I was floating out of a sublime concert the other night--the opening of Brooklyn Art Song Society's tenth season, a brilliantly programed blend of Purcell (complete with Lute accompaniment) and Britten--when I realized I couldn't leave (as Whitman said) the "beautiful hills of Brooklyn!" I had to walk around, take in the atmosphere and bask in the night air.
Too much has been written about cool, trendy Brooklyn, but every time I make the trek I realize I don't care if it's become a cliché of everything hip and happening. Brooklyn is wonderful, and I love it.
I went to the concert with Wil Crutchley, a former chef at Le Bernadin, Le Cirque and Payard, and now private chef to the movers and shakers of Manhattan; I figured we'd find a restaurant, have a quiet dinner and Wil could explain Brooklyn cuisine to me.
No such luck. At 10:30 PM on a Friday Night in Fort Green, the last thing possible was a quiet meal. Fulton Street was buzzing with artsy-types direct from BAM or Theater for a New City, plus a diverse group of locals enjoying the gorgeous fall weather. Happily we wandered into Black Forest Brooklyn, and had a sensational meal!
Black Forest Brooklyn (733 Fulton Street) is a German Indoor Biergarten and Kaffeehaus serving regional German specialties. The casual atmosphere was enhanced by the communal picnic tables spread out over a large loft-like area with cuckoo clocks decorating the back wall; the place was packed with people and their beers; Oktoberfest had begun and the locals--Jamaicans, Asians, Jews, Italians, possibly even a few Germans--celebrated with a fervor, each tossing down one of the 14 different German beers on tap.
I joined the festivities, ordering what seemed to me the most exotic beer on the menu: the Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, billed as the only unpasteurized German beer available in the US. Louis Pasteur be damned, this was sensational: full, round, cold fermented and slow brewed to perfection. Wil had the Hofbräu Original, another full-bodied, well-balanced Bavarian Lager but with a lighter touch. We toasted Oktoberfest and the meal was off to a rousing start. No, we didn't sing "Lonely Goatherd." (Well, maybe just a chorus.)
I'm sure because she sensed we were from (again from Whitman) "the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it," co-owner Ayana Holler came to our table and welcomed us to her restaurant. Ayana, like a German Liza Minnelli in her "Ring Them Bells" period, traveled round the world to meet her husband, who was actually the boy next door. She grew up in Sulzburg, a tiny village south of Freiburg in the rural foothills of the Black Forest, and Tobias, her husband, grew up in Pfaffenweiler, about ten miles away; but they didn't meet until they both moved to Brooklyn (Yugoslavia, yet?--for those who get the Liza reference), where they decided to open this restaurant, a first for both. They shopped their idea to local landlords, most of whom were reluctant to rent to first time restaurateurs; happily, they found a sympathetic owner who loved the idea of a German Beer Hall right in Fort Green. Two years later, the place is flourishing.
Ayana recommended the Champignons Im Bierteig (Beer-battered, fried champignon mushrooms and aioli) as appetizers. She said that there were many vineyards in Sulzburg, and the entire town joined in with the annual grape harvest, after which this mushroom dish was the traditional celebratory meal. How could I resist that story? Wil, who said he could never cook something like that for his health-conscious clients, raved, "They were perfectly done, crispy and meaty with a delicious umami flavor. The dip was not a traditional aioli; there was a savory dairy component that gave it something more."
Wil was astonished by a neighbor's Riesenbrezel which looked like the most perfect, enormous, quintessential German pretzel. As a second appetizer, we ordered the Flammhuchen, is a thin-crust flat bread which Ayana said was one of the most famous gastronomical specialties of the Black Forest region. It was invented by the Alemannic German-speaking farmers from Alscae and Bade to test the heat of their bread baking ovens. Will said it was a reminiscent of a soft lavash, and non-chef me, thought it was like a soft, thin-crust pizza. In any event, the sour cream on top seemed more like a thinned cream cheese and blended deliciously with the smoked slab bacon and caramelized onions. This meal was getting better and better!
Like every good Jewish boy from Brooklyn I had to have as my main dish the Weisswurst, two Bavarian veal and pork sausages with sweet Bavarian mustard. I must confess I always get a guilty pleasure eating sausages (see my review of Treif, also in Brooklyn), and these were particularly plump and succulent. Will had the traditional Jägerschnitzel Mit Spätzle, breaded veal cutlet, wild mushroom gravy, homemade German egg noodles and house salad. I'm not sure what the German translation of comfort food is, but whatever it is, this was sure it: filling, fine and warm. Wil again: "I love German food and this is much better than the food I've had in Germany."
Ayana told us that the Black Forest Cherry cake, Schwarzwälder Der Kirschtorte was a recipe she'd been making since she was twelve; I had been salivating since she first mentioned it. It arrived, and we were not disappointed. I marveled at how the cherries marinated in cherry brandy added a special sweetness to the chocolate. Wil: This was obviously a German recipe because the chocolate cake wasn't as cloyingly sweet as the American version. It was the perfect balance of rich and light." They also sent over an unordered Apple Crumb cake, Warmer Apfelkuchen Mit Sahne (I love typing the German names) which was a delicious surprise, jam packed with thinly sliced apple, the first taste, an explosion of cinnamon and nutmeg. The apple was condensed and retained the heat extremely well, which made a perfect foil to the excellent homemade vanilla ice cream.
These desserts were far too big for two people, though we made a damn good attempt. Happily, I noticed Michael Brofman, the artistic director of Brooklyn Art Song Society, drinking with his singers from the concert a few tables over. I introduced myself and invited them to share our sweets, which were instantly devoured. (Singers are always hungry!)
I'll give Chef Wil the last word: "I'm definitely coming back and bringing more friends."
Viva Brooklyn! (A friend wanted me to end the piece with a different salute, a more Germanic salute to Brooklyn. I declined.)