Is This the Best Jewish Bakery in Brooklyn?

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There was a time when Jewish bakeries in the outer boroughs were as ubiquitous as patisseries in Paris. Turn a corner, grab a babka. Walk up the street, pick up an onion board. Much like other vestiges of Old New York, they’re growing rarer by the day. Check any food forum (like chowhound.com) and you’ll see a lot of posters lamenting the Jewish bakeries of yesteryear. Many owners have retired, and, along with the clientele, moved away. All hope is not lost! On a random trek through hasidic Crown Heights, my husband and I encountered Gombo’s Heimishe Bakery. The only bakery on Kingston Avenue, the only major commerce strip in the neighborhood, the shop does brisk business.

It reminded me of one of the best Jewish bakeries I’d ever been to, Cheskie Boulangerie in Montreal, Canada. On its signage, it also describes itself as “heimishe.”

In Yiddish parlance heimishe or haimish means down-home and unpretentious. As a type of bakery, the term seems to convey an Eastern European-style pastry shop that features a variety of rustic sweets.There are a lot of Jewish desserts, like rugelach, as well as non-Jewish specific regional treats like danishes.

The chocolate danish-like pastry we sampled at Cheskie was warm, chewy–incredible–and the babka we brought back for family prompted an attempted from-scratch reconstruction.

At Gombo’s, there are nearly a dozen items that could be described as “chocolate and dough in rolled-up form.” Soft chocolate rugelach (a type popular in Israel), drier American-style chocolate rugelach covered in powdered sugar, chocolate danishes, large chocolate croissants, chocolate cigars…I think you get the idea. My favorite items were a poppy seed bun and slice of the chocolate strudel-like pastry by the counter, which is cut to order. The local kids, though, were all making a beeline for the bright glaze-covered yeast doughnuts.

Mornings or early afternoons are the best times to snag fresh pastry, and there’s a line on Fridays for their fresh challah.

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Off the Beaten Path: Gowanus

The industrial Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, situated on the Gowanus Canal between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, has been a citywide punchline for years. The canal is so polluted (typhoid, cholera and gonorrhea have all been detected, among many other microbes), the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 2010. There’s a distinct sour garbage odor that wafts from the oil-slicked water in the summer, when the wind blows just so. An ill-fated whale who accidentally swam into the canal in 2007 was nicknamed “Sludgy” for obvious reasons.

There’s more to Gowanus than a smelly, refuse-filled waterway. The area has long been home to a prideful Italian-American community–an extension of nearby Carroll Gardens, some of whom still remain, nestled in the few residential streets surrounding the canal. Artists and musicians moved in at the end of the 20th century, seeking low rents and an off-the grid vibe. The enormous “Batcave,” an abandoned power station, was home to squatters, graffiti artists and impromptu punk rock shows up until a year ago.

Changes are afoot. The Batcave is being turned into an arts center. And, with a scheduled $500 million cleanup starting soon and a bevy of real estate development, the rest of the neighborhood is quickly transforming into a bit of an adult playground. Warehouses are turning into Miami-style shuffleboard palaces and live music venues. The industrial chic Green Building event space, which sits directly adjacent to the canal, is one of the most coveted wedding venues in the borough. It’s so popular, in fact, that sister space 501 Union opened across the street in 2013. My husband jokes that the expansive South Brooklyn Casket Co. warehouse, situated on prime Union Street, is weeks away from selling its space to a generic speakeasy bar, which will be named… “The South Brooklyn Casket Co.,” complete with cocktails like “The Mahogany.” (Too soon?) The ‘hood is still a long way away from turning into the next DUMBO, with plenty of curiosities, industry and grit along the quiet, uncrowded streets.

Below, a few places to check out in the area.

Eat

  • Littleneck: Neighborhood-y seafood centric restaurant with an inventive menu and a killer clam roll
  • The Pines: Well-reviewed high-end restaurant with a seasonal menu
  • Ample Hills Creamery: Two-story ice cream palace with roof deck. Location-specific “It Came From the Gowanus” ice cream flavor pokes fun at the environs.
  • Runner & Stone: Serious bakery with a full lunch and dinner menu. We sometimes make the trek from our apartment for their buckwheat baguette, fresh out of the oven everyday around 4:30 p.m.
  • Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Crazy-good world-renowned bakery with a rotating roster of pies. I love any iteration of berry pie and black-bottom oatmeal pie.
  • Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbeque: Brisket-driven BBQ restaurant
  • The Bahche: Huge cafe with an abundance of seating rare for NYC
  • Two Toms Restaurant: Old School Italian restaurant with indeterminate hours and a classic, red-sauce menu
  • Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: Syracuse-based BBQ temple that attracts patrons from all over the borough. The baked wings and fried green tomatoes are standouts.
  • Monte’s: Another throwback Italian restaurant whose first iteration opened in 1906. Stakes its claim as the oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn.

