Eating in Brooklyn restoreth the soul. You can go home again. No matter how long and determined you exile, no matter how homogenized your diction, no matter how alienated your spirit. If you were born in Brooklyn or married into it, certain tastes instantly restoreth: Lundy’s chowder… fried clams at Nathan’s… Shatzkin’s many splendored knishes (apple, blueberry, cherry, cheese, kasha or potato) fresh from the oven, Nostalgia anesthetizes all critical judgment. What counts most is: lots. Twenty years ago, Portnoy’s mother held a knife at his throat to get him to eat. Tonight, back in Brooklyn for dinner, she can’t get him to stop.
Here is a tourist’s guide to some Brooklyn traditionals, bastions of sentiment and temples of haute gluttony.
Williamsburg is where that famous tree grew. Williamsburg is where Peter Luger’s Steak House opened in 1876 as Charles Luger’s Café, Billards and Bowling, 178 Broadway -- as solid and plain as Old Victoria herself, wood-paneled, peg-floored, bare oak tables bleached almost white by thousands of sand-scrubbings. The steaks are celebrated, and pilgrims from afar are often queued like determined carnivores, but after eight o’clock one Monday the pace had calmed. There is no menu. We were at the mercy of our waiter , a benevolent dictator with an ankle-length tablecloth knotted round his waist. He thought we should all start with Luger’s “famous special tomatoes and onions,” Silence.
Under urging, but reluctantly, he conceded shrimp cocktail was a possible alterative. Our six card-carrying gourmands ordered two of the latter, four of the former. “Too much … you’ll never eat it,” the waiter warned, and proceeded to deliver a quantity of platters he considered prudent. And he was right. There must be some subtle sophistication in the tomato-onion mélange that eludes me. Luger fans rave about the alternating thick slices of raw vegetable served with a barbecue-sauce-type dressing as if it couldn’t be duplicated anywhere with a decent tomato and serrated knife.
The meal is something else: a great slab of T-bone Porterhouse on a sizzling platter, swiftly sliced at table, beautifully tender, expertly grilled; and absolutely unbelievable lamb chops, triple thick, charred and crusty, deep pink and flavorful inside. The waiter had offered a choice of potatoes, hashed brown or German fried. “What’s the difference?” we asked “None”, he replied. Later he bagged the remaining lamb chops without asking and brought dessert: jumbo wedges of an excellent creamy cheesecake and hearty blueberry crumb pie. With three drinks, three beers and tips, dinner of six was $77.
Step through the twilight zone into Gage and Tollner at 374 Fulton Street, mellow and immaculate at the sage of 90. You are in another century. The gaslight era is beautifully frozen in time with dark flocked walls, burnished wood framing arched mirrors, a parade of intricately curved gas fixtures and a cast of veteran waiters. Ours served with the affectionate tolerance of a man who hadn’t heard about Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of that bus. If you pretend it’s a period happening at contemporary prices you will be fed wholesomely and well but without style or embellishment.
The food is solid -- to my taste, stolid – American, with great depth of choice in seafood. Oysters (in season) are offered in 25 versions, clams come in 42 ways, potatoes in 16. Most entrees are $3 or less, with sirloin at $8, and there are daily luncheon specials. A caraway-scented clam chowder was excellent (60 cents a cup) and clams casino ($3.50), tangy with bacon and bits of tomato, were tender and good, Fried soft-shell crab and broiled blue-fish -- a firm, mild, gray-fleshed fish -- were fresh, wholesome and unexciting. The bluefish was also slightly singed.
A G&T booster had raved about the slaw… the menu offered shredded cabbage. That’s what it was, unadulterated cabbage shreds to be doused with the house’s. French dressing, unappealing in its parts, but together, curiously refreshing. The pecan pie ($1) was excellent and the cream cheese cake ($1) exceptional.
