Out My Window

I love a good sunset, and some of the best in New York City can be seen from my living room windows.  Here is a selection of beauties from last fall.

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The Not-at-All-Definitive Guide to South Brooklyn

Brooklyn has become ubiquitous. A little over a year ago, GQ magazine named the borough the coolest city on the planet. The PLANET! Young creatives in Paris and Stockholm are reportedly trying to recreate its carefully curated patina. Here’s the thing: the majority of these shout-outs focus on very specific areas, namely northern neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights, among others. And you can find plenty of guides to those areas. But they make up only a small fraction of the borough, maybe 25 percent.

There’s a world of Brooklyn left to explore, and it’s not glossy newness that makes it inviting. Just the opposite, in fact.

A list of destination-worthy South Brooklyn neighborhoods in no particular order:

Brighton Beach:

Coming here is the equivalent of taking a time machine to a 1970s USSR, if the Soviet Union at the time was filled with overflowing supermarket shelves and tacky Roberto Cavalli. I love Oceanview Cafe and Cafe Glechik for pelmeni or vareniki–Russian- or Ukranian-style dumplings–tossed with butter and fried onions and topped with a hefty spoonful of sour cream. Add herring with red onions and buttery boiled potatoes and wash it all down with a glass of compote. Nearly every place in Brighton is blissfully BYOV (vodka, natch). The boardwalk is lovely, too. Elderly Russians love the sun (maybe because it was so scarce where they came from?) and congregate on benches, gossiping or playing dominoes. These scenes make me happy. If you’re going to eat on the boardwalk, try Tatiana Grill, but keep in mind that all of the eateries will be overpriced compared with those on Brighton Beach Avenue one block over. KeBeer, precariously positioned in the vast, in-between haze that separates Russian and American cultures, is a good place to drink some beers after you’re done beaching (though I’d stay away from any non-Russian eats). If you’re taking provisions home, I really love the variety at Brighton Bazaar. Pick up a vobla–a dried, whole fish–take it home, smack it against the table a few times, pick at its innards and wash it down with a pint. The only time my mother drinks beer is when she eats vobla. True story.

Hangin' on the boardwalk

Hangin’ on the boardwalk

Flatbush:

Flatbush Avenue and its surrounding streets have a buzz that’s hard to match. On a recent Saturday afternoon excursion, I ventured to guess that it was one of the busiest streets in the city at that precise moment. The neighborhood is filled with immigrants from the Caribbean Islands, and with them they bring some of the best examples of the region’s specialties. Roti rolls are commonly consumed in the West Indies and can most succinctly be described as Indian- and Caribbean-ingredient-filled burritos wrapped in a “roti” or naan-like pancake. Not, very succinct, I’m sorry. I loved my curried potato roti at Trini vendor Rama’s Roti Shop. Jerk chicken is another specialty, and while I’m not entirely familiar with specific restaurants, the Village Voice did a recent best-of roundup.

Bensonhurst:

An old Italian neighborhood that is at once familiar and new. Parts, like 18th Avenue and surrounding environs, seem like they haven’t changed in decades. (I can attest to that. I lived there 25 years ago). Head to Villabate Alba for delectable Italian/Siclian pastries like cannoli, sfogliatelle and ricotta mushrooms. Feast your eyes on special occasion cakes in a variety of colors. A sign stating that they import their ricotta directly from Palermo, Sicily proves they mean business. Nearby, Royal Crown Bakery bakes some of the best bread in the city. Their chocolate bread, only available on Saturdays and Sundays, is worth an early weekend wake-up. Asian immigrants have been moving in over the past decade, bringing a slew of new businesses. Though technically in Dyker Heights, nearby East Harbor Seafood Palace is a great place for dim sum.

Display case at Villabate Alba

Display case at Villabate Alba

Ditmas Park:

Though technically part of Flatbush, this neighb has developed an identity all its own, slowly transforming into a northern-Brooklyn transplant with the addition of a few NY Times-reviewed restaurants on Cortelyou Rd. Among the options are a new-American restaurant (The Farm on Adderley), a flower store that doubles as a bar (Sycamore), a modern Filipino restaurant (Purple Yam), a stellar hummus place (Mimi’s Hummus), a wine and small plates bar (The Castello Plan) and a closet-sized gourmet market (Market), with more establishments on the way. Walk the Victorian section for your own escape to the ‘burbs. These quite streets are scouted by NYC-based movie and TV projects to represent small towns and leafy suburbs. Nearby Ocean Ave. is a hodge-podge of ethnic shops and restaurants.