Drink

  • Canal Bar: A dive bar-lovers bar: good beers, good jukebox, free popcorn and a backyard in the summer
  • Threes Brewing: A brewery and beer hall that brews its offerings onsite. An expansive dining room and event space is packed with locals on weekends. A rotating cast of Brooklyn restaurants like Roberta’s serve a small menu alongside a curated beer list.
  • Haylards: Local’s bar with a pool table, live music, small bites and cocktails
  • Lavender Lake: Cocktail-driven bar with a large backyard popular for birthdays
  • Black Mountain Wine House: Cozy wine bar with a working fireplace

Do

  • Royal Palms Shuffleboard: Huge maybe-ironic (I don’t even know anymore) indoor shuffleboard club with South Florida-style cabanas, tropical drinks and a food truck that parks inside
  • Film Biz Recycling: A warehouse full of quirky film industry prop and set design remnants. Some are available to buy, while stranger items, like gurneys, can be rented by the week. Sixty percent of the materials this non-profit receives are donated to local charities.
  • Brooklyn Brine: The (tiny) storefront of the pickle company whose wares are sold all over the city and beyond
  • School of Rock: Learn to play a musical instrument or hit that high note at this one-stop music learning shop.
  • Brooklyn Boulders: A rock climbing facility with the kind of space big city climbing enthusiasts long for
  • Gowanus Print Lab: A screen printing studio with a variety of classes, including t-shirt printing, stationery and typography
  • The Bell House: A live music and events venue with a crowded calendar. See bands like Crooked Fingers, attend a Little Mermaid sing-along, Brooklyn comedian Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival or a Pat Kiernan-hosted trivia night.
  • Twig: Kooky moss terrariums filled with imaginative worlds in a variety of shapes and sizes. Workshops available for those who want to make their own
  • Whole Foods: A real sign of changing times, this 56,000 square foot Whole Foods features a greenhouse, a rooftop bar and a manicured canal-side walkway.
  • Morbid Anatomy Museum: a gift shop, library, exhibition space and lecture series exploring macabre fascinations.

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From top: Royal Palms Shuffleboard; the Derby pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds (image via Howard Walfish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license); Canal Bar (image via pixonomy, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license; rental items at Film Biz recycling–yes, that’s a prop electric chair; Gowanus location of Ample Hills Creamery

The Introvert’s City

It’s the weekend (finally!). After a long, tiring work week, you’re in a funk and looking to reenergize. How do you go about it? According to conventional wisdom, if you’re an extrovert, you hit up a bustling restaurant or go to a crowded party. If you’re an introvert, you hibernate indoors with a good book and lots of silence, or if you feel like socializing, you go to dinner with a good friend. While extroverts gain energy from others, an introvert’s energy is sapped by people and crowds. But why? According to a 2005 study, extroverts have heightened emotional responses to unexpected positive outcomes and may be more prone to seek them out. In other words, they want newness and thrills. They indulge in adventure, uncertainty, new friends and risky sports. Introverts, on the other hand, are often content with what (and whom) they already know and love.

How does all of this play out in the big, bad city? It would seem NYC would be filled with only extroverts. It’s loud, chaotic, and rife with the possibility of the unexpected. We know, though, that’s not the case. The neurotic New Yorker is a long-used film and literary trope for a reason. I imagine thousands, if not millions of the city’s residents are wed to routine and are anxious if things don’t go exactly as planned–a trait, if not the defining one, of an introvert. There are also true introverts who live here, but seek out quiet corners where they’re able to hide away and unwind.

But what of the many introverted residents or visitors who, somewhat counterintuitively, relish the electricity of the crowds? What of people like me? I am in many ways an introvert. Small talk, parties with people I don’t know, being the center of attention–these tend to make me nervous. I’m fairly soft spoken and those who meet me would probably describe me as shy. On the other hand, being alone for an extended period of time tends to tire me out. How do I reconcile these seemingly conflicting traits? How do I recharge?

What works best is a walk down NYC’s streets, preferably in a crowded section of the city. A park bench is also ideal. There, I can feel the rush without feeling compelled to actually engage with anyone. Unless I want to engage, in which case the lack of necessity for conversation makes the act of conversing much less stressful.

Being out in the midst functions like a shot of espresso to jostle and excite me. (I’m not actually a coffee drinker, but I’ve heard things.) I’m an observer by nature. I study people–their mannerisms, their facial expressions, their conversations. In another life, I probably could have been a private detective. I imagine it’s why I’m drawn to writing, the ultimate observer’s profession.

The city is an observer’s dream. And, unlike the classic introvert who’s observant because that’s how he or she learns and engages with others, I observe because, like a classic extrovert, I’m looking for outside stimuli–something potentially inspiring or unusual to break up the everyday. Is the totally sane-looking man dressed in an old-timey prospector’s costume on a random Tuesday going somewhere or does he choose to dress this way because he enjoys it. Does the man wearing a Rangers jersey singing opera in the subway feel accepted by his family? I want to know! Tell me! I want to know everything. I often wish tourists would ask me for directions just so I can find out where they’re from. We can share a short, unencumbered chat and be on our way.

