Places to Eat on Nostrand Avenue
Places to Eat on Nostrand Avenue
Every issue of “Nostrand Avenue News,” I try to cover three merchants. Given that we don't publish in July and August that means we cover about thirty merchants a year. Usually in every issue there is an article or two about a place to eat. In the last three issues we covered Colina Cuervo, Trindad Golden Palace bakery, Ruammit, and Babydudes. However, I became aware that there are many places that we have not covered, so I decided to do a survey of the length of Nostrand Avenue from Empire Boulevard to Fulton Street. Defining the places as an establishment in which one could order and sit down to eat, I was surprised to find that there are sixty-five places that fit that definition. At ten per year, it would take us more than six years to cover them all. So I decided to cover a whole basket of places in one article choosing them according to the interests of my family, friends, people who write for me, and people who I know think about food a lot and take it seriously. I decided to skip the chains like Dunkin Donuts and Crown Fried Chicken. I decided to cover places that people like whether they be simple and inexpensive like Brooklyn Crew Pizza or Taqueria Milear, or have white line on the tables and waiters who introduce themselves, circle back to ask how everything is, ask if you would like to see the desert menu, and see to it your glass of water is filled, places like Savvy, La Napa, the Ryerson's, or Uotora. And of course there are a host of places in between like Lula Bagel and Lula Bird, Rosalia's, Masago Bistro, Original Vegetarian, places more for lunch and breakfast, places more for coffee and a pastry, places more for takeout than eating in the restaurant. The array is amazing: vegetarian, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Caribbean, Pizza, French, French/African, Japanese, Soul Food, Caribbean/African, Caribbean/Chinese, Indian, and the list goes on. Here are just a few places that might be of interest.
Part 1: Namas Tea, Sterling Place
Walking down Sterling Place I noticed a new cafe near Nostrand name Namas Tea. I stepped inside and arranged to have an interview with Gina D'Antonio for the next day. I stopped by then and found out that Gina is the manager of the place. She is partners with Winnie Liu who owns Namas Tea as well as the vegan restaurant Lu Ann's on Franklin and two other restaurants in lower Manhattan. Gina was born in Little Italy; her father was a CPA and her mother worked in the medical industry. Gina became an interior designer, married, had three children and moved to Princeton where all her children attended the university; she also continued her career in interior design. After her children grew up and she got divorced, she returned to New York and settled in Cobble Hill. She met Winnie at her Broome Street restaurant and the two became friends and eventually hit on the idea of a tea room in Crown Heights. Gina did the design with the help of two local artists, Samantha Lober and Tori; the latter occupies an apartment off the passageway that goes to the beautiful garden in the rear of the tea room. The design they came up with is wonderful -- lots of wood, small tables, oriental motifs, and a very calm atmosphere. The garden has a mural painted by Tori of a woman praying, and what with a fountain and well chosen plants, it is gorgeous place to relax. The core menu is a selection of teas and an assortment of pastries. Namas Tea is off the avenue but has already made a mark since opening in June. Jyll, who owns Urban Asanas, sends her clients there, and Hannah and Tali of Babydudes send people who are interested in a wide selection of teas. Gina says Namas Tea is still working on its menu and will try out various ideas. They are also planning an art show for the passageway to the back. Currently there are two interesting paintings by Samantha there, and she will curate the upcoming show. Having a hectic day? Stop by Namas Tea; choose one the delicious teas, read a book, think things over, come out half an hour later calm and focused.
Part 2: Uotora 1075 Bergen Street
August 4th, my wife and I ventured out with good friends, another couple we have known for perhaps thirty years to go to Uotora, a small restaurant on Bergen Street off Nostrand Avenue. Aside from a welcome banner in Japanese, the place does not call much attention to itself. It is owned by two Japanese chefs Atsoumi and Hiroyuki, who after years of working sushi places took a leap and opened their own establishment. They have landed safely. In a short time the place has gone from little known secret to widely appreciated venue. There are close a hundred rave reviews on Yelp and most evenings the place is packed. However, packed is a relative term – the counter accommodates perhaps eight and the tables maybe another sixteen. Uotora takes reservations but they will only hold them for 15 minutes.
The design is authentic Japanese, subdued good taste, simple and clean, and mostly the atmosphere is calm. However, the night we went the crowd was pretty boisterous. This may have something to do with Uotora having recently acquired a liquor license. They have a wide selection of sake and a few beers. The owners get top grade ingredients, sometimes from Japan, and the preparation is excellent. We started with Spinach Comaae, a soft spinach salad, and we followed that with grilled cod and grilled salmon, the first marinated in miso the latter in taji. However, one can order sushi sashima sets of 8-11 pieces or pick out one's own from the a la carte menu. Portions tend to be on the small side, inviting one to savor not bolt down one's food. Service is excellent. Our friends agreed with us; you cannot go wrong at this place.
