Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Ghost of Restaurants Past

247 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY
Couple with booze, one appetizer, and tip: $44

Having lived off the yuppie stops of the F train for 5 plus years now, I've had a chance to witness the culinary dreams of many disemboweled like the empty spaces they leave. The vicious cycle laid out by my least favorite celebrity chef is a depressing one, but it gives us all a chance to try new things without having to travel too far. The space that used to house the New American cuisine of Village 247 is now full of the rhythm of an island beat, and we hope that the beat goes on.

After three days of home cooking (without a dishwasher), Thursday evening is our breaking point, and we'll leave the cooking, plating, and serving to aspiring actors, actresses, and Rachael Flay wannabes. We are consumers, and given the option, we would do this every night, but unlike the only two celebrities that live in our neighborhood, we lack the financial backing that would allow this, which is fine, because then we don't take it for granted.

In the mood for something new, we decided to walk along our neighborhood's famous restaurant row and peruse the menus. French? No. Thai? No. Italian? No. Thai? No. Indian? No. Thai? No. Thai? No. Why are there so many damn Thai rest...wait a minute, what's this? Caribbean? This could be perfect. I'm a jerk for jerk, and for some reason I'm in the mood for a Bahama Mama. After a coin flip to decide whether or not Kelly's palate was ready for a Caribbean feast, we went in. The restaurant was empty up front, but the garden was full of patrons. Being a nice night, we decided to join them, and we were happy that the restauranteurs didn't use us a bait for other passers by.

The menu was not extensive, but when I think Caribbean, I think roti, jerk sauce, and patties, and Sapodilla has all three. They also serve their island concotions in glasses so tall that you can't even taste the booze. Left alone with our huge beverages, we scanned the menu and decided on the jerk tofu puffs for an appetizer, the roti with curry chicken and channa (chickpeas), and the roast duck with jerk barbecue sauce.

Then we waited. Fortunately for us, the atmosphere put us in such a relaxed mood that we felt like we were on vacation, so waiting was not really a point of contention. It's not so much that the waitstaff doesn't care about you as much as it is that the waitstaff is high, which isn't a bad thing. When the food did arrive, it wasn't cold, so maybe it just took a while in the kitchen. The tofu was great. It was spicy in that island spicy sort of way, subtle heat playing second fiddle to the texture and sweetness of the tofu. The menu claimed that it would be "bursting with flava," and boy was it ever.

Then we waited. Again, not a major issue, but something to consider if you're in a hurry. After a few more blocks of fifteen minutes, the main course arrived. Past roti experiences have led me to expect a Caribbean burrito full of curry goodness, but Sapodilla deconstructs the dish, dividing the roti into small wedges served alongside the curry, leaving you to make miniature Caribbean burritos, kind of like moo shu (sp?). This is a welcome change, because the worst part of the giant Caribbean burrito is the fact that any meat inside is left on the bone, so you have to pay close attention to what you're eating in order to keep your esophagus puncture-free. The roti on the side also gets points for presentation, but among all this good press, the unfortunate thing was that the chickpeas were undercooked. So even if you've taken all the meat off the bone, you still run the risk of chipping a tooth.

Laid in front of me was the roast duck which I could have sworn was a chicken. The dish came with rice and peas, but they were on the side, and while delicious, I was done with the meal, "duck" and all, after three bites. The presentation was lacking in this dish, and I was disappointed because it was the most expensive thing on the menu. That's what you get for being a jerk for jerk.

It was bedtime before we could order dessert, so instead, we got the check. Not surprisingly, it took a while even for the bill to arrive. I think they're working out the kinks, however, and would definitely go back for round two. The meal was very relaxing, and for a second I honestly thought that I would walk out onto Smith Street and find a beach. If for nothing else but to unwind, Sapodilla is a welcome change of pace that blew in from the tradewinds, and once the kinks are out, hopefully they'll be jammin'.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Parallel Universe

Bogota Latin Bistro
141 Fifth Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
Couple Amidst Eight Others, Including Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, and multiple mojitos: Free

Eventually, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens will converge onto the region referred to by some as Gowanus (by others, the projects and various rusty buildings), but until then, the two will coexist as parallel universes, each having a Joya, a Lobo, a Mezcal, etc. As a resident of the latter, it is a rare occasion that takes us east, but we're never disappointed. In fact, Smith Street and Fifth Avenue are the furthest thing from any sort of Biggie and 2Pac beef. Every time we make our way up to the numbered blocks, we say, "You know, we should come up here more often." Thank goodness for friends like the Foley-Murphys, who were kind enough to provide the occasion, a 10 person feast that brought friends and family together around a table full of Latin delights.

