The Meaning-Seeker’s Guide to NYC

There’s a reason the night sky plays such an active role in nearly every culture dating back millennia. It is our tether to the scope of everything. Without the stars, we lose our footing and forget that we are, in fact, part of something vast and glorious and, well, magical.

When we look for meaning, it’s not just about understanding why we’re here, in the very practical sense of why consciousness exists. It’s also about feeling a part of something, a great human tableau that seems to have a collective soul of its own.

We matter, just for the simple reason that we exist alongside each other, and here are some places in the city that help remind us of that.

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Central Park bench plaques: When I need to feel especially attuned to cosmic interconnectedness, I trudge to Central Park and take my time strolling around and reading the plaques attached to the benches. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, these plaques are used as a fundraiser, and at $10,000 a piece they endow the important work of the Central Park Conservancy. More than 4,100 plaques have been added to 9,000 of the park’s benches. The inscribed messages range from marriage proposals to thoughtful obituaries to musings on the beauty of the park. Each is a tiny but intimate window into the life of a New Yorker or New York lover. I’m usually in tears a few plaques in. (There are lots of obits.) Pro tip: Go now, when you’ll have plenty of empty benches to peruse, as opposed to in summer, when they’re all full of weary park goers.

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Chuck Close subway mosaics: Art can make us feel spiritually fulfilled. Something about the way in which it captures us—our moods, our moments, our likeness—and reflects it all back in a way that makes things a tad more comprehendible. Recently, one of the installations that moved me most was not in a museum. It was public art, part of the 86th station on the newly opened 2nd Avenue subway. The station is filled with 12 large-scale Chuck Close mosaic portraits in a variety of styles, featuring tiny glass pieces, large painted tile, realistic rendering, Close’s signature circle mosaics and more. The massive scale makes each portrait especially poignant. 

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Scales of the Universe exhibit: I’m of two minds about the universe and how its scope relates to our own philosophy of relevance. On the one hand, it seems we matter less if we’re so infinitesimally small in relation to what’s out there. On the other hand, we have the power to learn and understand the “bigness” of what’s out there, so maybe we really do matter after all. Come face to face with these grand questions inside the striking Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The Scales of the Universe exhibit circles the Planetarium, using the sphere as a scale of reference for the macro and micro measurements of our world. It starts as a representation of the observable universe and ends as a representation of rhinovirus, so you can try to understand both the universe’s enormous expanse as well as its precision. 

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Sunset Park overlook: There are boastful views. You know the kind. They’re grand, and they know they’re grand. These include views from places like Top of the Rock and One World Observatory. Sometimes, though, it’s more low-key perches that invite a literal and figurative change in perspective. Take this view of Manhattan from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. It feels almost like a discovery, like you’re one of the few people who’ve come upon it. The unexpectedness of it makes it that much more impactful. In a way, it’s a subtle reminder of the power of a different angle. 

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Lady M crêpe cake: Some people say that the meaning of life can’t be found on a plate. To these people, I say: you haven’t had Lady M’s signature crêpe cake. There’s no way for me to praise this dessert without coming off as melodramatic. It is a soft, delicate flower after a warm, spring rain. It is a first kiss with your first crush. It is the reason why the universe exists. Wait, did I go too far there? Excuse my sensationalism, I was mid-bite. This dessert’s perfection stems from its simplicity—20 thin crêpes, delicate cream, a crème brûléed top. It’ll help make you a believer. 

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Best Spots for Backyard Cocktails

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Though I’m fairly confident in my NYC expert status, I do have a blind spot: bars. I’m not a big bar hopper. I’m not always aware of the coolest dive bar with the just-surly-enough bartenders or the latest microbrewery bar with the 3 dozen beer taps. I do love well-made cocktails, though. And, I love drinking them outdoors in snazzy backyards come summertime. It’s a quintessential New York warm weather experience. Below, a list of places to check out.

Weather Up: A moody upscale bar in Prospect Heights with delicious, well-priced cocktails. The drinks take a while (a good sign, I think?), but you can wait in the string bulb-lit, verdant backyard, which has ample seating. Thanks to the vegetation and the Brooklyn humidity, it can get muggy back here. Take advantage of the bug spray at the yard’s entrance!

June: This Cobble Hill newcomer is winning fans all over the city. The thoughtful interior is downright beautiful, the small plates are delicious, and the natural wines are unique. The cocktails, which feature uncommon ingredients (just ask and the waitress will explain), are strong and tasty. Did I mention the prices are reasonable? The backyard, which wasn’t completed when things first started to warm up, is now ready for the spotlight.

Leyenda: Cobble Hill seems like the place to drink this summer. This new bar on Smith Street from cocktail maven Julie Rainer and aptly named partner and rising star Ivy Mix, has all the makings of a summer hotspot: an extensive list of creative Latin American-inspired cocktails and punches, tasty small plates from acclaimed chef Sue Torres, and a bare-bones, but pretty backyard perfect for a friend date.