Part 3: The Ryerson – 698 Nostrand
On August 1, my wife and I and a friend made our way north on Nostrand Avenue to The Ryerson, a new restaurant between St. Marks Place and Prospect Place. The time was toward the end of a hot day, but The Ryerson was pleasantly cool. It is a long space with a small garden in the back, with maybe five tables on a raised platform. The main seating has subdued lighting with wall sconces and modern chandeliers. The walls are brick and simple white, and there is a beautiful wooden bar on one side. Once seated we looked at the drinks menu. There was a full selections of beers, wines, cocktails, including non-alcoholic “mocktails.” I saw a beautiful drink pass by called “Problems with Hurricanes” – rum blend, lemon, mango and tajin. It looked fabulous. I ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and got to taste it before the glass was filled. It was very nice.
The waiter, dressed in black pants and a blue shirt with his hair pulled back in a bun, began by asking if we had any allergies. Many items on the menu have nuts in them. Matt, one of the managers, told us they want to be careful but to date there have been no problems. We decided to order the Strawberry Salad – lettuce with cheese, candied pecans, mint as well as strawberries ($11) and the featured Ryerson Fried Chicken, getting a whole chicken for the the three of us for $48. Both items turned out to be really distinctive, each with a taste to savor and think about. The chicken proved more than enough for the three of us. It was tender and came with various sauces – a gravy or the homemade hot sauce, and there were mashed potatoes and collard greens.
The other manager, Max, came by. He told us he and Matt both lived in Crown Heights and wanted to stay clear of the busy competitive scene on Franklin Avenue. They are presenting what they call “Modern Southern cuisine celebrating seasonality.” Choosing the right things form the market is important for them, and the menu will vary as the year rolls by. The chef is Sean Underwood and he will keep creating new dishes to try out. Also Matt and Max told us they hope to roll out a brunch and lunch menu in the next month or so. The name of the restaurant refers to a street that Walt Whitman lived on in Brooklyn. The place is informal; while there, we saw two families with children, and our fellow diners reflected the diversity of Crown Heights. We were way too full for dessert, but the night we were there, they were offering a root beer float and a sundae with fried brownie and pecans. Next time! To sum up, the Ryerson is a special place, serving distinctive food at reasonable prices. Try this place for sure.
Part 4: La Napa Tapas Bar
La Napa is a Tapas Bar on the corner of Nostrand Ave. and Bergen St. It opened in May and offers many small plates as well as a few larger dinners such as salmon and lamb chops. As of this writing there is no liquor license. The Anton family owns and runs La Napa. Fransisco Anton is the talented chef. The family is originally from Venezuela. They moved to Miami where they opened the successful restaurant, Cardon Y El Tirano. The decor is modern and bright with live-edged wooden tables and there is also side- walk seating. The service is friendly and welcoming but not intrusive. However, the music was. I found the percussive, loud music to interfere with the otherwise pleasant atmosphere. The menu changes and when I dined there, I was served a complimentary taste of a soup that was not on the menu. It was a delicately flavored lentil puree. Delicious. A house salad was fresh with a simple dressing. The chicken taco was tasty but a bit dry. The pork wonton was crispy and nicely spiced and served with an asian dipping sauce. The stand out dish for me was the five skewered shrimp, with tamarind sauce served on a bed of lettuce. There was a hint of coconut but not over- powering. My co-diner and I enjoyed the shrimp so much that we decided to order another skewer. This is the pleasure of tapas; sampling a variety of flavors and textures. The prices at La Napa range from $4 chicken tacos to $17 lamb chops. Our bill came to a reasonable $29. The food fresh and original and La Napa is a welcome addition to the Crown Heights neighborhood.
Part 5: Island Pops, 680 Nostrand Avenue
After a good meal on Nostrand Avenue, particularly a somewhat spicy one, you may want to get something to calm down the excitement in your mouth. If you walk by Prospect Place, you will find, on the northwest corner, a place called Island Pops. You should go in. Open most days from noon to 9 or 10 pm, the store provides an array of authentic Caribbean ice creams, ice pops, and frozen yogurts each available in the same flavors. Owners Khalid and Shelly Hamid, who hail from Trinidad, create their wares from scratch in small batches to keep the quality high. This means the menu can shift from time to time according to what's available and what has been freshly made. Some flavors are universally known, like vanilla, ginger beer, and lemonlime. Others might provide an interesting taste for those not familiar with the Caribbean. Soursop, with a mixed bitter and sweet fruit taste, passion fruit cake, and Guinness caramel need to be savored. People from Trinidad who I know say going to Island Pops is the least expensive way of going back home.
