Manhattan's Loss Is Our Gain
Fort Greene’s Thomas Beisl & A Table
One of the advantages of living in Brooklyn is that our borough is filled with restaurants headed by chefs and restaurant managers who trained in the haute kitchens of Manhattan. If you read a lot of restaurant reviews, this much will become clear to you. Queens may have the monopoly on cheap "Chowhound" ethnic eateries, but Brooklyn is where good big-city chefs go to live the life—running their own place. These restaurants are chic and stylish but also cozy, serious about food but also earthy and accessible.
One of my favorite examples is Fort Greene’s Thomas Beisl, a Viennese bistro (beisl means bistro). Four-star chef Thomas Ferlesch had always wanted to open his own restaurant for the people, like the beisls in his native Vienna. He did not want to own an upscale restaurant like Manhattan’s Café des Artistes, where he was executive chef for 11 years. Ferlesch lived in Fort Greene for 13 years before he noticed the ideal location on Lafayette, right across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The owner of the space worried that a Viennese bistro would not fit in with multicultural Fort Greene. But Ferlesch believes the restaurant is a logical addition to the neighborhood because Viennese cuisine is itself a mélange. As the one-time capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna has taken strudel from Turkey, crepes from Switzerland, and warm pastries from Czechoslovakia.
Ferlesch has envisioned his restaurant as a traditional Viennese beisl, where policemen, professors and doctors eat and drink together. His menu ranges from inexpensive panini to entrees up to $20, and he even keeps a chess set behind the bar. The restaurant is attracting more arty professionals than workers, primarily due to its proximity to BAM. Still, it is a place with heart.
The food is hearty, but Ferlesch uses a light hand. Fresh salads are on the menu for those who need to see the color green with every meal. When I went, one of the specials was sulz, which Americans call "head cheese"—pieces of ham suspended in aspic with just the right amount of vinegar and oil. It was bright and springy, and I hope it makes a reappearance on the menu. I also tried the Gebackene champignons with a sauce tartar. These are deep fried mushrooms in a light batter, juicy inside, almost like a soup wonton. The Zwiebeirrost braten is beef paillard in zweigelt red wine sauce with braised cipollini, collard greens, carrots, and fried onions. (Cipollini are a particularly tender kind of small onion.) It’s a little like a pot roast, but much, much better.
I expected the spetzle to be rich and eggy, like the spetzle I had tried in Germany. I was not disappointed. Ferlesch’s is charmingly clumsy with irregular shape and texture, and picks up the Viennese beef gulyash (made of braised cheeks) beautifully. The cheek meat had little pockets of melted fat that are decadent and smooth, lubricating the already buttery-soft spetzle. I asked Ferlesch how to make spetzle. He tells me he mixes flour, oil, and eggs in a stainless steel bowl and then pushes the dough through the holes of a spetzle-maker into boiling water. "Don’t use a colander," he told me. "The holes are too small." Damn.
Our waiter looked tortured when we asked him to pick his favorite dessert. After some deliberation he recommended Palatschinken, Viennese crepes, with hazelnut chocolate spread. The dense hazelnut spread makes Nutella taste like Hershey’s syrup with peanut butter. And as if the crepes were not rich enough with the hazelnut spread, they were also smothered in a chocolate sauce with shavings of crushed hazelnuts (alternatively, crepes come with apricot jam). The reason for our waiter’s pain was the rest of the dessert menu, all inspiring: strawberries in sour cream and yogurt, hot fudge napoleon, linzertorte with whipped cream.
For summer Ferlesch is planning to serve vittello tonalto, delicately roasted turkey breast or veal served with a sauce of tuna, anchovy, and capers in mayonnaise on a bed of arugula. Also on the menu will be soft shell crab on seven-grain bread, heirloom tomato and basil salads, and cold soups made with fresh fruits and vegetables. Ferlesch will take his cues from the market.
Thomas Beisl carries a good selection of Austrian wines and beers as well as Brooklyn Brewery beers and a springtime champagne cocktail called Scheile made with elderflower, a little gelatin, and Jagermeister (I never thought I’d see Jagermeister put to good use). The dining room is inviting, the waitstaff knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Another Fort Greene restaurant that gets it right is A Table. Owner Jean-Baptiste Caillet brings his experience as a manager at Balthazar to this rustic-looking bistro. The place is worth a visit on its own merits, but in these days of anti-French sentiment I feel it’s important that we support French cuisine as much as possible. When else will we be able to treat our love for French wines, goose fat, and cheese as a political statement?
On our most recent visit to A Table, we wandered in late on a Sunday evening. The long, communal table allowed my husband to lean over and offer another couple some tax advice. This does not go well with the wine, but he means well. We started with the escargot classiques. The tender snails came filled with a garlic, butter and parsley sauce. But I especially enjoyed the escargot tongs, little forceps bent especially to extract bashful little creatures from their shells. (Now I want to learn how to make escargot just so I have an excuse to buy a set of those tongs for myself. That and a spetzle maker…)
The atmosphere that night was lax, and a little unpredictable. When I asked after the Sunday-night cassoulet listed on the board, our server looked at me as if I’d asked for the Iguana Lo Mein. "No cassoulet tonight!" So I ordered the duck confit. It was a leg served atop balsamic-drenched mesclun. The meat under its crispy skin is sublimely succulent without being greasy. The accompanying cherry tomatoes were a smart addition this time of the year. Unlike full-sized tomatoes in any month other than July or August, cherry tomatoes are juicy little flavor bombs. The filet de porc in a mushroom sauce was juicy and tender. It was served on a pile of garlicky wilted spinach with a side of the Platinum Iridium of pommes frites—crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.
For dessert I had a lemon tart, which is intensely lemony with a light crust (just how I like it). The crème caramel did not wow me as much, but it has a good consistency and flavor. The apple tart looked enticing, and I will have to try it next time. A Table has a selection of French wines and beers well paired to its bistro menu.
If you’re the indulgent type, or don’t have time to make an appearance at A Table, you can order takeout. A new outfit called Brooklyn Room Service (www.brooklynroomservice.com) delivers for a number of mostly Fort Greene restaurants, including A Table. You can peruse menus online and then call to order. There is a five-dollar delivery fee, and a 12% gratuity is recommended. Delivery takes 45 minutes for delivery, so plan ahead.
Caillet also owns a charming little food shop in Fort Greene, L’Epicere (The Grocery) at 270 Vanderbilt, at DeKalb. The store features cheese, patés, sausages, charcuteries, jams, breads (from Blue Ribbon Bakery), and even Vichy water. There’s plenty of room to grow in this shop, and I hope Caillet eventually fills the space more tightly with specialty food items. But in the meantime, this is still a good place to drop by for appetizers when preparing a dinner party.
And so you have, on just one Brooklyn street, two dreams come true, places that nightly deliver satisfaction to the good people of this borough. Time Out New York has called Brooklyn the "new downtown." While I suspect many of TONY’s editors and writers must live in Brooklyn, I think they’re on to something. Recession notwithstanding, we’re leading a charmed culinary life over here.
25 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
171 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
Velez is a food blogger based in Brooklyn, NY.