Blueprint: A cozy, low-key place to grab a backyard cocktail in Park Slope. There’s a varied cocktail list with agreeable prices and small plates for soaking up the booze. A comfortable, dates-heavy garden space makes this a very adult, very 30-something place to imbibe. (Park Slope dope!)

Tooker Alley: They take their drinks very seriously at this Prospect Heights watering hole (binder menu, orchid garnishes), but the bar, especially on weekdays is void of pretension. The retro outdoor space with green plastic chair and twinkling lights amps up the casual factor.

Huckleberry Bar: The lush yard at this East Williamsburg cocktail bar is a haven in a not-very-tree-filled part of Brooklyn. They’ve been open for 8 years, so they’ve had some time to hone their craft. Unlike similar establishments that close their yards before midnight, this yard stays open until 1 a.m.

The Raines Law Room: This Flatiron destination is best avoided on weekends, when waits can be cruel. Weekday evenings, though, it’s great for an expertly made, albeit very pricey, cocktail with a friend or date. The back garden is teeny, but lovely.

Maison Premiere: With unique cocktails and the most extensive $1 oyster happy hour in the city, this Williamsburg bar/restaurant fills up fast on weekday afternoons. Get here early, by 5 p.m., to guarantee a spot. The outdoor space, with its pergolas, greenery and white wrought iron tables and chairs is transportive. (Fair warning: mosquitos abound.)

Lavender Lake: Ah, the Gowanus–the polluted waterway that’s attracting loads of development along its banks (only in New York?). What the area does provide is space, and there’s loads of it at this chill, expansive bar. Come early to snag a table with an umbrella and wile away the afternoon with a refreshing cocktail and some fried brussels sprouts.

Mulberry Project: If Maison Premiere transports you to seaside France, the backyard (named La Isla Escondida) at this Little Italy lounge makes you feel as though you’ve hopped a super quick flight to coastal Mexico. Graphic murals, bright green artificial turf, multicolored tile and straw thatch couple with fuchsia and lime-hued cocktails to create a vibe that’s anywhere but NYC.

Wrought iron chairs and twinkling lights at Weather Up; courtesy of Weather Up, Brooklyn

Wrought iron chairs and twinkling lights at Weather Up; courtesy of Weather Up, Brooklyn

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Low-key vibe and inventive drinks at Leyenda

A retro feel at Tookey Alley

A throwback feel at Tookey Alley

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Lush greenery at Maison Premiere; courtesy of Maison Premiere

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An eternal summer vibe at La Isla Escondida; Courtesy of Mulberry Project

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

Ice Cream Sandwich Roundup, Updated

Last summer I posted a comprehensive roundup of the best made-to-order ice cream sandwich in NYC, and there were plenty of formidable contenders. This season brings a few new examples that up the ice cream sandwich ante.

1. I mentioned a version of the brioche-gelato sandwich before, but the Italian-by-way of Brazil gelato shop A.B. Biagi does it one better by offering their take. The Pain Gelato features a choice of three brioche flavors–chocolate-chocolate nibs, orange blossom and regular–sourced from stellar Brooklyn bakery Bien Cuit. Each pairs well with a different gelato flavor. My stracciatella (similar to chocolate chip) went well with the chocolate brioche, which I wasn’t at all angry about. They place the brioche and gelato in a special, waffle-press-like contraption until the sides of the brioche are sealed. The result is a warm, crisp pocket filled with cold, silky gelato. There’s something especially indulgent about eating dessert in the form of a sandwich. There are two caveats–one, at $8, it is pricey and two, because they don’t want the gelato to leak out of the sides, the scoop is pretty small.

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2. Dominique Ansel Bakery is best known for the perpetually imitated Cronut, but the shop’s signature item is a smaller version of the classic Breton pastry kougin-amann. The pastry is flaky, layer-y and sugary, similar to a croissant, but with a more pronounced caramelized, rather than butter, flavor. For their version of an ice cream sandwich (which technically isn’t new, but it’s new to me!), they take a DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann), cut it in half and fill it with two scoops of ice cream. The prailene ice cream creation below, for $6.75, was, for lack of a better word, awesome. The pastry is solid enough to hold the ice cream in place, and it’s sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, providing a perfect complement to the richness of the ice cream.

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3. So this creation from recently featured ice creamery Hay Rosie Craft Ice Cream Co. is utterly insane–in the best possible way. Referred to as “the barnburner,” and costing a reasonable-for-its-size $8, this take on the ice cream sandwich incorporates ice cream nestled between a rotating roster of bookends. The day I went there was a choice between slabs of raw chocolate chip cookie dough or actual PB&J sandwiches. After assembly, both the filling and the shell are placed into the very same machine used to create the Pain Gelato, above. The chocolate chip cookie dough barnburner, which I paired with Grape Nuts ice cream, was rich. Like, this-is-really-good-but-I-can-only-eat-a-tenth-of-it rich. The dough had been warmed just enough to create some crispiness, but its DNA was still very much dough. I indulge in a bit of raw dough eating every now and then, but it’s not my absolute fave, the way it is for some. If that means you, you have found your kryptonite.