The store also offers different pastries. These too are very tasty. I have tried the banana loaf, the pineapple tart, and the orange cranberry chocolate chip cookie. All these experiments have turned out successfully. I will have to go back and try out more. Repeat visits are a common practice of customers at this place. Talking to the friendly staff is helpful – their advice is well worth listening to. The place is small. There are benches around the corner where the windows are, or you might wander outside on a pleasant night.
One can order from one to three scoops or get a whole pint to take home. Anyway you deal with Island Pops, you are in for a good experience.
Part 6: Lula Bagel and Lula Bird, 816 Nostrand Avenue
Yossi Cohen, owner of Lula Bagel and Lula Bird on Nostrand Ave. at the corner of Lincoln Pl., knows what he’s doing. He owns the popular Lula Bean Cafe in East Williamsburg and opened Lula Bagel in 2013, taking a chance on a slightly more expensive coffee and bagel place than the neighborhood had known. By a busy Nostrand Ave. bus stop and a block from the #3 train on Eastern Parkway, the foot traffic is high. There are often lines to wait on, but they move quickly and the staff has an efficient system to keep things moving. One gives one’s order and name and then waits a few minutes to be called. Lula Bagel is small with three tables and two counters and stools. The decor is cheerful- industrial/cozy with cafe curtains and pillows. One table is actually an old sewing machine with a movable pedal underneath. Most people, however, get their order to go as part of their routine. Lula Bagel opens early- 7 AM- so you can grab a coffee and bagel when you walk your dog.
The food at Lula Bagel is always fresh and delicious. There is the usual assortment of bagels and one can get a numbered combo such as the #2-lox with cream cheese, red onions, capers and dill on your favorite bagel, toasted or not. Or build your own. There are also paninis, salads, soups, and yummy pastries. The banana bread with chocolate chips is excellent. An added plus is the baguettes- fresh each day. Grab one to go with dinner on your way home from work. The coffee is premium. A 16 oz. cup is $3.50 and an 8 oz. cappuccino is $4.75. The #2 bagel combo costs $11. For such a small place, the menu is extensive and can be viewed on- line. Lula Bagel opens early, 7 AM. So you can grab a coffee and bagel when you walk your dog.
Lula Bird is just next door and even smaller with less seating. This is mostly a take-out place. The well-seasoned rotisserie chicken is oferred as either a quarter, half or whole chiken. There are also short ribs and a vegetable terrine. The garlic and herb roasted potatoes, cornbread and collard greens are some of the tasty sides available.
From breakfast to lunch to dinner, Yossi Cohen has your eating needs covered. He lives close by and is frequently around. He can be seen carrying things up and down from and to the basement or cleaning up trash around the bus stop garden. A hard worker and a smart businessman, Cohen’s restaurants are thriving.
Part 7: Original Vegetarian and Seafood Restaurant – 752 Nostrand
It’s 6 o’clock on Friday evening . An unspoken rule of thumb states that an empty West Indian restaurant at prime dinner time is a restaurant you should avoid. Original Vegetarian is a restaurant that breaks that rule. It has been in business for over 20 years serving up what is know as I-tal food. I-tal food, which was developed in Jamacia and other Caribbean island over the years, is a natural way of cooking that tries to avoid processed foods, additives,excessive oil, sugar and uses little to no salt – yeah - little to no salt.
Limited in size only (it is not a large space), the food here ranges from authentic rice and peas, which a staple in all West Indian cooking, to a chow mien cook withed green seasonings and loaded with vegetables. The restaurant also boasts of a range of homemade juices, carrot, beets with a splash of almond milk and an Irish moss like no other.
Whether you dine in or take out, just being in this space you will get you the drift of what this restaurant's ambitions are. The best entree to order is a sample plate that comes with rice and peas, chow mien, mac and cheese, stewed red beans, steamed vegetables, stew soy and tofu fish – yeah -- there is such a thing. Your first bite will have your taste bud perplexed, with the sweet taste of the stew soy mixed in with the steamed vegetables. The odd couple on your fork -- chow mien and stewed red beans, which doesn’t sound like quite the right match, but the taste of green seasoning and red beans just explodes in your mouth. Tofu fish – there is such a thing, it don’t taste like fish, and it don't taste like tofu. It's simply cooked, well seasoned and juicy.
This is a good place to go – the food is authentic Caribbean, healthy, inexpensive and very tasty.
Louise Kurshan, John DeWind, Andre Simon