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Playing DUMBO

The smart bet in Brooklyn's burgeoning dinner scene is Superfine, where the cooking is inspired and the chef starts each day with a clean slate.

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First exit to Brooklyn: Laid-back, relocated Superfine fits right in.  

Forget the chef-arrivistes of Smith Street. Forget Park Slope's Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn's booming Blue Ribbon boulevard. A nascent food scene is blossoming in DUMBO, that atmospheric postindustrial neighborhood with the million-dollar views and rehabbed lofts to match. At one time, River Café and Grimaldi's pizzeria by the Fulton Ferry pier were as far as foodies would venture from Brooklyn Heights and beyond. But over the past year, the once desolate neighborhood has gained a sprawling spin-off of Raoul's, a chocolate factory built by an errant Le Cirque pastry chef, a branch of NoLIta's multicultural Rice -- even a makeshift panini bar in an artsy general store. In the process, it's lost some of its gritty fringe feel, but the chowing options are better than ever. That's especially true now that Superfine has moved into roomy permanent quarters after a temporary stint sharing space with Between the Bridges bar, where it garnered a devoted local following and weaned at least a few blue-collar barflies off buffalo wings and onto polenta with wild mushrooms.

Superfine, like DUMBO, has taken a while to find itself. It's been four years since its three owners went from throwing loft parties at home to their eighteen-month trial run at Between the Bridges, to converting a former loading dock in a century-old warehouse turned apartment building into a community center of sorts. Steel-clad glass doors frame a bridge view and open into a bi-level bar, a lounge with a Sunkist-orange pool table, and, as befits an art colony, rotating exhibits and the occasional live band. That, plus the fact that the dining area is furnished with cast-off tables and chairs and mismatched china and cutlery, might make food seem like an afterthought. It isn't. The improvisational chef-partner, Laura Taylor, is a serious disciple of the seasonal-cooking school and composes her Mediterranean-inspired, gently priced menu du jour according to what's fresh, local, and available at the Borough Hall Greenmarket or the organic butcher up the hill.

There's no telling what you might find on the erasable menu board any given night, but there is a core repertoire. Expect a salad, chock full of enough ingredients to work as a main course; a pasta; and a choice of steak, chicken, and fish, without the fancy flourishes of a star-seeking cooking-school grad. (The wine list, too, is streamlined, limited to one red and one white -- both French, fairly priced, and only occasionally served in an actual wine glass.) It's the kind of wholesome, hearty food you'd make at home, if you were inclined to grind your own spicy sausage and dish it up in a garlicky broth of white beans and sprightly greens, with a couple crunchy crostini to sop up the juice.

Taylor excels at fish, and the black sea bass one night was expertly pan-seared to a light-golden crisp, the white flesh firm and moist, its delicate flavor intact, accompanied by grilled new potatoes, garlicky red and green chard, and a black-olive salsa. Veggies are another strong suit: If everyone grew up eating Brussels sprouts and beet greens as tasty as Taylor's, mothers would have to call an emergency meeting to come up with something new to nag us about. Grilled squid achieves a texture rare among ten-tentacled mollusks -- moist, not too chewy -- and comes with a dab of aïoli. One night's hearty seafood stew zestily marries cockles and mahi mahi to homemade pork-fennel sausage in a fragrant tomato broth chock-full of grilled eggplant. That ubiquitous sausage also stars in a slightly less spectacular production, crumbled and mixed with spaghettini cooked a couple degrees past al dente, with roasted tomatoes and greens. Grilled polenta with sautéed wild mushrooms in a spicy artichoke ragoût is better. And a hefty braised pork chop with carrots, savoy cabbage, and fingerling potatoes is just the kind of blue-plate-special comfort food we crave now.

Taylor used to cook in Santa Fe, and she imports the famous Hatch green chiles for her Southwestern Sunday brunch. You're free to order French toast or a grilled salmon sandwich, but why would you, when that incendiary salsa gives such a painfully pleasurable kick to the breakfast burrito, stuffed with sausage, eggs, and red beans, and the chicken enchilada, served with a lively salsa fresca? On our early visits, an occasional chocolate drop cookie was the only dessert, but we're perfectly willing to wait. Inspiration seems to strike here all the time.

Superfine 126 Front Street, Brooklyn; 718-243-9005; Dinner, Tues.-Sat. 6-11 p.m.; brunch, noon-5 p.m. Appetizers, $4 to $9; entrées, $9 to $24. Cash only.


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