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4. Newish Park Slope bakery Buterrmilk Bakeshop specializes in homestyle desserts, and their take on the ice cream sandwich reminds me of the sort of satisfying concoction you’d create in your own kitchen. Pick any two of their cookies–I went with one peanut butter and one chocolate chunk–and add a scoop of their homemade ice cream–I opted for coffee almond. The cookies are soft, buttery and crumbly, which makes the sandwich easy (no rock-hard cookie to fight your way through), albeit very messy to eat. At $5.50, it’s also a pretty good deal in the NYC ice cream sandwich market.

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An Insider’s Guide to a Russian Food Store

New York City is rich with ethnic enclaves. This means culture-specific restaurants, bookstores, and perhaps most excitingly, food markets. If you’re not well versed in that specific culture, stepping inside can be a tad intimidating and overwhelming. Where to start? How do you make sure you’re picking up the right products?

As a Russian immigrant, I often go to Brooklyn’s beachside Brighton Beach neighborhood to fill up on provisions. One of my favorite grocery stores is Brighton Bazaar. It’s clean, expansive and easy to navigate. Here are some of the things I like to pick up when I make a trip.

1. Pickled things are the antipasti of Russian meals. The cabbage is tart and refreshing as are the full sour and half-sour pickles. You can also pick up pickled mushrooms, tomatoes and even watermelon.

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2. The hot bar is a cornucopia of Russian specialties, from bread pockets to meat cutlets to mayonnaise-y salads. The meaty, fatty, flavorful borscht is hearty enough for a full meal.

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3. The aroma emanating from the sliced meats counter reminds me of the sliced bologna and salami we indulge in during family gatherings. For salami, I’d suggest one of the more expensive varieties, like Hungarian (Vengerskaya) or Tzar’s (Tzarskaya), or, if you don’t eat pork, an all-beef salami referred to as “Jewish” (Evreyskaya). I have a soft spot for the alarmingly cheap Doctor’s pork bologna (Doctorskaya), which is smooth and strangely refreshing. My husband insists my love for it is a product of misplaced nostalgia, but I would still recommend it for the Russian food novice–it has a universally appealing taste that’s much less gritty than the Oscar Meyer variety.

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4. Apparently this shop’s bakery department orders their breads all the way from Germany. It makes sense; German bread is renowned in Russia, and the varieties offered here are top-notch. The darker breads are dense, delicious and perfect for sopping up sour-cream drenched things. I usually get the “crusty bread”, which is on the lighter side of dark, and has a nuanced sourdough quality. Feel free to pick up a poppy seed roll–the favorite dessert of every Russian father–if you’re looking for something sweet.

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5. There are a few varieties of dried fish in the seafood section. The one I’m most familiar is vobla. It’s the fish of post-banya meals and lazy afternoons. It requires a a bit of softening, so you can either hit it against the table a few times or bend it back-and-forth until it’s pliable enough to pick at. It’s salty, so pair it with a refreshing beer–a Baltika, maybe?–for a truly Russian experience.

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6. Buckwheat kasha or grechnivaya kasha (on the floor) is to Russia what French fries are to the United States. It’s a a staple side in nearly every home and restaurant. It’s not only a side, though. Add some sauteed mushrooms for a complete meal. My favorite dish as a child was buckwheat kasha mixed with cutup hotdogs.

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7. Russian-style dumplings or pelmeni are my go-to frozen entree when I don’t have time to cook. There are over a dozen varieties to choose from, including sweet versions with cherries, often referred to by their Ukranian name, vareniki. I usually go for the chicken dumplings, but the most popular are “Siberian”-style, a mixture of beef and pork. Boil until tender and top with a spoonful of sour cream or melted butter.

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8. When I was younger, one of my favorite items from the Russian food store was a bag of pryaniki, Russian gingerbread honey cookies. There is an abundance of choice when it comes to picking your favorite. Do you like them smaller or larger, with a more pronounced gingerbread flavor or a more pronounced honey flavor, with more sugar glaze or less? They’re delicious, but also a bit of an acquired taste. They tend to be slightly drier than American-style gingerbread cookies and may require a dunk into tea or coffee.

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 9. There’s no American food product my parents hate more than factory-made marshmallows. They’re convinced American marshmallows taste of chemicals, and well, they’re kind of right. On the other hand, they love zephyr, a Russian dessert with a similar texture. It’s made with fruit puree, sugar, egg whites and some type of gelling agent. It’s airy, pliant, sweet and even better when covered in chocolate.

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10. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Russian chocolates look better than they taste. And well, that’s okay, because they still taste pretty good. The packaging is the star, though, especially in the case of the awesomely retro paper-covered chocolates. All feature bright Soviet-era illustrations, some inspired by Soviet realism, others by 70s-era children’s books. They’re mostly chocolate-covered and the interior is usually a wafer or a nutty nougat filling.

