Category: Brooklyn

Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz’s Pop-up Restaurant at Whirlybird Cafe

254 South 2nd Street off Havemeyer, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
$55 each for 2 people, without drinks, without tip
Email chezjosebk at gmail dot com for reservations
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Back in 2009, I had a very impressive dinner at a pop-up restaurant inside the Brooklyn Fare store for $70 per person. Three years and three Michelin stars later, the tasting menu is now $225. So when I heard that chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz used to cook there and at the old Isa and is now running his own popup at the Whirlybird Cafe, I jumped at the $55 chance before the rest of the food world raises his prices.

You take a risk when you decide to support a pop-up restaurant. As someone who’s served dinner to groups of people on the down-low, I know how it is to cook in a borrowed kitchen without the resources one may have if they were working in a real restaurant. Not only do you prep and cook the dishes for your customers, you also serve and clean up after everyone’s left. In the end, you realize that you really only do it for the love of cooking.

Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz, and his sidekick of the night @wandrlstng, both love to create and cook. The dishes were grown-up and technical, and the vegetable-focused dishes were adventurous, savory, and delicious. As a carnivore, I am impressed when someone can push a vegetable’s limit to different heights.

Armed with a nice bottle of Haden Fig Pinot Noir, we sat by the window facing the street to enjoy our meal. I’m going to try to describe what we ate here. Apologies to the chefs if my taste buds misidentified something.

- Salted cod spread with warm crepe that reminded me of a Korean scallion pancake
- Vegetable broth that was so rich I couldn’t believe it was not made out of meat bones, served with small pieces of ramp stalks
- A beet green dusted with powdered yogurt
- Soft tofu with peas
- Date bread and the most delicious and evil ramp brioche served with ramp butter
- Young lettuce with Phu Quoc flavors of fish sauce, vinegar and Sriracha
- A surprising combination of strawberries, turnips and salmon roe that worked
- Asparagus, mushrooms, and olive sauce with a surprisingly technical foam made from canned tuna
- Confit of carrots, cardamom and wild watercress
- Amazing textures of creamed spinach, beets and millet with an arrow leaf spinach
- Savory parsnip brûlée with mustard creme
- Beet yogurt hazelnut bar

Aska at Kinfolk Studios

90 Wythe Avenue corner of North 11th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
$120 each for 2 people, without drinks, without tip
718/388.2969
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I never got the chance to check out the Kinfolk Studio space when it housed the pop-up Frej, but when my friend Josh started working at what is now Aska, I really had no excuse not to support him.

The last time I’ve been to a restaurant where the food on my plate looked more like some kind of art piece rather than a meal was at Alinea in Chicago (in 2006!), but even there, the dishes looked like I was going to get something out of them. At Aska, I was in doubt the whole time that I was ever going to be full, but there was something about the combination of ingredients and the timing of the presentations that somehow worked. By the time the last course of beef was served, I was pretty satisfied even though it was just a single kalbi-like slice of short rib.

There were 7 courses including dessert, but I counted at least 3 amuse-bouches and a pre-dessert palate cleanser. There were a couple of cocktails, a bottle of wine, and a digestif that helped, too.

Best:
1. Cocktails that take forever to make!
2. The most humble cabbage dish with a tiny piece of monkfish and its liver
3. Sunchoke presentation

Weird:
1. Service – It’s a small space so they seemed to have too many staff members hanging out. At one point, we looked up from our conversation and there were 5 people at the pass. They all seemed to be stressed out and I felt very pressured to finish my plate to give them something to bus. But we did break a bottle of wine at the bar and they were nonplussed about it as they cleaned it up.

Monte’s

451 Carroll Street, Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn
$45 each for 3 people, with 2 beers, with tip
718/852.7800
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We needed to eat before the We Were Promised Jetpacks concert at the Bell House but Littleneck was closed and the first thing that came up on my phone that did not sound like a sticky-floor pub was Monte’s. Walking up to the restaurant, I recognized its outdoor garden the first time I visited Littleneck during the day. It was quite empty and I didn’t know if it was because it was a Tuesday night, September 11th, or if it was the Gowanus Canal neighborhood.

Notable:
1. Oysters – The Blue Point oysters were a dollar apiece on a Tuesday night
2. Pasta – The pappardelle pasta almost made me wish it was autumn already. Almost.
3. Backyard – I’m sure it gets busier some other days, but it was quite nice to be sitting outdoors on a quiet evening.
4. Service – Even though the place was empty, our waiter was always around to refill our water glasses and make sure we were doing okay.