Lundy’s is a fortress of gourmandise and sensory insult on the foot of Ocean Avenue where it dips a toe into Sheepshead Bay. It is impossible to be indifferent to Lundy’s -- you either love it or loathe it. Assimilate. Shed a layer of your civilized veneer and get right with the noisy, manic, uninhibited every-man-for-himself-up-to-the-elbows-in-melted-butter mood. Sunday around six is like a revival of Marat-Sade. Great not-necessarily-loving clans in Bermuda shorts and buffalo-hide thongs stalk the aisles of this cavernous mock-Gothic gymnasium reconnoitering for a table, on a seat-yourself basis. As many as 5,000 meals have been served in a single day.
Under this long-running onslaught, one can understand why Lundy’s black waiters were militantly abrasive long before hostility became chic. Ours was practically a pussycat, but he couldn’t resist picking up a fork that had dropped and hurling it onto the adjoining table in noisy chastisement. He also stabbed the Kultur Maven’s shoulder with a lobster fork, but K.M. is convinced it was mere accident and not reaction to the request for more baking-soda biscuits, doughy and hot from the oven, a Lundy’s tradition.
There are, indeed, steaks and chops on Lundy’s butter-stained menu, but the point here is seafood, especially lobsters and oysters and clams form Lundy’s own beds. The “Shore Dinner” at $6.75 would drown an Olympic swimmer: celery, clam, oyster, shrimp or crabmeat cocktail, steamers with butter sauce, half a broiled lobster, half a broiled chicken, potatoes, vegetables, dessert and coffee. Slightly abbreviated versions start at $3.75, or one may choose from the à la carte listing.
At the risk of provoking half of Brooklyn to rise in rage against me, I must confess the famous clam chowder was a grave disappointment. In the olden days it was considered elegant to fetch chowder by the gallon from Lundy’s to serve your dinner guests at home. But one recent summer evening there was only a scattering of minced clams and some chunks of potato lurking in the thick orange emulsion, bland and tasting of flour thickening. “There’s no point in my tasting,” the Kultur Maven protested, “I can’t taste anything but what used to be.”
We shared a huge platter of steamers ($2) to be de-sanded in broth and dipped in melted butter while waiting for lobster. Both boiled and broiled they were large and good but slightly overcooked. Lundy’s famous julienne potatoes and French fried onions heightened the tension of gluttony, But the moment of ultimate debauchery came with the legendary blueberry pie under a great globe of Lundy’s inimitable chocolate ice cream. It’s not just the butterfat, it’s the consistency, soft but not runny.
It must be patently cleat that Lundy’s is the last place for romantic tête-a-tête. The dim lights are cruelly glaring and normal conversation almost impossible in the din.
Michel’s Restaurant, at 346 Flat-bush Avenue, is middle-aged and not quite what is used to be. Then again, maybe it never was. Thrift may be the lure, A six-course dinner starring beef goulash is only $3.75. The menu is eclectic American and unadventurous: broiled scallops, swordfish, sole and scrod, lobster Newburg, turkey, ham, calf’s liver, veal parmigiana. The patrons are another dimension of Brooklyn: genteel and gentile, contentedly celebrating milestones at Michel’s beneath the wine velvet swags with sturdy left-footed cherubs offering nosegays.
Dinner was a marathon of mediocrity. The crabmeat was inedible and the vichyssoise boring (it tasted canned), the vegetables were water-logged, the scampi tough in a well-flavored sauce, veal cutlet just edible, no more, ant the shortcake was heaped with ersatz whipped cream. Rhubarb and strawberry pie was gummy but good. Only the broiled sweetbreads with mushrooms and bacon were really commendable.
Eating Italian is always a very serious business. We took a small poll, asked three people their favorite Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, and visited all three.
Myrtle Avenue below the E1 has gone black all around Pete’s and the Italian bakery next door. What was once a great neighborhood restaurant is now a five-borough mecca, neat and unpretentious with its pressed tin ceiling painted tomato red, and super professional waiters. Ours had ESP. He was four tables away delivering a basket of garlic bread when he sensed our call, looked up, nodded and without a word went off to bring us garlic bread, too.