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11. Russians tend to prefer their desserts less overwhelmingly sweet than many Americans. They love flaky, buttery, Napoleon-style French pastry, and go ga-ga for layered meringue cakes, like the crazy-popular Kiev cake. The oblong, walnut-looking sandwich cookies (below, middle) called oreshki (the Russian diminutive word for “nuts”) are a wedding staple, made from a mayonnaise batter and filled with caramel cream and crushed nuts.  The long, purple, candle-looking dessert is called churchkhela and is popular in the Caucuses. The long spokes are made from nuts which are repeatedly covered in a gelling fruit juice mixture and left to harden.

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A Sweets Tour of the Upper East Side

Now that it’s finally beginning to feel like spring outside (knock on wood, spit thrice over your left shoulder, pray to the god of your choosing), it’s time to let your hair down and once again set out on foot across this great city. What better place to start than the Upper East Side? Yes, that Upper East Side. While we weren’t looking the buttoned-up ‘hood has transformed, with the help of a few longtime standouts, into the greatest dessert destination in NYC.

Bakeries and Patisseries

Maison Kayser:  The flagship NYC location of a Parisian-based patisserie, this shop is known for breads and pastry and a healthy collection of American treats like cookies and brownies. A sit-down restaurant is filled with ladies-who-lunch enjoying open faced sandwiches and salads. If you’re sitting down to lunch or dessert, make sure to ask for a bread basket filled with an assortment of bread samples; they won’t bring it to you otherwise.

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FB Patisserie: The fancy older sister to Francois Payard’s downtown bakeries, this location specializes in mousse-based pastry, tarts and French macarons. It’s a best-of compilation of French pastry. In front, there’s a casual cafe perfect for enjoying an eclair and a coffee, while the back is host to an upscale full service restaurant–with prices to match.

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Lady M Confections: This slim minimalist shop is home to one of my favorite cakes ever, the original mille crêpe cake, shown below at right. It’s not cheap ($7.50 a slice), but with 20 paper-thin crêpes and light, not-too-sweet cream layers, it’s an ideal celebratory indulgence. There are other flavors and other cakes, but the original is the superstar. The guidebook writers seem to think so, too, as the shop was packed with tourists during a recent visit.

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William Greenberg Desserts: This shop has been an Upper East Side institution for nearly 60 years. Their famous black-and-white cookies are made in the traditional way (more spongey cake than cookie, fondant icing) and are customizable when ordered in large quantities. They also specialize in Jewish desserts, which for the next two weeks or so means kosher-for-Passover favorites like chocolate-covered matzoh and flour-less brownies.

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Glaser’s Bake Shop: Open for over 100 years, this no-frills shop harkens back to the Upper East Side of yesteryear, back when Yorkville (the name of the eastern section of the neighborhood) was filled with central European immigrants. The influence is evident in their large selection of Danish pastries, but the bakery also specialize in American favorites like cupcakes, brownies, pies and layer cakes. The customer favorite is the black-and-white cookie, which, in contrast to William Greenberg’s they top with fondant and buttercream frosting.

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Orwashers: Our tour of the historic bakeries of the Upper East Side continues, and this one’s a real gem. Orwashers–opened in 1916– churns out award-winning artisan breads; their French baguette was recently declared the best in NYC by Serious Eats. They have pastries, too, as well as filled-to-order doughnuts (chocolate or sugar) with your choice of one of 5 fillings. The red raspberry ($4.25) was everything a jelly doughnut should be.

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Two Little Red Hens: This all-American bakery is extremely popular with the locals, even now, when it’s situated on the wrong side of Second Avenue subway construction. On a recent visit, the shop was out of a lot, and patrons were crowding in to enjoy oversize buttercream-topped cupcakes. The Brooklyn blackout cake is a favorite for birthdays.

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(Image courtesy RichardBerg, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

Specialty Bakeries

Canelé by Céline: This tiny adorable bakery specializes in mainly one thing–canelés. These ridged French pastries are marked by a soft, custardy center and a browned caramelized exterior. The shop sells unique flavors like caramel, dark chocolate, raspberry and rum, and even a few varieties of a savory canelés, with chorizo or parmesan cheese. It’ll set you back $4.90 for a pack of three.

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Ladureé: It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ladureé in the Parisian collective consciousness. The mint-green bag is ubiquitous around the city, and Charles de Gaulle airport even has an outpost of the famous shop. The speciality here is French macarons in a rainbow of flavors. The Upper East Side location is the first in the U.S. (one recently opened in Soho as well) and the macarons are just as good as the ones overseas–light meringue, flavorful filling. Their raspberry macaron ($2.80 a piece) is the macaron by which I judge all others.

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Sprinkles Cupcakes: This L.A. transplant is all about the cupcakes ($3.75 a piece). Yes, the cake is moist and the frosting is flavorful, but I think what people are drawn to most is the minimalist design of the shop, something mostly absent from American throwback-style bakeries. Next door is a 24-hour cupcake ATM, which is exactly what it sounds like. You pick your cupcake from a touchscreen, swipe your card, and within seconds, a little door opens with your cupcake of choice enclosed in a to-go box (add $.50 for the convenience). Is it at all necessary? Absolutely not. But it sure is cool.