Odd:
1. Owner – I almost didn’t notice that we were charged $28 for a dozen of the dollar oysters. When I brought it up to our waiter, he walked up to the older gentleman sitting at the bar, who I assumed is the owner, to let him know. We overheard him say in return, Well, did they notice? I bet he wasn’t going to get off his bar stool to revise our check if we didn’t notice the overcharge.

Pokpok

127 Columbia Street between Kane and Degraw Streets, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
$55 each for 5 people, with drinks, with tip
718/923.9322
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After a bland dinner at Mission Chinese the week before, I was eager to taste what a Portland, Oregon chef could bring to discerning New York City diners.

Tastiest:
1. Cha Cha La Vong – a turmeric-marinated catfish fried with scallions and, surprise, dill; served with vermicelli, fresh mint leaves, cilantro and peanuts
2. Kai Yaang – roasted hen stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, pepper and cilantro
3. Phak Buung Fai Daeng – water spinach wok-fried with fish sauce, chili and garlic

Notable:
1. The Chiang Mai sausage was described as having aromatics, but it failed to mention that it will be overwhelmingly kaffir lime leaves

Questionable:
1. 20% service fee was automatically added to our bill – I thought that was for a group of 6 or more
2. $1 fee charged to every credit card because we used 4 and their limit is 3
3. No American Express accepted

Parish Hall

109 A North 3rd Street between Berry and Wythe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
$86 each for 3 people, with 3 drinks apiece, without tip
718/782.2602
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The disclaimer here is that I made a small investment on Parish Hall to finally fulfill one of my dreams of being a small part of the restaurant business. I also wanted to support George Weld, someone I’ve known since the dot-com days when we used to pretend we were actually working. But the fact of the matter is that I will still give this restaurant a good review even if I did not know George and even if I wasn’t a fan of his first venture, Egg.

If I can eat the duck breast everyday with a side of their “new field greens”, I’d be totally content. I’ve had the duck twice the last three times I visited (fourth if you count them hosting the Gastronauts’ 6th anniversary), and both times it was cooked impeccably. I was just bummed that I had to share it with my friends.

The salad’s composition depends on what greens they have in the kitchen that day, taking the concept of farm-to-table to a whole new level since George actually owns Goatfell Farm which provides most of their vegetables. They’ve had dandelion, arugula, mizuna, chickweed, watercress and all sorts of lettuces, and all of them tasted fresh, earthy and healthy. During one visit, nasturtium was on my plate; it was peppery and tasted so much like a… green–there’s really no other way to describe its rawness.

Equally delicious is the grilled rack of lamb and roasted shoulder and equally surprising to see on the plate was the flax and nettle pesto that came with it, not so much of a sauce but a dollop so you can lather as little or as much as you want. (But don’t worry, no stings included!) The homey dumpling also changes depending on what ingredients are on hand. I loved the version with asparagus, pears–and what again?–spinach cream and fennel pollen. A most recent addition was trout in a clean broth with some fiddleheads and the perfect cubes of apples. The dishes seem simple, but simple is never easy to implement in the kitchen. I think a chef’s skills are more challenged when he or she can make something so complicated look so simple to us mortals.

If you walk past the restaurant or go to their Web site, you’ll read a variety of the produce they present: beet, maple, apple-sorrel sauces, purée of parsnips, green garlic aioli, nettle yogurt, kohlrabi and sunchokes chips. I would like to think I’ve had my share of eating in some of America’s best restaurants, but nowhere else have I been perplexed about ingredients that are so straightforwardly named. Thomas Keller’s menus always come with quotation marks to describe their food, but with Parish Hall you get the list of ingredients and still have to ask the servers about them.

George has described their cooking as “the truth of the Northeast”–I suppose I didn’t know anything about what this part of the country can offer. Parish Hall and chef Evan Hanczor shows it can offer so much.

Some photos from my last few visits:

A simple Alpine breakfast named after the highest peak in the Catskills with a slow-cooked egg, some charcuterie, mustard and jam. I like the touch of fresh radishes on the plate to cut through the richness.

Water buffalo pastrami made especially for the Gastronauts’ 6th anniversary. You won’t see this on the regular menu though.

A plate of beautiful radishes:

Related post/s:
Parish Hall Web site
Goatfell Farm
George Weld on Fast Company‘s Co.Exist