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Prospect Heights

At Chuko, Vegetables Are The Unlikely Stars

I never thought I would say it, but the vegetarian option was the sleeper hit at Chuko, a new-ish ramen place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Well, that’s not exactly an accurate statement; I ordered the vegetarian broth…and then added pork. Still, I can say with some certainty that the broth was the best element of that dish. Flavorful and complex, it was replete with Brussels sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, roasted squash and other fresh, seasonal vegetables. I ordered it with a soft-cooked egg, which ran into the steaming broth when punctured with a chopstick. The pork was medium-thick slices of smoky duroc. It was tasty enough, but I found it too lean for soup. A fattier cut would have melted luxuriously into the broth. Instead, this became slightly overcooked and chewy in the broth. Pork notwithstanding, that vegetarian broth was emblematic of the way the chef at Chuko (opened by three Morimoto alums) handle their vegetables. I ate dinner there last weekend with Cousin Ketchup and my friends P.C. Biscuit and Granny Smith.

The first evidence of Chuko’s vegetable prowess emerged with the arrival of the appetizers. We ordered all four on the regular (non-special) menu. Among these was a fantastic kale salad, made with a combination of raw and tempura-fried kale, pickled golden raisins, dressed in a slightly sweet white-miso vinaigrette, and topped with cripsy curls of Japanese sweet potato. The Brussels sprouts were deftly sauteed until their cut edges were lightly blackened. Then they were doused in pungent fish sauce and topped with crunchy peanuts and pickled peppers, yielding a divine assemblage of texture and sweet-salty flavor.

The less successful appetizers were those that contained meat, including the overly bready fried chicken wings which came with a fairly tame dipping sauce that was supposed to be spicy. These weren’t even in the same food group as the mind-blowing ones I ate at Pok Pok Wing. Also underwhelming were the pork-stuffed gyoza with a soy-based dipping sauce. It’s not that they were bad; they just weren’t particularly distinctive in the way that the kale and Brussels sprouts had been. I should have just ordered the headcheese special, but I wanted to put the core menu items to the test.

Next came the ramen, which comes in four broth varieties: soy, miso, pork bone and that tasty vegetarian one. In addition to the pork, there is the option to add chicken, which is lightly cooked and cut into silky smooth pieces. We ordered as many different combinations and permutations as we could among the four of us. P.C. Biscuit selected the pork bone broth, mixing things up (with the eager encouragement of our server) by adding the chicken to the mix. The broth and thinner noodles that came with it were nice, although I didn’t come away with an overly porky impression. He also got the hard-cooked eggs, whose static nature made them seem superfluous. The white rectangles of chicken were surprisingly flavorful, but the texture was almost slimy and would have benefited from a slight char on the grill. Granny Smith’s miso broth was tasty, with an almost milky cloudiness, but Ketchup’s flavor-packed soy broth with pork was probably my second favorite soup on the table.

The ramen at Chuko was good by Brooklyn standards, and at $12 a bowl, it’s more affordable than Zuzu Ramen. But if I come back to Chuko, it will not be for the pork or chicken wings—it will be for the vegetables.

Chuko
552 Vanderbilt Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11238
718.576.6701

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Food and Music Get Funky at Kombit Creole

When Empanada Boy and I walked into Kombit Creole, a Haitian restaurant on the border of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, on a cold night last weekend, a six-person band was already steaming up the joint. A rasta dude with dreadlocks played the bass alongside a trumpeter whose thick, unkempt beard, stretched-out wool sweater and serious music-school chops allowed me to guess with 99% certainty that he went to Oberlin. The hostess rearranged some tables in the crowded restaurant to make room for us to sit against the wall. We sat took our seats and contemplated the menu, signing our plans to each other over the raucous din of the music. I had read about lambi, a traditional Haitian conch stew, and one of Kombit’s specialities. I was set on trying it, despite the $22 price tag. Conch can’t be that easy to get around here, I figured. EB wanted the goat tasso: cubes of sauteed goat meat, served with rice and disks of fried plantain.

Trying to be authentic, we both passed up the familiar Jamaican Red Stripe and ordered bottles of the Haitian beer, Prestige. It turned out to be a fairly watery, nondescript lager, but at least we were blending in with our surroundings. Soon the lambi was delivered. Thin strips of chewy conch were stewed in a tomato-based broth, which included garlic, onions, parsley and a sweet edge of tomato paste. In addition to the slightly rubbery texture of the conch, the meat imparted a strong flavor like the bottom of the ocean, infusing the tomatoey broth. In fact, the flavor was so strong that it recalled the pungency of offal. I enjoyed the dish, particularly when mixed with the accompanying bean-speckled rice, but I simply couldn’t finish off the entire plate of conch stew.