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Dough Loco: There’s some debate about whether this shop’s location, on Park Ave. and 97th St., constitutes the Upper East Side or East Harlem. We’re not concerned with realtor definitions, just with dessert. The doughnuts ($3 a piece) remind me a lot of the ones from Dough in Bed-Stuy. Both shops feature yeast doughnuts topped with unique coatings. The ones here are smaller, though more dense. Flavors include maple miso, blood orange, raspberry Sriracha, and the below, peanut butter and cassis. Blue Bottle coffee products help you wash them down.

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Le Churro: I have a soft spot for churros. After all, what’s not to love? Freshly fried dough drenched in sugar and served with a chocolate dipping sauce. The ones here (4 for $3.95) are thin and light, in contrast to the heavy churros of the subway platform and Costco cafe (hey, if you’re in a bind…). They offer multiple dipping sauces (chocolate hazelnut, sweet mocha, to name a few), chocolate covered churros, bite-sized churros and even filled churros, for those too lazy to dip.

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Ô Merveilleux Belgian Meringue: I had never heard of Belgian meringues before, but they’re the specialty at this quaint new Second Avenue shop. These treats, which come in two sizes, layer meringue and whipped cream and are topped with chocolate shavings or speculoos cookie crumbs. The small, at $2.70, is plenty sweet to satisfy a serious dessert craving. They have other offerings too, including cupcakes, croissants, cakes, cookies, brioche and tarts.

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Fall To-Do List 2013

Fall is when New York City really shines. The tourists have gone home; a comfortable crispness has returned to the mornings; plays, dance performances, author readings and other cultural events abound. It’s also a great time to explore the charm of nearby small towns and destinations outside the city limits and to actually catch a glimpse of those changing trees. Below a short, easy-to-manage list of things that make the season.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

There’s a very expensive, destination-worthy restaurant at this sustainable farm in Pocantico Hills, about 30 minutes north of the Bronx. It’s ideal for weddings, special occasion dinners and the like. If you’re not in the mood to drop half-a-month’s rent on dinner, there’s also a café stocked with fresh salads and delectable pastries. The best parts of Stone Barns, though, are the farm and beautiful grounds. Walk amongst the grazing sheep and trotting chickens. Admire the galloping turkeys as they run toward you in packs. Further back, toward the woods, are the oversized, nearly half-ton Berkshire pigs. They’re really quite adorable…in an ugly sort of way. If you’re a vegetarian or would rather not see your food happily alive (no matter how well treated), stick to the vegetable garden, the greenhouse and the hiking paths snaking around the back of the grounds. They’re covered by canopies of trees in a kaleidoscope of colors. You can’t get more “fall” than that.

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Roosters at Stone Barns

A Day in North Fork, Long Island

New Yorkers tend to travel to this low-key Long Island wine growing region in summer, as a way to escape the chaos of the Hamptons. It’s even calmer in the fall, when roadside stands turn into pumpkin patches and visitors can enjoy cool evenings with a wine tasting flight, overlooking local vineyards. Last year, my friends and I piled into a car and made a day of it. We stopped into the recently relocated North Fork Oyster Company (now dubbed The Square) for a lunch of oysters and seafood and then grabbed a beer tasting (you get to take home the pint glass) at Greenport Harbor Brewing. Alternatively, you can check out the much-loved North Fork Inn lunch truck, behind the North Fork Inn & Table, for salads and sandwiches to-go. We walked around picturesque downtown Greenport and over to the waterfront. From there we made our way to Orient Beach State Park for a breathtaking view of the sound. Then it was on to a sparkling wine tasting on the deck of Sparkling Pointe, surrounding by pretty magic hour light. (A list of Long Island wineries can be found here.) We finished the day in perfect fashion, with apple cider donuts from a local stand.

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Sparkling Pointe at dusk

Pumpkin-Flavored Everything

I get a bit obsessed with pumpkin-flavored things in fall. A little too obsessed, sometimes. I once spent the entire month of October seeking out pumpkin-flavored treats in the city, determined to try every one. I don’t suggest you do the same as it’s much too time consuming, but here’s a sampling of treats you may want to, you know, casually come across: pumpkin gelato at Il Laboratrio del Gelato, pumpkin trifle pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a pumpkin whoopie pie at One Girl Cookies, pumpkin pie custard at Shake Shack, a pumpkin donut (both cake and yeast varieties) at Doughnut Plant.

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Pumpkin doughnut at the venerable Doughnut Plant; image courtesy of Doughnut Plant

Cheer on Runners at the NYC Marathon

I love the New York City Marathon and not because I’m an avid or even recreational runner. It’s that I love seeing runners from all over the world come to our fair city to complete a life goal. Yes, the elite athletes are impressive, but it’s the stragglers I admire, the ones determined enough to finish a 26.2 mile race against the odds, to prove something about their bodies and themselves. Most marathoners have their countries as well as their names written on their jerseys so you can call out: “You’re looking great, Doug!” and “Nice job, Marianna!” Many smile when they hear their name called. It’s heartwarming and uplifting and just plain fun.

