Although it's New York City's most populous borough, Brooklyn is still playing catch-up to its cross-river sister, Manhattan, when it comes to food. But over the past half-decade or so, it's come a long way with some bona fide foodie destinations that lure epicures over the bridge and now it's even scored its very own dining guide. The first book of its kind, Food Lovers' Guide to Brooklyn (Glove Pequot Press, June 2010) was exhaustively researched by travel writer and Brooklynite Sherri Eisenberg, who sampled and reviewed hundreds of restaurants, specialty stores, farmers' markets, food festivals and other culinary traditions that are helping to shape Brooklyn's ascending, but still accessible, gastronomic scene.
TIME asked Eisenberg about her picks for Brooklyn's best neighborhoods for eating Williamsburg, Park Slope and Ft. Greene and why the borough is sought-after by young chefs.
There are good restaurants all over New York City. What makes Brooklyn worth checking out?
Brooklyn restaurants are a bit more casual, a bit more rock and roll, but their chefs have a strong desire for locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. So dishes may cost as much as in Manhattan, but their ingredients are often sourced directly from Brooklyn itself. These are restaurants where you'll eat well, but can feel comfortable showing up in jeans and where folks don't mind if the service is not perfectly smooth or polished.
So chefs find a certain kind of freedom in Brooklyn that's missing in Manhattan?
Yes, for one thing, the rents are just cheaper, so there is less of the financial pressure that exists in Manhattan. This is why so many chefs start out in fancier Manhattan kitchens before moving to Brooklyn to open their own spaces. Brooklyn is also far less stuffy, so chefs don't have to invest in fancy uniforms or the costliest design schemes. Crowds here tend to be younger and eating for pleasure not for business, so restaurants can play that funky music from their iPod because it's unlikely there will be businessmen in the corner trying to seal a deal. But unlike in Manhattan, folks might actually have to drive to eat there so chefs really have to have faith in an if-you-open-it-they-will-come mentality.
In your book, you write about "underground" restaurants unlisted, unadvertised, last-minute-invitation-only events where chefs dish out meals in temporary spaces. Really?
Absolutely. They're supper club-style restaurants with a great casual atmosphere, where chefs typically serve whatever is inspiring them at that moment. If asparagus is in season, then the meal will likely be asparagus-based. If ramps are fresh at the market, then expect a ramps-filled menu. The concept is fun because your fellow diners are as unexpected as the meal. Last time I attended, a couple even showed up from Europe they'd planned their entire vacation around the event.
Your book also explores the trend in culinary "throwdowns and showdowns." These sound like something out of the Wild West.
These are such fun events. They're basically competitions that allow chefs of various experience levels to compete against each other as they prepare all kind of interesting foods: cupcakes, fondue, crostini, chili. The throwdowns offer cooks a chance to express themselves through their food in an unusual public forum. Although they're unquestionably democratic, the events do follow basic rules and are typically organized by a few well-known throwdown gurus. There's Matt Timms, who basically kicked-off the trend with his chili takedowns a few years back. And the folks behind the Brooklyn Food Experiments are another big player. Throwdowns are not limited to Brooklyn, of course, but the borough seems to have embraced the trend with unrivaled gusto.