NY: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights is sometimes referred to as “America’s first suburb,” but since Brooklyn was a large city before becoming a borough of New York City, the description isn’t quite apt—though the sentiment behind it is understandable. Perhaps it’s safer to say Brooklyn Heights was an early refuge from the tumult of Manhattan, something that remains true today. 

The neighborhood is an enclave of stately brownstones and tree-lined streets. If that sounds like a cliché, so be it. Unlike old neighborhoods in Manhattan whose brownstones share the block with modern glass condos and fading apartment buildings from the 60s and 70s, the homes in the Heights don’t compete with the newest trends in boxy sterility (something, sadly, that can’t be said about lower Manhattan). On block after block in Brooklyn Heights one finds rows of buildings over 100 years old which have been impeccably maintained, and walking these quiet streets is a sure way to distance oneself from the grind and noise in the busy borough across the river. 

The most famous feature of the neighborhood is no doubt the Promenade, a walkway several blocks long overlooking, and running parallel to, the East River, and which offers stunning views of the lower tip of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island rising above the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers at the bottom of the island. The Promenade stretches from Remsen Street to Orange Street, but the main entrance is at the end of Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights’ slightly frumpy main drag. There’s little of interest there for the visitor, though s/he can grab a coffee at Starbucks or Connecticut Muffin before a walk along the Promenade. Those interested in literature may wish to peek at two buildings on Montague Terrace, a small side street just before the Promenade at the end of Montague Street; plaques on two buildings commemorate famous writers—W.H. Auden and Thomas Wolfe—who once lived in them.

At its other end, the Promenade curves back up to Columbia Heights, a street with perhaps the most magnificent brownstones in the neighborhood, as well as some beautifully restored carriage houses. Those wishing to sightsee would do well to walk back towards Montague on this street, or continue the other direction down the hill to the Fulton Landing, at which point the Brooklyn Bridge looms above the walker in all its ferruginous glory. Just to the left there is a deck built out on the river offering a stunning panorama of the city—and of the vaults and groins of the bridge above. The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is there, and in nice weather one can sit on the landing (the benches are large metal pier ties) with a cone or cup of its rich homemade ice cream and gaze at the city. Next to it is the River Café, one of Brooklyn’s best restaurants, while just up the street is—arguably—the finest pizza in New York City, Grimaldi’s. There may be a line, but the wait is worth it for this delicious, brick-oven pie whose sauce, cheese, and crust are as perfectly balanced as the bridge’s trestles. Grimaldi’s doesn’t bother with slices, and you’ll know why after sitting down for one of its superb creations.

One of the newest additions to Brooklyn Heights, Jack the Horse Tavern, is on the corner of Cranberry and Hicks. The bar seems to draw one in with a palpable undertow, and the dining room could almost be mistaken for that of a country inn—though I’d not call it rustic, just comfortable. Floor-to-ceiling windows bring the street in—or the restaurant out—and the quiet corner of the Heights can induce all manner of reverie. The bar could surely tempt a certain type to take up permanent residence, were certain types not merely fictions in the minds of writers. The bar menu is built on classic cocktails given a modern twist (ever try maple syrup and whiskey?), and there is a reasonable enough selection of beer and wine. As for the food…The mac and cheese seems to have been reborn lately in New York with hipster credentials, as if chefs were trying to erase any lingering memories of the out-of-a-box kind we all grew up eating; Jack the Horse has come up with one that’s as good as any out there. The cheese is sharp and zesty, the noodles just the right heft and consistency, and the crispy top a joy to pierce with a fork. Other good picks include the steamed mussels, served in a spicy red broth, and as good as any I’ve had. They go down perfectly with a glass of wine or a beer, as do the fried oysters.

A short distance away, on Henry Street (the other main drag through the Heights) and Cranberry, is an Italian restaurant, Noodle Pudding. The odd name may seem offputting; the food is anything but. It is rich and hearty, but most important it is unfussy. This is not food for those obsessed with the fetishistic cooking found at all hours on TV these days, and it is not a place for those seeking to impress clients (the restaurant doesn’t take credit cards, which probably spares it the expense-account crowd). It is a spot to eat well and enjoy conversation—a combination that seems to work, for it is always packed. The basic pastas are, well, basic—and yet they have overtones, and one never eats them nonchalantly; the ragu is hearty but not heavy, for example, and the capellini pomodoro has just enough herbs and seasoning to elevate it above the common yet maintain its simplicity. Meat and fish dishes all surprise, and the concise but well-rounded menu leaves many options for a return visit. The wine is modestly-priced by the glass and the bottle, an uncommon trait these days.

Henry Street is also home to several other nice places: Henry’s End, a sort of American bistro, serves a delicious fried chicken plate and has an excellent wine list; Henry Street Ale House is the neighborhood pub, and delivers a good beer selection and respectable food; and Le Petit Marché, a French bistro, offers staples such as steak frites or roast chicken in an inviting dining room.

All the subways in the system run through, or very near, Brooklyn Heights, so visitors staying in Manhattan will have no trouble making a trip to this serene enclave. This most un-suburban of “suburbs” still has a few surprises—even for those who live there.

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