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Running through the Bronx during the 2011 ING New York City Marathon

(Image via Edwin Martinez1, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Summer To-Do List 2013

At the beginning of every summer, I get slightly anxious when I realize how fleeting the warmer months actually are. You can see it in the desperate faces of New Yorkers clamoring for outdoor tables near construction sites and congregating at “rooftop bars” atop two-story buildings. Granted, summer here is not as short as summer, in say, Barrow, Alaska, but often, the really nice temps don’t roll in until June and only stick around until September. It makes me feel as though I have to get the absolute most out of the season. And each year, I make a list to make sure I do.

Behold, the 2013 list:

Randazzo’s Clam Bar and a Brooklyn Cyclones Game

I’ve never been to Randazzo’s, the famous rib-sticking seafood joint, but have always wanted to try it. A few summers ago, we paired an outdoor crab lunch at Clemente’s Maryland Crabhouse in Sheepshead Bay with a Cyclones game, and it was a such great day. Seafood, baseball by the water and post-game fireworks– everything the summer’s meant to be.

View of the parachute drop from MCU Park

View of the parachute drop from MCU Park

Suburban Pool Day

This requires surveying your circle for friends from either Westchester, Long Island or North Jersey and then finding the ones whose parents still belong to their neighborhood pool. My husband and I spent a glorious day at Tarry Crest Swimming & Tennis Club on a grassy knoll, reading magazines, eating homemade oatmeal cookies and enjoying adult swim for perhaps the first time ever. (Sorry, kid-me, adult swim is awesome.)

Picnic in Prospect Park

We live right near Prospect Park, and though we use it for exercise, we often forget to use it for leisure. There’s nothing better than bringing a picnic lunch (here a few great places nearby that offer sandwiches and accoutrements: Bierkraft, BKLYN Larder and Zito’s Sandwich Shoppe), a good book and relaxing on a blanket under a tree on the Long Meadow. There are a TON of kids here ALL OF THE TIME, so if you want a truly quiet spot, you’ll have to search pretty hard on a really nice weekend day. People watching is half the fun, though! And those kids can be adorable. A few weekends ago, we observed as a toddler ran up to a tree, knocked on its bark, politely asked for two ice creams, then handed over some fake cash.

Prospect Park on a recent weekend

Prospect Park on a recent weekend

Met Rooftop

This one has been on the list for many years. My husband and I like to go on a Friday night after work (the museum is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), get a drink and enjoy the view. Afterward, we roam the Impressionist galleries, which are often blissfully empty that late in the evening. For dinner, make a reservation at Flex Mussels, try Jones Wood Foundry or the very-un-Upper-East-Side Meatball Shop once it opens later this summer.

Tomás Saraceno's Roof Cloud atop the Met last summer

Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City atop the Met last summer

A Hike in Cold Spring, NY

This hike, known as the Breakneck Ridge Loop (don’t let the name scare you off!) is strenuous, but the views are spectacular. We don’t usually do the full loop, and instead hike up to the second or third clearing, then hike back down. Be warned: there is a very steep rock climb further up, which we have not done. There is a Metro-North Hudson Line train station right in the center of town, and you need to walk about a mile north on 9D for the trail head.  A refreshing beer at a bar on Main Street, after you’ve hydrated, of course, is a just reward. There are also cute cafés and antique shopping if you have the energy.

View from the Breakneck Ridge Loop

View from the Breakneck Ridge Loop

(Image via ScubaBear68, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

New Jersey Slider Tour

My husband and I have been wanting to do this slider tour since Serious Eats first posted an article about New Jersey’s many sliders back in 2009. We’ve been to the White Manna in Hackensack on our way elsewhere, but would love to try a few others on the list. Plus, the joints have an iconic 1950s aesthetic. I’ve always loved Jersey’s diner tradition. It’s the perfect daytime activity with a few friends and a Zipcar.

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey

(Image via Liz West, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Red Hook Day

A day in Red Hook, Brooklyn feels like a mini-vacation. We’ve spent many a full day here with friends, including my birthday two years ago. Here are a few ideas culled from recent visits: You can start with a good brunch, maybe at stellar neighborhood restaurant Fort Defiance. Or, a casual lunch of Latin American specialties at the Red Hook Ball Fields, featuring nearly a dozen food trucks surrounding an area soccer field. Follow that up with a relaxing few hours on a blanket at Louis Valentino Jr. Park and Pier. Then a coffee and a pastry or three at the famed Baked bakery. And now that it’s well into the afternoon, you can start drinking (responsibly, obvs). How about a pitcher at the blessedly low-key rooftop patio of dive bar and restaurant Rocky Sullivan’s or outside the large glass-plated doors at cocktail den Botanica, or even with a wine tasting at Red Hook Winery. Finish at Rocky’s with a well-priced dinner of all-American specialties, with upscale eclectic cuisine at The Good Fork or with miniature golf and seafood at the sprawling Brooklyn Crab.

