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Subway Series

The Blue Ribbon empire has expanded to Brooklyn. But can the unique charm of the original survive the trip?

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I can recall, with a kind of eerie clarity, my first taste of beef marrow and oxtail marmalade at Blue Ribbon, in SoHo. There were five of us at the table when the great, white bones made their appearance, standing end-up on the plate, in a kind of druid's circle. The more demure ladies in the group recoiled in horror, but my fatso friends and I peered at this formidable dish in silent wonder. Like the apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we prodded and picked at it first. Then we excavated the oily marrow with tiny wooden forks, dabbing little bits of it on slices of challah toast. Mingled with the savory marmalade, it tasted sweet and sinfully rich, like some deliciously concentrated form of hungry-man's ambrosia. The dishes that followed -- brimming seafood plateaus, roast pigeon, platters of paella decked with clam shells and big, whiskered shrimp -- had a similar revelatory affect. Here was lowbrow, trencherman food raised to the highest level; artistic after-hours cooking for unfussy gourmands who simply loved to eat.

Of course, the city is overrun with seafood plateaus these days, and you can find marrow bones on many reputable menus. The young chefs who made Blue Ribbon their personal late-night supper club are now prime-time fixtures on the Food Network, and the proprietors, Bruce and Eric Bromberg, have expanded their gourmet empire to include sushi (Blue Ribbon Sushi) and more casual cooking (Blue Ribbon Bakery). Now comes Blue Ribbon Brooklyn, located in a former grocery store on Fifth Avenue, in Park Slope, on the edge of the city's newest culinary frontier. Lots of raw-bar goodies are on display in the front window, and the walls inside are painted a familiar barn-door red. But the latest Blue Ribbon is three times the size of the original, with diner-style booths in the front and a row of fans twirling on the ceiling. Many of the tables are filled with whole families gobbling down the signature marrow bones and plates of frites, and it's a little startling to find baby-changing tables affixed to the walls of all the unisex w.c.'s.

The Brombergs have kept their midnight-dining formula intact (this Blue Ribbon is open until 4 a.m.) and imported most of their recipes whole hog from their Manhattan headquarters. The menu is devoid of sushi, but otherwise it reads like an awkward shotgun marriage between hefty specialties from the original Blue Ribbon and the flighty, tasting-style dishes of Blue Ribbon Bakery. The result is a daunting document that will leave even the most industrious beef eater gasping for air. You can browse through 36 appetizers (including beef marrow bones, for $1.50 less than in Manhattan), seven soups, and nine kinds of salad, before you even get to main courses, of which there are 31. Not to mention the evening's specials and the seafood plateaus -- as in Manhattan, the Royale includes sturgeon caviar and two shots of vodka, for $95 -- plus a series of new, suburban-style platters, like surf-and-turf (lobster, New York strip, fries) and "Land and Sea" (fried chicken and catfish, plus trimmings).

On our first visit, we warmed up with the marrow bones and the always excellent steak tartare, which the Brombergs whip into a kind of silky, pink paste and bury in mounds of waffle chips. After that, the table was quickly inundated with a selection of mostly undistinguished salads, plus fried oysters (limper than normal, on beds of spinach with remoulade sauce), a slice of foie gras terrine (delicious, but a little slim for the un-Brooklyn price of $18.50), and vast helpings of chicken wings and barbecue ribs, served pupu style in wooden bowls with tiny flaming hibachis on the side. As in Manhattan, there's also a combo pupu platter on the menu, which includes ribs and chicken wings, plus fried pierogies and crunchy skewers of turkey, all resting on a bed of lettuce and fried wanton noodles. The different components of this strange dish are bathed in thick, syrupy sauces, so when you put them on the hibachi, the air over the table fills with the sugary smell of burnt marshmallows.

This kind of food works well if you're feeling festive and bleary-eyed at three in the morning, but served in bulk, in this benign, neighborhood setting, it comes perilously close to gimmicky, family-style dining. At least that was the verdict of one highbrow Brooklynite, who turned up his nose at the Blue Reuben sandwich (made with chorizo instead of pastrami), and pronounced his Land and Sea platter to be "good military fare." The beef dishes I sampled were better than that, especially a big, melting slab of prime rib and the nicely charred, New York strip portion of my surf-and-turf. The surf dishes were generally acceptable, but if you have to choose just one, plunk down $48 for the paella magdelena, which contains an entire lobster, along with the usual herds of crawfish and shrimp. Among poultry, the grilled chicken lived up to the Blue Ribbon standard, as did the pigeon, which was crisp-roasted around the edges and deliciously gamy inside.

According to my spies, the Brombergs themselves were manning the stoves the night this superior pigeon was served. It was accompanied by a dish of escargot bourguignon (shelled snails and vegetables, in a richly concentrated veal reduction), which tasted equally fine, and a plate of fried oysters much better than the ones I'd ordered the evening before.

These mood swings in quality are harder to detect on the wine list, which is as good as you'll find in the Manhattan restaurants, and in the desserts, which follow the ancient franchise formula of simplicity and bulk. The Brooklyn version of the flourless chocolate "Bruno" is as smooth as the original, and the two varieties of bread pudding (chocolate chip and banana walnut) are large as bricks and served in big, communal dog bowls. There are also sundaes (hot fudge and strawberry) along with profiteroles smothered in fudge sauce, and a frosty root beer float. These little innovations may not be as resplendent and groundbreaking as the marrow bones of my youth. But this isn't a groundbreaking restaurant, after all. It's a franchise, and franchising always has its costs.

Blue Ribbon Brooklyn 280 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn (718-840-0404). Open 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Appetizers, $4 to $35; entrées, $8.50 to $29. All major credit cards.


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