Victorian Ditmas Park

Victorian Ditmas Park

(Image via Design Squish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Common license)

Bay Ridge:

Bay Ridge feels like its own distinctive city, with bustling avenues of shops, apartment as well as expansive single-home dwellings, and access to a lovely waterfront with views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and across-the-bay Staten Island. Popular discount retailer Century 21 has an outpost here, and Tanoreen, one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, has called the neighborhood home for 15 years. Try the eggplant napoleaon and save room for a knafeh, a mesmerizing combo of shredded filo dough, cheese and syrup.

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

(Image via Watashiwani, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Midwood:

Ocean Parkway, flanked on either side by tree-lined medians and park benches, is one of the prettiest throughways in the city. Though mainly a Jewish neighborhood, Midwood is also home to immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. I love Kosher Bagel Hole for bagels and nearby Orchard for really fresh albeit really expensive fruit. Seriously, you’ll get sticker shock. They specialize in gift baskets, so just try to think of it as a special occasion place. Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J is a religious pilgrimage for the many pizza tourists who flock here daily. If you’re one of them, allot AT LEAST one hour for owner Dom to take your order and make your pie. He moves slooowly, as is expected for someone his age. Also, there’s no official list, he just tries to remember every pie order, which means chances are good someone who ordered after you might get their pie first. All in all, not a stress-free experience, but almost definitely worth it at least once. (Bonus: watch as Dom pulls your pizza out of a burning hot oven with his bare hands!)

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Di Fara Pizza

(Image via arnold inuyaki, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Sheepshead Bay:

A historically Jewish neighborhood with a large Russian immigrant population, Sheepshead Bay’s main feature is a pretty horseshoe bay with several marinas. Go fishing or catch a boat tour down to Coney Island. Locals and tourists love roast beef purveyor, Roll ‘n Roaster. Randazzo’s Clam Bar is popular for seafood, and if you’re feeling adventurous, plan a full night out at Russian supper club Rasputin. It’s bizarre in the best possible way and is sure to be a night you won’t soon forget (and you can BYO anything.)

Coney Island:

One of my favorite things to do is visit to the beach at Coney Island on a cold winter day. Bonus points if it’s snowing. You’re in New York City, yes, but you feel as though you’ve discovered an abandoned amusement park at the end of the world. Unless there’s a Polar Bear Club meeting, you’ll most likely have the place nearly to yourself. Which is not to say Coney Island isn’t a great destination during the summer. Catch the eccentric Mermaid Parade, or make a day of it with a visit to the recently reopened Totonno’s and a minor league baseball game. The Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium is right on the water, and each Friday and Saturday evening game is followed by fireworks. Luna Park, a new theme park abutting some older rides, features a few modern, pint-sized roller coasters. If you’re into those kinds of thrills, be sure to ride the Cyclone, which seems not long for this world. The rickety, feels-like-it’s-going-to-fall-apart-at-any-minute wooden coaster will send you flying in every direction and leave you with a few prized bruises.

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A full beach at Coney Island

Sunset Park:

Located south of South Slope and Greenwood Heights, Sunset Park is a vibrant neighborhood with a large population of Central and South American as well as Asian immigrants. The park that gives Sunset Park its name is fairly small and unassuming, but it features a lovely view of lower Manhattan. Debates about the best tacos in the neighborhood are neverending. Eighth Avenue is filled with dozens of delicious Asian spots. To burn off all of those calories, head to Melody Lanes, a laid-back and inexpensive throwback bowling alley with a famous bartender.

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

(Image via skelastic, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

This is Why: Signed Books

There are so many writers who choose to call New York City, and specifically Brooklyn, home. And while “so and so lives is Brooklyn with her husband and two sons” is now a book jacket cliché, it also means if you live here too, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see your favorite writer speak when they release their new book. There are author events every day of the week. Author events mean lots of copies of signed books. Signed books make great gifts.