A mural in Red Hook

A mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Hamptons Day

We’ve been doing a day in the Hamptons for eight summers. Tiana Beach near Hampton Bays (technically part of Southampton) is great because A) It’s closer than driving all the way out to the shmancy part of the Hamptons. B) It’s public. C) It’s pretty. D) There are facilities. Be sure to get there before 2 p.m. on weekends to secure your $20 non-resident parking spot. Bring a picnic lunch and finish the day with dinner at a nearby seafood restaurant like TR Restaurant and Bar or Cowfish.

Oyster Happy Hour

Ah, oysters, the most divisive of all shellfish. People who haven’t tried them often don’t want to because they look, well, like snot. Their texture, if they’re fresh and good, is more slick than slimy and they taste of the ocean: salty, briny, earthy, incredible. An oyster happy hour is one of my favorite indulgences and it seems most apropos to take part in during the summer months. New York magazine did a recent round-up and I’ve been dying to settle into a platter in the lush backyard of Maison Premiere. Here are a few happy hours I’ve enjoyed in the past: The Ten Bells, The Mermaid Inn, Lure Fish Bar, Upstate, Prima.

Oysters on the half-shell

Oysters on the half-shell

(Image via julesjulesjules m, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Bike up Hudson to Dinosaur BBQ

Though an outpost of this beloved Syracuse-based BBQ purveyor is opening tomorrow in my neighborhood, nothing beats grabbing a bike (you can either rent one at Pier 84 on W. 44th St. or use a Citi Bike) and pedaling up scenic Hudson River and Riverside Parks, with their pockets of manicured green, art installations and scenic across-river views, to the Harlem, 125th Street location. Grab some hot wings, fried green tomatoes and a sweet tea, and settle in for the afternoon.

Grilling at Brooklyn Bridge Park

My husband and I recently discovered the newly installed picnic tables and charcoal Hibachi-style grills near Pier 5 at this constantly evolving park. Labeled the “Picnic Peninsula,”  these tables, made from salvaged wood and topped with aquamarine umbrellas, would be a perfect place to spend a mild weekend afternoon, perhaps celebrating a friend’s birthday with fresh-grilled burgers and franks. There is a long, snaking line of picnic tables with enough space for many large parties.

Picnic Peninsula at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Picnic Peninsula at Brooklyn Bridge Park

(Image via ceonyc, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

High Line at Night

As I’ve often said, the High Line is one of my favorite places in New York. Until now, though, I’ve only ever visited in the daytime. I recently saw a photo of a couple strolling the elevated park at night, illuminated by ground-level lighting and the glitter of the surrounding city. I knew I had to make a point to get up there after 9 p.m. The park closes at 11 p.m.–plenty of time to get in some nighttime wandering.

High Line in the evening

High Line in the evening

(Image via Susan NYC, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Prospect Park Concert

The Celebrate Brooklyn! series at the Prospect Park Bandshell is one of the mainstays of summer in the city. At most performances, a $3 donation is suggested, but a few are full-on benefit concerts with a $35 and up admissions charge. I don’t love fighting for a small portion of blanket space and getting angry when people block my view, so my friends and I like to sit outside the bandshell and bring a picnic dinner and a few drinks (technically illegal, but shh, don’t tell anyone). There’s a small hill south of the 11th street entrance from which you can see and hear relatively well. Take note: Belle & Sebastian are playing July 11th. I’ll see you there!

Baseball Game

A baseball game is probably on the summer bucket list of nearly everyone in America, and for good reason. Though I could never kill three hours paying attention to a game in the comfort of my own home, there’s just something about being outdoors, surrounded by people, cheering on your favorite, or favorite-for-the day, team. Since the game is long, there is plenty of time for food and drink breaks, and with the up-market concessions now available at both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, plenty of choices outside of a Nathan’s and a Budweiser, though both are, of course, classics.

Yankee Stadium on game night

Game night at Yankee Stadium

L&B Spumoni Gardens

Summer isn’t complete without a slice of Sicilian pizza and a cup of spumoni at the picnic tables outside this venerable institution. These pizza squares are more pillowy bread than pizza, with a heaping serving of sweet tomato sauce and small clumps of gooey, melty cheese. There’s usually a line, but instead of grabbing the older slices on offer by the cash register, tell them you’re going to wait for the slices coming straight out of the oven. For dessert, try the namesake tri-flavored spumoni, a classic Italian layered dessert which, in this case, features a combination of vanilla, chocolate and pistachio ice creams.

A large square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens

A large square pie at L&B Spumoni Gardens

(Image via TheGirlsNY, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Sundae at Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain

I adore the sundaes at this throwback ice cream parlor in Brooklyn’s throwback Carroll Gardens neighborhood. A rotating list of massive, not-for-the-calorie-conscious concoctions can be had at the long counter or at one of their cute café tables. The straightforwardly delicious chocolate brownie sundae, with a warm brownie, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream, tastes like childhood, but the Potato Head Sundae (vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, potato chips) I tried a few summers ago is indelibly entrenched as one of my favorites sundaes ever.