The menu choice is vast, with most entrees between $3 and $3.75. The food can be very good -- the bread-crumb-blanketed mussels were moist and good, eggplant stuffed with zucchini, capers, tomato sauce and great chunks of Italian bread was excellent, and there was a variety in the taste of stuffings in the hot antipasto. But the eggplant, prosciutto, mozzarella and piquant sauce embellishment of the veal scallopine à la Sorrentino ($3.25) was better than the veal. “Sea Food Sensation,” ($4.75) -- broiled lobster tail with clams and shrimp -- needed seasoning, and pasta shells stuffed with ricotta ($2.25) hadn’t been sufficiently drained; they drearily diluted the meat sauce.
Bonaparte, at 1613 Avenue “M,” is the rage of Flatbush. The same excellent food with the same scattered flaws, the same price range, the same wide choice with a slightly more exotic crowd: Miami Beach North, lots of magnificently mod teenage couples and some exotically wigged heads. Even with reservations, there was a 15-minute wait. The waiters are very spiffy in gold jackets with epaulets, polite but not overly interested. And a decorator has fulfilled a thousand fantasies with jumbo paisley wallpaper, fake wood beams, artfully distressed plywood, and great heaps of red and orange paper peonies in wooden tubs.
The homemade fettuccine all’Alfredo ($2.25) needed the extra sauce (25 cents) desperately. “The Three Musketeer” platter ($8 for two) was an excellent smorgasbord with a well-seasoned steak pizzaiola smothered in mushrooms, nicely flavored veal marsala and cheesy chicken cardinale, plus potato croquette and a large platter of soggy fried zucchini. The homemade ricotta cheese cake was meltingly good, studded with bits of candied fruit and perfumed with orange peel.
Women’s Wear Daily’s Paris correspondent recently crowed Monte’s at 451 Carroll Street, “New York’s best Italian restaurant” … no trick at all on a two-week sabbatical when you’re leaving town the next day. Forget the rash superlative. The kitchen does perform well. Monte’s is an outpost of haute Mafia dining, a whitewashed brick oasis in a warehouse district, its parking lot jammed with Cadillacs and Imperials. Reservations are crucial. Chummy, even-tempered waitresses with architectural hairdos coped cheerfully in a circus of clutter: mirror-framed Varga girls, pastel crepe-paper rosettes and lanterns, murals of Venice, fringed red canopy and hanging pots of plastic geraniums.
The lunch menu is small and inexpensive: Antipasto ($1.25) was a chilled salad of lettuce, tomato, olives, anchovy, pepper, salami, pepperoni, proscuitto and excellent provolone. Baked ziti ($1.25) was a masterful blend of large macaroni, ricotta, mozzarella and a spicy tomato sauce. Monte’s special baked shrimp, tender and rich with buttery crumbs ($3) were excellent but cried for garlic. “Youse better eat that I’m not taking it back,” the waitress protested when she spied three uneaten shrimp. The cheesecake was still in the oven, so we drank espresso from sugared glasses (35 cents).
Of course, Brooklyn’s exotic ethnic mix has seeded an underground gourmet feast. Perfect for a summer lunch after a shopping expedition in the oriental bazaar on Atlantic Avenue was baba ganouge, cold mashed eggplant (80 cents) and cucumber and yogurt (60 cents), both heady with slivers of garlic at the Near East, a Syrian restaurant, 138 Court Street. One salad, minty and tart, was enough for two, and we shared a portion of Syrian cheese (like feta in texture, but wetter and mild). For dessert: baklava (50 cents) and thick strong Arabic coffee (15 cents).
An attempt to eat Puerto Rican was slightly frustrated by a language barrier, but we ordered one of this and one of that at Otero’s, 232 Smith Street. Mofongo with chuletas ($2.50) was a great yellow, bacon-flavored mound of something starchy (bananas, the man said) and two well-flavored, but slightly dried pork chops. The pastele ($1) was excellent -- rather like the bread crumby texture of stuffed derma, but meaty. Ensalada de polpi (2.25) was octopus salad with a garnish of banana chips.
It seemed a perfect climax for the Brooklyn dining odyssey of an exile from plastic-wrapped-white-bread country.