Smart Mouth: Jane Black Reviews Brooklyn Fare, a 'Pop-Up' Restaurant in N.Y.

"Pop-up" restaurants are, yep, popping up around New York. Brooklyn Fare chef Cesar Ramirez welcomes up to 12 diners, just three nights a week, to taste his improvised gourmet cuisine.
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

César Ramirez was not happy that we were late. The other guests looked none too pleased, either, when he ushered us to the table 15 minutes after our scheduled reservation. Everyone had a drink in front of them. That helped. But the cooking could not begin until everyone had arrived.

Truth is, we weren't sure what the etiquette was at Brooklyn Fare. There were just 10 guests. But it's not a dinner party, where it's considered fashionable to stroll in a few minutes late. And though Ramirez is a critically acclaimed chef, formerly of the Manhattan destination Bouley, Brooklyn Fare is not exactly a restaurant, either.

Cooking in the prep kitchen of this gourmet food store in downtown Brooklyn, Ramirez welcomes as many as 12 diners just three nights a week. Guests sit on backless stools around a stainless steel island under a rack of copper pots. But they eat such dishes as butter-poached lobster topped with sugar-snap peas, mint and tarragon foam served on French china, and they sip drinks from elegant glassware. One couple brought cocktail ingredients and a shaker, plus bottles of white, red and dessert wine. Such indulgence may be why the menu warns that "there will be a fee incurred for any broken glassware or china."

It's what's unusual about Brooklyn Fare that makes it so much fun. And it's why "pop-up" restaurants are, yep, popping up around New York. The sometimes-destinations vary in size and style. Two Tuesdays a month, "Top Chef" host Tom Colicchio cooks a $150-a-head meal for 32 guests in the private dining room of his flagship restaurant, Craft. (The Tom Tuesday Dinners run through Sept. 29, so if you haven't booked, chances are it's too late.) At Beacon in Midtown, chef Waldy Malouf cooks 12 courses on Thursdays for $98. In Brooklyn, things are characteristically more casual. Beer Table, a pub in Park Slope, offers a three-course meal with beer pairings on Tuesdays for $40, first come, first served. On Friday nights in Williamsburg, ramen shop Bonjin takes over a Korean restaurant, Dokebi, from midnight to 4 a.m. to serve up noodle soups to drunk hipsters.

Brooklyn Fare is a kind of Manhattan-Brooklyn hybrid. The food is elegant, but the atmosphere is decidedly utilitarian. The group of diners was mostly low-key, though there was a certain contingent intent on establishing their foodie credentials: Before the first course was served, one guest had already announced that he'd spent his 50th birthday in the kitchen at noted Manhattan restaurant Tabla. And the price in Brooklyn is reasonable: $70 for 10 courses -- and it's BYOB with no corkage fees. Indeed, because the restaurant has no liquor license, guests not only bring but pour their own, a policy that has the added benefit of letting guests set their drinking pace.

For Ramirez, the appeal of a pop-up was the chance to cook what he likes "without compromises." After eight years at Bouley, the chef opened Bar Blanc in the West Village. But he reportedly fell out with the owners and left after seven months. "I like to improvise. I never write things down," Ramirez said. "Recipes make you go in the same circle over and over again."

This is why the paper menu of Brooklyn Fare is intentionally vague. On the night a friend and I visited, it outlined eight courses with one-word descriptions such as hibiscus, tomato, poached egg and mango. But we got 10.

After the advertised hibiscus course (a layered shot of tart tea made from Iranian white hibiscus) came a surprise bite-size taste of fried calf brains, light and crispy on the outside with a creamy center; good enough to convert any fearful foodie to the cult of offal. Next came a bonus Kumamoto oyster paired with creme fraiche and an emerald cucumber jelly, topped with a quivering disk of jellified oyster juice.

The second official course, billed as "tomato," was more elaborate, including seven plays on the summer fruit. There was a marshmallow pillow supporting a dusting of sharp but fruity dried tomato powder; a white tomato mousse, a mix of concentrated tomato water and whipped cream; a bright tomato gelee; and a half globe of mozzarella atop a blood orange and tomato gazpacho. Ramirez advised us to eat right to left, and the best came last: an almost-candied, vine-ripe tomato that had been cooked on the stove all day with molasses-like Japanese sugar and vanilla.

Ramirez says he cooks everything low and slow; his oven is never set above 300 degrees. That also goes for seafood dishes, which shone here. The halibut was briefly seared, just enough to turn the top a luscious caramel, then finished in a low oven to leave the inside almost creamy. A Maine lobster tail and claw were slowly poached in butter, then drizzled with a red-wine and pork-fat reduction and finished with that bright spring-green foam of pea, mint and tarragon. (For the record, I am not generally a fan of foams. But Ramirez does them right: The flavors keep their intensity, but the airy consistency keeps them from overwhelming the dish.)

Figuring out how Ramirez pulls these dishes off was one of the attractions for Kayvon Tehranian, who was celebrating his 24th birthday with his girlfriend. Tehranian's parents were great cooks, he told us over a plate of Long Island duck wrapped in spinach mousse and artichokes and served on a foie gras chantilly sauce. While he was allowed to chop and clean, he never really mastered cooking in his parents' kitchen. "We're tired of going out, but this appealed," Tehranian said. "It's cool to be in the kitchen and have him show you things so you can take some of that knowledge home."

Extracting information from Ramirez isn't always easy, however. What's perfectly obvious to a professional chef must be explained to even avid home cooks. When I asked him how to make the cucumber jelly he served with the oysters, he answered, "It's just cucumbers and gelatin." After some prodding, he admitted that he had pushed the dark cucumber skins through an industrial juicer before setting them in a loose jelly.

A disappointment? Not really. Failing to learn all the chef's secrets offers a good excuse to go back.

There's just one rule: Don't be late.

Brooklyn Fare, 200 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn, N.Y. $70 plus tax per person. BYOB with no corkage fees. Open Thursday to Saturday, 7 p.m. Reservations: 718-243-0050 or Credit cards are charged at the time of reservation. Cancellations must be made one week in advance.

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