New Catch Holland Herring Sandwich at Russ & Daughters

Ah, June, the month of fresh herring. Celebrate the freshest catch from Holland (where this herring merits a nationwide celebration) at Russ & Daughters, either with their annual all-you-can-eat herring festival or by stopping by the shop between June 19th and mid-to-late July for one of my favorite sandwiches ever: a tail-on herring filet topped with chopped onions and pickles in between a potato hot dog bun. Alternatively, visit midtown restaurant Aquavit for a herring smorgasbord.

Me and my husband at last year's herring pairing

Me and my husband at last year’s herring pairing

Doughnuts in Unexpected Places

Let’s talk doughnuts. One might venture to say they’re the perfect dessert. Pillowy, buttery, sugary and carb-y, doughnuts haven’t met a day they couldn’t make better. They’re as much a part of American culture as Superman and movies about prom (seriously, how many do we need?).  New York City has a healthy collection of doughnut-focused purveyors, including standouts Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side, Dough in Bed-Stuy and Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop in Greenpoint. Today, however, we’re focusing on something a little different. Here are a few places where doughnuts are an unexpected surprise, not the main attraction.

606 R&D

Paid for through the generosity of Kickstarter “dough-nators”, this restaurant’s doughnut machine makes small cakey doughnuts, which are sold plain or dusted with either cinnamon-sugar  or powdered sugar, three for $4 or a dozen for $15. I think all those who donated should feel vindicated. These doughnuts (available to-go or with your sit-down meal) are wonderful, with an appealing crust and a surprisingly moist interior, escaping the mealiness that sometimes befalls similar style doughnuts. Overall, one of my favorites on the list.

Doughnuts at 606 R&D: powdered sugar, plan and cinnamon-sugar

Doughnuts at 606 R&D: powdered sugar, plain and cinnamon-sugar

Brindle Room

This homey East Village restaurant known for its juicy burger and shareable comfort food also churns out fresh doughnuts. I came in at an off-hour and was treated to made-to-order doughnuts in three flavors: powdered sugar, caramel and chocolate hazelnut with sliced almonds (for $1.75 a piece). These doughnuts were so hot the powdered sugar topping had caramelized by the time I opened my to-go container. According to Grub Street, the secret ingredient is mashed potatoes in the batter. They did have a very unique taste–my favorite was the indulgent chocolate hazelnut–though may have spent a few seconds too long in the deep fryer.

A trio of doughnuts from The Brindle Room

A trio of doughnuts from the Brindle Room

Chinatown Mini Cakes, Several Locations (Different Owners)

Okay, so they’re not REALLY doughnuts in the traditional sense. They’re mini cakes, a Hong Kong street food made from a pancake-style batter that is poured into a special griddle (see below). The result is a web of quarter-sized ovals with a crisp exterior and a soft, slightly custardy center.  At 15  or 20 for $1, depending on location , they’re hard to pass up.

Hot cakes at Canal Street purveyor Ling's

Hot cakes at Canal Street purveyor Ling’s

DuMont Burger

Fresh, made-to-order doughnuts are available everyday starting at 11:30 a.m. at this go-to counter of Dumont Burger in Williamsburg. They can be had in a variety of sugar dustings–cinnamon, lemon or ginger–and, if you get the 9-order,with  dulce de leche or chocolate dipping sauces. They have a nicely browned exterior and soft, satisfying, albeit slightly dense innards. Three bites for $4, or nine for $6 isn’t the most amazing deal, but totally worth it for the MTO factor.

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Cinnamon sugar doughnuts with a gratis–thanks to the lovely cashier–dulce de leche dipping sauce

Sullivan Street Bakery

These filled Italian doughnuts, or bombolini ($3.50 each), at bread whisperer Jim Lahey’s cafe -bakery are the bomb…olini (I’ll show myself out). They have a tremendous amount of flavor in the actual dough–a testament to their quality since yeast doughnuts not fried correctly often taste mainly of grease. The raspberry filling (one of several offered) is tart, sweet and potent, with none of the artificiality of chain-style jelly doughnuts.

Raspberry bombolino at Sullivan Street Bakery

Raspberry bombolino at Sullivan Street Bakery

Ray’s Candy Store

Not only is Ray’s one of the only places in the city to get freshly-made beignets to go, it’s also THE only place to get them at 4 a.m. after a raucous night out in the East Village. Ray’s has been an Alphabet City institution since 1974, and though the surrounding area continues to transform at some-would-say alarming speeds, Ray’s is a time-capsule of a grittier era, when the ‘hood was filled with junkies and artists. These perfectly serviceable beignets come buried under a mountain of powdered sugar. As in, I had to turn a few over in the below photo, so you could tell there were actual doughnuts hiding under those sugar peaks. Six will you set you back $3.50, or if you’re really hunger, you can get 12 for $6.50.

An order of six beignets at Ray's

An order of six beignets at Ray’s

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)

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