Bogota is characteristic of many Pan Latin establishments; the walls are painted loudly, arroz con pollo is the signature dish, and the booze claim to fame is the mojito (Bogota's is blue). I recommend having one to start, but then switching to beer in order to avoid being the drunk guy with the mint leaves in his teeth. Make your way past the stock components and you will happen upon the specials list. This particular evening's offering included grilled shrimp skewers and other things we didn't order (clearly the mojitos had been doing their job). Along with the skewers, we ordered say-vee-chay (another Pan Latin favorite) and guacamole (who can resist muddled avocados?). All three were delivered expeditiously. The clear standout was the plate of shrimp skewers, lightly grilled and basted with a spicy barbecue sauce (chee-poat-lay for sure), beautifully plated atop corn freshly shorn from an inedible cob, and if I'm being honest, I went back for seconds without checking to see if the rest of the table had sampled the smoky shellfish. And if I'm still being honest, I shall weigh in on the say-vee-chay. It's not my thing. From a scientific perspective, it's a junior high masterpiece, and if you get it out of the citrus juice at the right moment, the fish actually "cooks" perfectly. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with 20 plus tables, timing gets tough. Last time I checked, the majority of restaurant patrons would rather not wait 3 hours for fresh ceviche. So when you're out, I recommend steering clear of it, no matter the establishment. And if I'm still being honest (God forbid I somehow turn back into that wooden doll), I'll tell you that the guacamole was delicious. No pretentious tableside preparation, enough spice, and the correct chip to dip ratio.

I stole the final shrimp skewer using the "Look! What's that!" tactic, and was chewing it up when the meals came. I wished that the table had decided to share, because I wanted a bite of the pork chops, the lamb chops, and the plantain crusted chicken. Luckily for myself, I ordered the bandeja paisa, a pile of meat, rice, and beans fit for a vaquero coming in from a long day of rustling vacas. The bandeja paisa makes a mockery of portion control. Laid out before me was a steak, chicharron (thick pork skin), arepa (corn tortilla), rice and beans, and avocado, all topped with a fried egg spanning the whole plate. Even if I wanted to eat from everybody else's plate, there was no way I could have without having to leave some food on the plate in front of me, disappointing vaqueros from here to the tip of Argentina, and suffering a similar fate to the poor dude who didn't bring Pace picante sauce to the campsite (get a rope). So I set to work on the hodgepodge. The plate was reminiscent of a summer night in Salt Lake City. I came home drunk, and after stating the obvious and telling me that my breath was horrible, my mother took whatever was in the fridge, put it in a skillet, and created a masterpiece. Bite after bite, I created different combinations of food: rice and beans, chicharron and steak (my favorite), arepa and beans, avocado and fried egg. The possibilities were endless. And then the food ran out. I had conquered the bandeja paisa, and boy was I proud (and drunk). I also managed to sneak a bite of the plantain crusted chicken courtesy of my fiance.

As delicious as the food was, I have to say that the company was the meal's all-star, and I'm not just saying this because Murph's folks paid for dinner. I tried my best to pay attention to the food, but more than a few times during the meal, I had to put my fork down to converse. But this is a beautiful thing about food, gathering around a table to learn about his and hers lake houses, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the organized chaos that is the New York City public school system. With so much talking, my head was as full as my belly. I was 100% satiated, and so I raise a glass full of muddled mint to the new friends I made this evening. Thank you.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Vinny's of Carroll Gardens
295 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY
Couple with booze: $56*

We stepped out of the pre-Ernesto droplets and waited for a table. The crowd was building, but it was early enough that we didn't have to wait too long. By the time we were seated, the line was at least 5 couples deep. Unfortunately, there's no early bird special, but Vinny's keeps their prices low. Besides, we were hungry. So who cares if it was 6:30pm? Doesn't the early bird get the worm?

Previous visits have taught us a very important lesson: order to split. If you want something for lunch the next day, do not abide by this rule. But take my advice. You will overeat if you decide not to split. You will not be able to put your fork down, and the portions are enough for the entire cast of Celebrity Fit Club. The calamari feeds like the loaves and fishes. A regular order could circulate its way around the restaurant twice before you're left picking crumbs. Granted, Vinny's seats less than 30, but the plate is still huge. As a couple, we got the half order. This was the first of three courses, and the beginning of a restaurant journey that relies on nothing but its delicious food to keep the patrons coming back.

After dunking rings of breaded squid into a chunky marinara, the salad arrived. Iceberg, tomato, red onion, oil, vinegar, and dried oregano. The accompanying loaf of bread didn't make it past this course. We went from dunking to dipping to soaking, leaving a trail of crumbs that would have done Hansel and Gretel proud.

The waitress brought the finale out shortly after we buried ourselves in crumbs: Penne alla Vodka with chicken. We assumed that the chicken would be grilled, but we got a diced chicken cutlet instead. I was in no way upset about this. Such a basic dish, but incredible. Thick sauce perfectly glazing each pasta pipe, not cream heavy, not tomato heavy. It was so perfect that there was little sauce left over for dipping the second loaf of bread brought to us. This was one of 10 or so pasta dishes. Vinny's also offers basic Italian fare. Chicken parmigiana, veal saltimbocca, and eggplant rollatine are among the classics. And to wash it down, Vinny's always has two wines available, Merlot and Chianti. Yet another testament to simplicity. I'm sure they would not be averse to BYO, but we've never tried to do so.

For an early meal on any day of the week, Vinny's will never disappoint. Or if you don't mind waiting, go a little later. I do not recommend going minutes before closing. This meal is meant to be enjoyed, and you will be rushed if you choose to show up late. Buen provecho.