I never took to a Kindle. I love the tangible nature of a book: the flipping of pages, the yellowing paper. Local bookstores, author events, people lining up to get their books signed–it all reminds me that other people do, too. Also, seeing an autographed copy of a book makes the story seem real, labored, a project that someone took months, probably years, to cull and craft. It can give an aspiring writer hope that her signature might also one day live on someone’s bookshelf.

Here, a signed copy of Russ & Daughters (upper left corner), a signed copy of Eight Days (upper middle and bottom middle), and a signed copy of Benediction (middle right) at the Community Bookstore.

Autographed books on display at Community bookstore in Park Slope

Autographed books on display at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope

Signed books are available at bookstores large (yes, I mean Barnes & Noble) and small all over the city. One of my favorites is children’s bookstore Books of Wonder in Flatiron. They have a huge selection of signed books. A great place to find a gift for a young reader.

The Community Bookstore, 143 7th Ave.; 718-783-3075

Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th St.; 212-989-3270

 

*This is Why showcases moments that remind me why I love NYC.

New Wave Babka Taste Test

Babka is like manna to me. A lot of sweet, a lot of bread, all amazing. And, as any true New York babka fan knows, the most delicious variety comes from Green’s. Oh, you say you prefer Zabar’s or maybe Russ & Daughters or even Dean & Deluca? Green’s, each and every one. The company supplies its babka to some of the best shops in the city and to Whole Foods stores across the country. These businesses often repackage the loaf in their own wrapping.

What makes Green’s so delicious is what I like to call the “goo-to-bread ratio.” Though a dry, flaky babka has its place, Green’s ups the ante with pillow-y bread and layer-upon-layer of gooey chocolate. Seriously, there is so much chocolate! What keeps it from being a sugar bomb is the slight savoriness of the yeasty dough. For a girl who likes her carbs and her chocolate, it is perfection.

But I digress. There are new babka purveyors in town. Both helmed by Israeli-born chefs, Zucker and Breads Bakeries are bringing a dose of refinement to traditional Jewish delicacies with modern takes on rugelach, babka and other treats. It’s hard to succinctly describe these shops, as both serve a variety of genre-crossing baked goods.

How do their babkas stack up?

Our first entry is from Zucker. This babka is the Pillsbury Grands biscuit of babkas–so many layers! Also, I was lucky enough to get it warm, right out of the oven. As you can see, I couldn’t resist trying it before I was able to get it home.

Verdict: This babka is for those looking for a subtle dessert. Something with tea, perhaps? Or as toast for breakfast? There was not a lot of sweetness to the bread, and even with the nearly infinite layers, I had a hard time tasting the chocolate. The “goo” factor is minimal. It’s a formidable contender, but probably wouldn’t satisfy my (very ferocious) sweet tooth in a dessert emergency.

Zucker Bakery's babka

Zucker Bakery’s babka after being gnawed on by a small animal

Our next entry is from Breads.

Verdit: This more experimental babka (recently named New York magazine’s best chocolate babka) couldn’t be more different from our previous entry. The bread is soft, sweet and buttery and though there aren’t as many layers, the chocolate chips and Nutella are spread thick. I only had to eat one slice to feel satiated. The best part, though, is the crust. It’s coated in a sugar syrup, which adds an appealing crispiness. This is for the ferocious sweet tooth. Something about it–maybe the butteriness and texture?–makes it read more oversized French pastry than babka. But what a delicious oversized French pastry it is!

Breads Bakery's babka: innards

Breads Bakery’s babka: innards

Final assessment: Breads Bakery’s babka wins with its contrasting textures and intense chocolate and Nutella flavor.

To me, though, Green’s is still king. And long may he reign.

Zucker Bakery, 433 E. 9th St., nr. Ave. A; 646-559-8425

Breads Bakery, 18 E. 16th St., nr. Union Sq. W.; 212-633-2253

This is Why: SoHo on a Weekday Morning

On the weekends, SoHo, the warehouse wasteland-turned artist mecca-turned upscale shopping destination, is somewhat of a mess. Tourists and brave locals crowd its sidewalks and fill its stores. Walking down Broadway on a Saturday at 2 p.m. can feel like snaking your way through an oversold outdoor concert. Weekday mornings, however, are bliss. The side streets especially are devoid of all but a few people. It’s the best time to enjoy the charms of the cobblestones and cast-iron facades.

Here, a walk up Crosby Street.

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*This is Why showcases moments that remind me why I love NYC.

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