Much to my surprise, EB’s dish continued in the offal vein. The pieces of goat had the funky edge of organ meat, and while I was pretty sure they weren’t actually pieces of goat liver, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that they came from some other nearby part. The meat was tender, if a little overpowering in its flavor. Luckily, EB is a huge fan of calves’ liver, so this meal was right up his alley. The dish came with some of the same rice, a mild dipping sauce and a coleslaw-like salad that ended up being remarkably spicy. The spicy slaw provided a nice contrast to the sweet disks of crispy fried plantain, which were a bit undersalted, but generally tasty.

The band played on through our entire meal as one of its members passed a hat to collect money for a group planting trees in Haiti. While planting trees might not have been my first priority for rebuilding a poverty-stricken country, recently devastated by an earthquake, it was hard to say no. Like the assertive flavor of the conch and goat meat, the appeal was a reminder that Haiti’s spirit is alive and kicking.

Kombit Creole
279 Flatbush Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.399.2000

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Dean Street’s No Mean Street; It’s Only Ho-Hum

When Mango Mama was visiting us in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago to help us set up our new apartment, Empanada Boy and I wanted to take her out for some of the borough’s best fare. We took her to one tasty dinner at Mango Lassie favorite DuMont in Williamsburg. A few days later, when we planned to meet my cousin Leftover Girl for dinner, we decided to try Dean Street, a new gastropub in Prospect Heights helmed by Nate Smith, former chef de cuisine at the highly touted Spotted Pig. I have never been to the Spotted Pig, but it is probably the most hyped restaurant in New York, which set the bar high for Dean Street.

The best thing we ate all night was the gentlemen’s relish bar snack. It consisted of little toasts, spread with oily anchovy paste and topped with a slice of boiled egg. I also enjoyed the housemade pickles, although I would eat a pickled carburetor. In truth, these were not actually as good as the pickles Mango Mama and I make ourselves. The highly anticipated burger, made with ultra-gourmet LaFrieda beef, was served on a brioche bun. It came with cheese or bacon, but nothing else— no signature sauce, no grilled onions, no pickles, no other vegetables of any kind. This would, of course, be fine if the meat spoke for itself. Instead, we found it rather bland and unremarkable. It did not stand up to the decadent, delicious burger I had ordered at DuMont. Despite the youthfulness of this restaurant, I would already pronounce this burger overrated.

We also ordered the cockles, cooked in a seasoned broth and mixed with mint, parsley and other herbs. The cockles were tasty, and the broth was nice, although not very distinctive. My only real complaint about the dish was the large size of the herbs. Evenly distributed minced herbs would have been preferable to the whole leaves of mint and branches of parsley that were clumped around the dish.

The third main course selection we sampled was the housemade tagliatelle with lamb ragu. Wide ribbons of fresh pasta topped with a hearty lamb can’t really be bad, but Mango Mama pronounced it only “fine.” She gets a better version of the dish at Bastas in Portland. It was another dish that wasn’t offensive, but could have been revelatory and wasn’t.

All in all, the food at Dean Street fell short of the admittedly lofty expectations we had for it. I can think of many other Brooklyn spots that would have done more to bolster the borough’s culinary cred. Hopefully, this is not the final word on a restaurant with considerable potential.

Dean Street
755 Dean St.
Brooklyn, NY 11238
718.783.3326

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Kaz An Nou For Me and You

One of the things Empanada Boy and I miss most about the Chicago dining scene is the prevalence of restaurants with bring-your-own-bottle policies. Thanks to the hellish process of getting a liquor license in the Windy City, tons of restaurants there are BYOB. This is not the case in New York where we often end up spending almost half the tab on wine or other beverages. But it is one major reason to patronize the French-Caribbean restaurant Kaz An Nou, a BYOB bistro in Prospect Heights. The restaurant is owned by Sebastien Aubert and Michelle Lane, a husband and wife team. Aubert is from Guadaloupe in the West Indies and Kaz An Nou means “our house” in the Creole dialect spoken there. We visited Kaz An Nou with Cousin Ketchup and Auntie Pasti a few weeks ago.

The wait to be seated was about an hour, primarily because we showed up at 8 pm, just as everyone and their mother were sitting down to eat. We started with appetizers, including a plantain gratin made with Emmental cheese and a beet salad with mango and goat cheese. The gratin had a nice texture, but I found the plantains made the dish a little too sweet. A saltier cheese than Emmental may have helped to balance it out better. The beet salad was more successful. The beets were cut into little cubes, making for greater surface area to hold the tasty dressing.

