I’m sorry, but you’re not on the list,” said the woman at the door, when I showed up (under the name “Mr. Pincus”) for my eagerly awaited, impossible-to-obtain 6:30 reservation at César Ramirez’s eighteen-seat tasting restaurant, Brooklyn Fare. Mr. Pincus’s reservation was for 9:30, I was told; they regretted the mix-up. Things had been hectic ever since the Michelin guide bestowed an unexpected two stars (“excellent cooking, worth a detour”) on the little Boerum Hill kitchen, thereby transforming it, more or less overnight, from a local cult favorite into one of the most talked-about restaurants in the city. Mr. Pincus was welcome to cool his heels for a few hours (“There’s a good bar around the corner”) or book at a later date. Since the next available date was in December, I wandered off for a drink. When I returned, woozily, at 9:35, people were lined up outside the door for the second seating. When we finally sat down, at a few minutes after ten, I asked the gentleman next to me about the wine list. “We’re in Brooklyn, dude,” he said brightly. “This place is BYOB.”
The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (as the operation is officially called) will be serving wine as soon as it gets its liquor license, but until then, this ragtag, neighborly arrangement seems to suit Ramirez and his partners just fine. Their restaurant, on a bleak, even brutal, section of Schermerhorn Street (across from the subway, just down from a large Park Fast lot), is a simple storefront kitchen, which is attached, two doors down, to a grocery store of the same name. The reservation line connects to a cell phone. Although the dishes change constantly, the menu is a spare, unadorned document, listing courses by single ingredients (e.g., cod, sea bream, lobster). Diners crowd around a stainless-steel bar and are served their meals on chaste black vinyl place mats, which look like they’ve been fished from the bargain bin at Ikea. The lighting is flat (as in a working kitchen), and the room is devoid of decoration, unless you count the thickets of copper saucepots over the stove.
The tall, bespectacled Ramirez presides over this ascetic, slightly homey scene with a severe, almost priestly seriousness. “I don’t do the whole ‘chef’ thing,” he said more than once during the course of our elaborate, often ingenious twenty-course small-plates extravaganza, which included fried blowfish tails dipped in saffron sauce, tastes of rare deepwater skill fish from the Sea of Japan (“This has never before been tasted in New York City,” intoned the chef), and a profusion of the kind of opulent gourmet trimmings (Italian truffles, ribbons of gold leaf, spoonfuls of caviar from Petrossian) that you rarely see in Manhattan anymore, not to mention in downtown Brooklyn. Ramirez trained with David Bouley, among others, but his inspiration clearly comes from the great omakase masters of Japan. Most of the dishes on the carefully choreographed tasting menu are seafood focused, and they’re designed to be consumed free of distraction (“We request no pictures or note taking,” says the menu), with a Zen-like focus.
The first item placed in front of the bleary-eyed Mr. Pincus was a shot glass filled with a warm, palate-soothing mix of butternut squash, tangerines, and foamy, faintly peppery yogurt. It was followed by a barrage of intricate sashimi-style preparations, which progressed from tangy (Medai needlefish with marinated onions and slivers of jícama) to briny (a single, deliciously slippery Kumamoto oyster with crème fraîche and a slip of Key Lime gelée) to a veritable explosion of sweet and semisweet flavors (fatty skill fish splashed with orange juice, king salmon popping with bits of roe, a single langoustine tasting faintly of jalapeño, plated with a tiny spoonful of burrata cheese). After seven of these little courses, my neighbors took pity and poured me a glass of their Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (’09), which went well enough with a tiny, salty Portuguese sardine wrapped in frizzled sage, and the aforementioned blowfish tail, which tasted less like an exotic, potentially deadly seafood delicacy than a piece of random, if perfectly fried, fish.
The poisonous fugu usually tastes like this, of course, especially in America, where the fish can’t be legally imported unless it’s been cleaned, boiled, and frozen. Unlike the trendy, locavore-obsessed chefs of his generation, Ramirez has an anachronistic fondness for the kind of old-fashioned (and, yes, Michelin-approved) ingredients that used to define the haute cuisine experience. “Only the best,” he said, holding up a tin of the Petrossian, which added a salty wisp of elegance to a thimble-size serving of scrambled eggs mingled with uni flown in from San Diego. The gold leaf didn’t do much to enliven my little bowl of Japanese tofu tipped with Alaskan king crab, but the truffles, when they appeared, added a mysterious dimension of smokiness to the chef’s delicious interpretation of brandade. This opulent little creation was followed by lobster (a single rose-colored claw, cleverly paired with pickled radish and bits of grapefruit) and shrimp (“The head is the best part,” said the chef), before our feast concluded, at precisely 12:02 a.m., with a single, technically perfect ravioli wreathed in more truffles, and a crackly disk of pork loin, finished with vinegary sweet onions, Greek yogurt, and mint.
So are the snooty tasting mandarins at Michelin right? Is this quirky operation in the wilds of Boerum Hill on a par with just ten or fifteen of the most glittering dining palaces across the river? In terms of ingredients, composition, and virtuoso cooking skill, the answer is yes. But if you’re looking for that ineffable dimension of magic that turns a good, even great, restaurant meal into a transplendent one, the answer, in Mr. Pincus’s humble opinion, is no. Ramirez’s Continental/Japanese technique is impeccable, but also vaguely familiar. My meal lacked the theatrical grandeur of the great omakase dinner at Masa, say, or the unexpected, off-kilter spin that makes David Chang’s Momofuku Ko or Daniel Humm’s newly retooled Eleven Madison Park such consistently interesting places to eat. Is a trip to Brooklyn Fare worth the $135 price tag, and the two-month wait for a reservation? Sure it is. But remember to bring your overcoat. It’s getting cold outside, and the nearest liquor store is on Atlantic Avenue, several long blocks away.