I guess the real difference between me and a true extrovert is that the knowledge itself is enough. I don’t actually need to be a theater star or wear extravagant look-at-me clothes or skydive or rock climb. It’s enough to know and learn. And the city, she’s a pretty great teacher.

Holiday Meal Traditions

I’m of two minds about spending the holidays in New York. On the plus side, the city is decked out in her prettiest outfit, all sparkles and glitter and polish. On the other hand, it is swarming with tourists to the point where, if you’re not careful, you can literally get stuck among the scrum, just as my husband and I were last Christmas Eve Day near the Rockefeller Center tree. We had to make a harrowing escape via a small opening near Saks.

But there is a lot to love. The celebratory restaurants at your disposal, for one.

Hanukkah

We celebrate Hanukkah, and each year we make a pilgrimage to eat some latkes at a traditional Jewish deli. This year, though, we tried something different.

On the 6th night of Hanukkah we rented a Zipcar and drove to Stix Kosher Restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens. This homestyle establishment specializes in the cuisine of Bukharian Jews–a Central Asian population with a distinctive culture whose history in the region dates back millenia. Lamb is what they do best, and the varieties we sampled were tender and not-at-all gamey. We feasted on lamb plov, kebabs, chebureki and traditional tandoori bread. All around us, large tables of families were toasting to birthdays and the holiday with BYO bottles of vodka and brandy. It was an incredibly festive and warm atmosphere.

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After dinner, we were craving sufganiyot. These filled doughnuts are traditionally enjoyed during Hanukkah to commemorate the oil burning miracle at the center of the holiday. They’re similar to American-style jelly doughnuts, Italian bomboloni and German Berliners. We stumbled upon Queens Pita, which wasn’t just serving one variety of sufganiyot; they had prepared a veritable smorgasbord of the pastry. We were in deep-fried, powdered sugar-coated paradise. I mean, just look at that photo. The ones in the foreground are filled with Nutella. NUTELLA! Just as God had intended.

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Christmas

As Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan admitted during her confirmation hearing, most NYC Jews spend Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. It’s a funny tradition with origins in the mere fact that, for a long time, those restaurants were the only ones open on a day when the usually bustling city is uncharacteristically quiet. Local Chinese joints were the default place to grab a bite for cooking-averse New Yorkers. Many have also pontificated about the shared otherness both Jews and Chinese Buddhists experienced back when assimilation had a much stronger pull in predominately Christian American society.

In order to get a meal in with family members who were leaving the next day, we decided to partake in a spicy Szechuan outing on Christmas Eve night as opposed to the much busier Christmas Day dinner hour. Café China in Midtown was packed with families of all stripes (including The AmericansRichard Thomas, out with his wife and two kids!) Festooned with kitschy throwback decor, the restaurant is a nice option for a slightly-more-upscale Szechuan meal in the area. The foods of the Szechuan region are covered in spices and mouth numbing peppercorns (ma la, in Chinese parlance). If you can handle it, order their specialties and not the American-Chinese entrees on offer. We enjoyed Szechuan noodles, dumplings in chili oil, scallion pancakes, tea-smoked duck, ma po tofu, spicy lamb, fried strings beans and twice-cooked pork. Over-ordering and enjoying leftovers later that night in your PJs is half the fun.

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Christmas Day is a relaxing day for us. No presents to open. No fancy dinner to make. We spend it lazing about the apartment and baking something from scratch. We had a breakfast of corned beef hash with two eggs over-easy (my favorite!) at a standby diner down the street. It was quiet, low-key, perfect.

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After a stroll in the park, I spent nearly all of the rest of the day making these cinnamon rolls. They weren’t too difficult, and as I’ve been doing with nearly every dessert this season, I  spiked them with some bourbon–just a tablespoon or so added to the cream cheese frosting in order to give it a little extra sumthin’. We enjoyed the rolls with sparkling wine cocktails. A very merry Christmas, indeed.

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New Year’s Eve

NYE in the United States is mainly a going out holiday. It’s about drinking, dancing, counting down until midnight. In Russia it’s much more–it’s a Thanksgiving-level celebration. There, New Year’s Eve is a HUGE deal. After the Communist Revolution and the subsequent suppression of religion, the traditions surrounding the day mirrored those of Christmas–a decorated tree, a Santa Claus-like figure, presents–though completely void of any religious meaning. (Actual Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th). Since moving to the U.S., my family has dropped most of the Christmas-like traditions (except for the presents part, natch), but NYE doesn’t feel right without a festive meal that includes caviar, sweets and champagne. My husband and I were going out with friends on the actual day, so we made the meal–complete with homemade crepes–on December 30th. It was freakin’ lovely.

NYE

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