The Absolute Best Restaurant in Williamsburg

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The best veggie-forward tasting menu in town. Photo: Liz Clayman/©2015 Liz Clayman

Eating in Williamsburg has never been better than it is now. Geographic proximity to Manhattan paired with residual affordability and reputation as the epicenter for Brooklyn the Brand means these small kitchens are where chefs go to be free. And yet, surely it isn’t just the function of having lived there in one’s wild youth that one feels what the neighborhood has gained in polish it has lost in charisma. New (some very) and old (some very), these five restaurants offer hope for Williamsburg now and mourn for Williamsburg past.

The Absolute Best

1. Semilla
160 Havemeyer St., No. 5, nr. S. 2nd St.; 718-782-3474

When chef José Ramírez-Ruiz and baker Pamela Yung’s sliver-size veggie-forward tasting-menu restaurant opened in 2015, it quickly shifted the entire culinary conversation in New York to the plant spectrum. What Ramírez-Ruiz and Yung do is hard to classify, but it’s far from neither here nor there. “Veggie-forward” indicates that Ramírez-Ruiz’s gaze falls lower on the food chain, to the roasted carrot folded into a ribbon that appears beside a dollop of smoked-potato purée atop a fava-leaf broth. (Not just the fava, but the leaf, too!) Yet he still avails himself of flesh where appropriate, as in offering the laconically named “cabbage, beans, pork fat.” That fat, powderized with the help of tapioca maltodextrin, serves like character actor to the silken cabbage and a pitch-black soybean purée. Yung, meanwhile, fruitfully futzes with staid notions of desserts like turmeric custard with cara cara orange and anise hyssop. You can see why these two make a nice pair, while slaying the sourdough, served midway through the ten-course meal.

2. Reynard
80 Wythe Ave., at N. 11th St.; 718-460-8004

Named after a folkloric trickster fox, Reynard caters to a Williamsburg clientele that didn’t exist when Andrew Tarlow opened his first Williamsburg restaurant, Diner, in 1999: legion, gourmet, and affluent. With its cavernous space, the clatter of flatware, and the chatter of the convivium, there’s no restaurant that better embodies the Williamsburg of the mind. The menu of solid seasonal classics brings light-touch surprises across breakfast, lunch, the all-important brunch, and dinner. Among the strengths are vegetables, which executive chef Sean Rembold treats with a familiar gruff affection. Asparagus spears are sliced thin and served raw in a refreshing salad with pistachio and crème fraîche. The less done the better. The ramps in a tremendous tartine are complemented by brown-butter hollandaise. And the rib eyes, of which there are two and come from Catskill cattle, are dry-aged and grilled over oak. They give Peter Luger a run for its money.

3. Lilia
567 Union Ave., at N. 10th St.; 718-576-3095

This elegant Italian restaurant in a former auto-body shop (from the days when people around here had cars, but entirely different people and entirely different cars) is Missy Robbins’s triumphant return after leaving A Voce two years ago. Though much has been made of her pasta, which is deserving of the praise heaped on it like the broccoli pesto on the fluffy ricotta gnocchi, it is chef Robbins’s way with tiny fish that elevates Lilia. One dish in particular, a tangle of fried fish she calls “Little Crispy Fish,” represents all that is right with her kitchen. Caught seemingly mid-swim, the tiny fishies are fried and tossed in a gremolata, then served alongside a parsley aioli. There’s other fishy stuff going on, too: The howl of anchovies in the bagna cauda is a love song to their forthright flavors, good enough to help diners almost ignore the angel-headed hipsters with their Vitra furniture on display in their apartments across the street.

4. The Four Horsemen
295 Grand St., nr. Havemeyer St.; 718-599-5900

Every neighborhood has an industry hangout, and Williamsburg’s happens to be the Four Horsemen, a small but very ambitious wine bar and restaurant opened by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Some nights it feels like all of the general managers of all of the restaurants end up in the cozy wood-slatted spot on Grand Street. Already one of the best bars in Williamsburg, it is also, perhaps, one of its most underrated restaurants. The menu is not large, but, as a snap-pea salad made clear, it is ingenious. That salad is like a cat’s cradle of flavor: the crisp brightness of the pea, the immediate gratification of mint, the round tones of bits of cashew, the softness of ricotta salata, and a slow-to-arrive Calabrian chile took what could have been a throwaway appetizer and turned it into a mini masterpiece. Happily, chef Nick Curtola pretty much does this to every thing on that menu. From black-bass crudo, silky in its carrot dashi, to trompetta pasta with urfa biber, a Turkish spice with tannic echoes, every opportunity to elevate is taken.

5. Bamonte’s
32 Withers St., nr. Lorimer St.; 718-384-8831

Perverse perhaps to name an Italian restaurant with undeniably middling food as one of Williamsburg’s best, but to the extent that Bamonte’s captures something essential — and evaporating — about the neighborhood, to the extent that it serves both as a memento mori and a testament to longevity, it certainly belongs. To understand Carbone, one needs the 116-year-old Bamonte’s. To understand the refulgence, now dulled, of the Italian-American community centered on Graham Avenue, one needs Bamonte’s. So what if the food is strict red sauce and mid-century? Bamonte’s is among the best. Eat, if one must. Drink, if one can. But go at all costs.

The Absolute Best Restaurant in Williamsburg