated selection of absinthes, this new bar brings New Orleans’s French Quarter circa 1920 to Bedford Avenue. At 298 Bedford Ave.; maisonpremiere.com.
Weather Up: In 2008, Kathryn Weatherup converted a storefront church in Prospect Heights into a temple to the classic cocktail, the best of which is, naturally, called the Brooklynite. At 589 Vanderbilt Ave.; weatherupnyc.com.
New Brooklyn and Queens Restaurants: The Details
Brooklyn Fare 200 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn; 718-243-0050; brooklynfare.com.
M. Wells See Editor’s Note; mwellsdiner.com.
Prime Meats 465 Court St., Brooklyn; 718-254-0327; frankspm.com.
Roberta’s 261 Moore St., Brooklyn; 718-417-1118; robertaspizza.com.