Living on top of a two-star
In the world of restaurant ratings, Michelin guides have long been at the top. Partially that’s because they’re the oldest. Begun in France in 1900, the first red Michelin Restaurant booklets were given free as tire promotions. Suddenly, traveling near and far wasn’t just commonplace for the wealthy, or a sometime experience for the expanding bourgeoisie. Part of the new touring craze included finding good places to eat. Those first guides became French motorists’ Bibles for excellent food. Over time Michelin Guides covered most of Europe and beyond.
These days, Michelin guides are still red and even more widely read. They’ve become as famous, if not more so, than the tires they were created to promote. Michelin now publishes 25 guides in 23 countries, reviewing and allotting stars (up to three) for more than 45,000 restaurants. They’re still used and respected by both diners and chefs, in part because of their international scope, and not least because their reviewers remain “famously anonymous.”
That’s true even in New York City, which has lots of folks proffering restaurant advice; ranging from the New York Times restaurant critic, to reviewers in New York Magazine, Time Out NYC, and hoards of amateur bloggers. Each fall, speculation abounds leading up to the next Michelin release. Will the three-star establishment that lost its young celebrity chef keep its stars? How many stars will that chef garner in his new restaurant? Who’s in, who’s out; who’s up, who’s down?
But the biggest buzz following the 2011 Michelin NYC guide release wasn’t about the three-stars – all five have been there for years. The real surprise was in the two-stars. For the first time, a place in Brooklyn – not Manhattan – was among those ten favored spots. It wasn’t even a restaurant – it was part of a grocery store! Nor was it in Brooklyn neighborhoods that have become magnets for young/stylish/hip/artistic crowds flocking there to escape Manhattan’s astronomical housing costs. New York Magazine’s Adam Platt called the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare a “ragtag, neighborly” operation, describing its 200 Schermerhorn Street address as a “bleak, even brutal section…across from the subway, just down from a large Park Fast lot.”
But as Michelin Guides director Jean-Luc Naret said when the 2011 NYC edition was released, “It’s not about the name on the door, it’s about who’s cooking behind the stove.” He called the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare “one of the greatest restaurants in New York….definitely one of the 300 greatest in the world.”
Funny – I lived at 200 Schermerhorn for most of January and February this year, helping with my new grandson.
About Platt’s “bleak and brutal” description: Yes, the building that encompasses my daughter and son-in-law’s apartment as well as Brooklyn Fare grocery and its Chef’s Table appendage isn’t on one of Brooklyn’s picturesque, brownstone-lined streets or on a thoroughfare of intriguing shops and restaurants. Even so, “bleak and brutal” is over the top. Schermerhorn is more or less a dividing line between downtown Brooklyn and those quaint shops and streets. Regardless, Anne and Ben’s apartment is spacious (by NYC standards), with a huge (by any standards) balcony encompassing gorgeous sunsets and the Statue of Liberty.
I’ve visited often since Anne and Ben moved there. Often enough to see Brooklyn Fare Grocery’s beginnings. And I’d peered with interest as the additional section was outfitted for cooking classes, then morphed into its current dining/demonstration format. Even before the Michelin two-star brouhaha, I’d considered attending one. But I never followed through. My visits were frequent, but also short; spending time with my children was my priority.
This time things would be different. My priority was still family, but now I’d be there for weeks, taking care of Robbie while Anne worked half-time finishing her job. I planned to absent myself occasionally to give the new family time alone together. Reservations at CTaBF are among NYC’s hardest-to-get, with a two-month-plus wait. What if I told them I was living upstairs temporarily, and could come within 15 minutes to fill cancellations or no-shows?
It worked. Walking the few steps to CTaBF, I thought about the reviews. They’d varied wildly, not so much about the exceptional food, as the experience. Some thought executive chef César Ramirez arrogantly aloof; to others, he was friendly and informative. Photographs, pens and paper were prohibited (confirmed, without asking, at my reservation; a complete menu can be e-mailed afterwards).
My assigned seat was closest to the action, suiting me fine. The parade of courses commenced: Sixteen one-to-two bite “canapés,” beginning with a shot-glass of exquisite squash and yoghurt soup. Most were fish or seafood: a Kumamoto oyster with Meyer Lemon, Crme Friche and Oyster Gelée, Sea Urchin with Brioche and Truffle Paté, Tasmanian Trout Ceviche with Trout Roe…. Then came the main menu, eight slightly larger courses: Egg, cabbage and truffle; Black Bass with Dill and King Crab; a ricotta raviolo (big ravioli) with Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms; Wagyu Beef with truffles and Parmesan, a cheese course, and dessert courses.
How was it? The 24 courses were small enough that I was satisfied but not overstuffed. The pace was unhurried, but the constant dish clearing/set-ups (CTaBF utilizes over 900 serving pieces nightly) sometimes made it feel that way. Two canapés’ acid components overwhelmed their other ingredients. The meltingly delicious beef, a riff on a French classic, was hardly innovative. Still, it was an outstanding, extraordinary meal.
Ramirez announced each course by listing its ingredients, not rude, but not especially informative. Watching the cooking and plate assemblage, often with tweezers, I wanted to know more. But the other diners weren’t focusing on ingredients and techniques; they were having a great time just enjoying the unusual setting and experience. Ramirez had accurately assessed his audience and appropriately responded.
My CTaBF dinner was wonderful. But what I’m most remembering, even longing for; what (apart from Robbie and his parents) I miss most about 200 Schermerhorn is Brooklyn Fare Grocery. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s my ideal of what a grocery should/could be.
Brooklyn Fare is the brainchild of Moe Issa, who was raised and still lives in the neighborhood. Issa had no experience in the grocery business; he’d previously owned a Pepsi franchise. “When the closest grocery closed – it was more a convenience store – I realized the neighborhood needed a good grocery,” he told me.
Issa approached his new venture with a mix of sound business sense, idealism and civic pride. “I wanted BF to be an updated urban version of an old-fashioned grocery. To listen to and know our customers,” he said. “And I didn’t want to stock things that I’m not willing to eat, or have my kids eat.”
Consequently, few of BF’s wares are the highly-processed additive-laden goods that predominate in corporate groceries. Signs everywhere point to local/regional items, including an entire section of ice creams. Produce routinely includes such items as fresh fava beans, miniature cauliflowers of purple, white, yellow, and the gorgeously geometric romescos, and exceptionally fresh exotic mushrooms including Hen-of-the-Woods. There have even been heirloom oranges. Breads baked in-house using all-organic ingredients or from local bakeries. The cheese section compares favorably with specialty shops. The deli counter and its prepared foods are extraordinary, overseen by Chef Ramirez: French green beans with pistachios and pistachio oil, baby pattypan squashes with Parmagiano Reggiano, pasta with shitakes. There’s red wine-braised short-ribs, miso-marinated salmon, house-made lasagna (other varieties of made-in-house pastas are in the dairy section).
Sounds expensive, right? Well, yes and no. Some of those exotic ingredients are pricey, for sure. But organic, free-range rotisserie chickens are just $5.99. Those prepared vegetables and salads cost roughly the equivalent of deli items in Springfield groceries. A freshly made sandwich of grass-fed beef, cheddar, and arugula that easily feeds two costs $7.99. Some things (canned tomatoes, for instance) were even cheaper. And there’s that priceless neighborhood dynamic. Issa has made his/my dream grocery a reality. By the time I left, checkers were saying, “You’re leaving soon, right? We’ll miss you, but you’ll be back soon to see that cute grandbaby, right?”
You bet I will!
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.