Photo by Tejal Rao
What if one of the most sophisticated dinner options in New York were found in the back kitchen of a grocery store in Brooklyn? César Ramirez, the executive chef of David Bouley's 3-star restaurant Danube and the opening chef at Bar Blanc, has set up an absolutely no-frills chef's table in Brooklyn Fare, a market that opened this spring.
This prep-kitchen by day, fine-dining restaurant by night has no hosts, no waiters, and no bus boys. The lighting is fluorescent and the unisex bathroom is tucked behind the dishwasher's station. But three nights a week, for $70, one of the most talented chefs in the city is there, cooking a 10-course meal for 10 diners.
As the guests arrive, Juan Leon, Ramirez's sous chef, takes coats and umbrellas, and opens the wine bottles we've brought (no corkage fee here). He guides us to the communal table, an industrial stainless steel counter, visible from the street. The counter is clean and set for dinner, with rows of impossibly shiny copper pots and pans dangling above. "Our dishwasher came from Jean-Georges," Ramirez says when he catches me staring, "and the man knows how to take care of copper."
The vinegar, the Spanish olive oil, the squid ink pasta, the chocolate. After having a taste, who wouldn't want to take home some of those ripe plums?
Dinner starts with a shot of cold, clear hibiscus water. The first course isn't on the menu; it's a bonus thrown together at the last minute: a fried zucchini flower filled with soft veal brains and a little sharp red pepper sauce on the side. It's the only glimmer of Ramirez's Mexican background. Though the chef moved here from Mexico when he was 5, he grew up cooking classic French food in Chicago and later fell for Japanese cooking. My dining companions, three of them cooks at various restaurants around the city, are particularly thrilled by this course. We use our fingers.
The tomato course is essentially an insalata Caprese: tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Alongside ripe raw tomatoes, Ramirez serves a perfect half-sphere of tomato water jelly, basil jelly, a soft mozzarella mousse, and one tomato cooked down for 12 hours, reduced to candy.
"Some people think tomato water was invented by David Bouley," Ramirez says, referring to his longtime mentor, "but it's not true!" There are a few mock gasps. "Tomato water was invented by Hans Winkler, a 3-Michelin starred German chef! A long time ago." One diner argues playfully, while the others are too busy enjoying the item in question, set to a wobble with a little gelatin. The olive oil mixed with the savory tomato juices is so good, I clean the plate with a piece of bread.
Photo by Tejal Rao
"Finish with the stewed tomato," Ramirez says firmly. "It's intense." It's the only instruction the chef gives all evening. For the rest of the dinner Ramirez cooks, plates, talks a little between courses, and occasionally asks us what we think of the food. When a diner notices him using an unrecognizable ingredient, she asks Ramirez about it. "Umami in a bottle," he says with a smile, "a Japanese salt spray made from fish bones and bonito." He passes it around. One diner spritzes it into the air and wrinkles his nose, another sprays it on her wrist like she's testing perfume, then licks it off.
The dish that got the spritz: braised Japanese eel with smoked foie gras, wrapped in yuba, a soy milk skin, and placed in a bowl of dashi. After Leon serves this course, for a few minutes the only sound is tinkering spoons.
We receive a caveat with dessert. "You won't believe how many plums we have at the moment. And they're all ripe! I wanted to pair them with white chocolate but," Ramirez gestures apologetically with his spoon--he's quenelling dark chocolate mousse. Plum puree and chocolate mousse, nothing else. The dessert is perfectly simple and satisfying.
A few guests leave, and a few guests leave tips for the dishwasher. Leon carefully returns the silverware and china to its boxes. Ramirez takes a seat, finally agrees to have a glass of wine. It's almost midnight, and he'll be back in the kitchen at 7 in the morning to start his prep for the store and the next night's dinner.
Ramirez has changed his approach to fine dining to suit the economy: high standards, no-frills, low price point, BYOB. When I tell him how great the meal was, how I can't believe his operation here, he shrugs, "I'm only as good as my ingredients." He's not being marketing-savvy; he's always said this (even before his ingredients came from Brooklyn Fare). But in a sense, Ramirez's chef's table is the best imaginable advertising for the grocery store, just as the grocery store provides him with what he needs to run his chef's table.
It's a new kind of culinary symbiosis, with fine dining in the equation, and it works. The vinegar, the Spanish olive oil, the squid ink pasta, the chocolate. After having a taste, who wouldn't want to take home some of those ripe plums? Just keep in mind that while we can shop like César Ramirez, his style of cooking is inimitable. For a taste of that, you'll have to make a reservation.
Brooklyn Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 7 p.m.
Reservation line: 718 243 0500