For my entree, I ordered the confit of duck leg, which was tender and juicy beneath a mango jerk sauce. The accompanying rice was unremarkable. Ketchup ordered the smoked jerk chicken breast with goat cheese, tarragon and honey sauce. The breast was not overdone, which is a feat in itself, but the refinement of the dish left out some of the fire, heat and flavor that I experienced at the roadside stands in Jamaica. Also, the asparagus accompaniment seemed oddly out of season, considering asparagus left the farmer’s market about a month before.

EB and Auntie Pasti ordered one of the more distinctive dishes on the menu, the agoulou. This is a burger seasoned with bold West Indian spices, avocado salsa and goat cheese. A fried egg can be added for an extra dollar. I tasted EB’s burger (with the fried egg, of course) and liked the West Indian spice combination very much. We both thought it was distributed a bit too unevenly through the patty, though. The meat was also cooked to medium, despite EB’s medium-rare request. Still, it was a pretty unique burger, and the sweet potato fries that came with it were excellent.

We selected two desserts to share. One was the spicy chocolate cake with coconut creme anglaise. This was tasty, although a little less chocolaty than I might have preferred. The better dessert was the awesome tarte tatin, which the restaurant serves still upside down (as tartes tatin are typically baked). This was truly delicious: light, but deeply flavorful. It was probably one of the best apple desserts I’ve had.

Kaz An Nou was a friendly, pleasant place to which I would gladly return. The food, while not perfect, was tasty and well-priced. It was served in a warm, welcoming environment, exactly the kind of neighborhood restaurant most people would want to have.

Kaz An Nou
53 6th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.938.3235

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Good Pizza, Good Conscience at Franny’s

Living in Brooklyn finally gives me a chance to visit all of the borough’s hipster, locavore, gourmet locales that publications like The New York Times have been breathlessly extolling for a few years now. One of these is Franny’s, a pizza place in Prospect Heights that is a mere five-minute bike ride from our apartment. In the spirit of these parts, Franny’s sources all of its produce, eggs and fish from local organic farmers, and its meat is sustainably raised. Needless to say, the coffee is fair-trade, the cooking oil is recycled and the restaurant runs on renewable energy purchased from the power company. But I had to wonder: Was the food as good as it was green? I met my friend Onion there last weekend to find out.

The word on the street is that going to dinner at Franny’s means a guaranteed wait in line for a table. Apparently that is not the case for a weekend lunch. Onion and I were quickly seated in the simple dining room with a view of the bar on one side and a view of the kitchen and pizza oven through an opening on the other. In addition to the seats at the bar, there are also tall chairs at a window counter, which offer a nice view of Flatbush Avenue and undoubtedly good people watching. We could see from looking around that the pizzas weren’t huge, so we started with two appetizers. One was crostini with wood-roasted pancetta, olive oil and beautiful brown Italian beans. The combination— salty, smoky, spicy, nutty and rich— was to die for, and the bread was chewy and light. Everything tasted fresh and vibrant. I was starting to see why the devout foodie pilgrims like this place.

Our second appetizer was roasted fennel with red onion, lemon and chilies, a flavor explosion. The fennel was tender under our knives, and it had depth and sweetness beneath its charred edges. The anise flavor combined with the other sharp acids was refreshing and bright. This dish had everything, and it achieved it all with very simple, fresh ingredients.

We had ordered a white pizza with buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, oregano and hot peppers, but had to wait another 15 minutes or so before it was finally came. It was beautiful when it did. The crust was puffy and bubbly, and the wedges of roasted garlic were scattered temptingly amidst alternating circles of the two cheeses. Our urge to devour the thing was slowed somewhat by the fact that the pizza didn’t arrive sliced (nor did those we saw being delivered to tables around us). We couldn’t figure out why that was the case, but we dutifully sawed away at it with our serrated knives. The crust was chewy and light, reminiscent of Chicago’s Spacca Napoli, and the toppings melded together like a symphony. I could see myself eating a whole pizza if I came back hungry.

Besides not being sliced our only complaint about the pizzas were the prices. Our pizza was $16, but some were as high as $20— pretty steep for a two-person pie. Still, I’m willing to pay those prices more than once for food as good as what we ate at Franny’s. Excellence and a clear eco-conscience both come at a price.

Franny’s
295 Flatbush Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.230.0221

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