The Absolute Best Restaurant in Red Hook

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Pizza Moto Photo: Melissa Hom

Red Hook’s top-tier restaurants are a challenge to define — even bars like Rocky Sullivan’s and the Icehouse manage to stand out and are worth visits. (Also, the Brooklyn neighborhood already has so few restaurants, and they all do something different.) But here are the most compelling of the bunch.

<b>The Absolute Best</b>

1. Pizza Moto
338 Hamilton Ave., nr. Mill St., Red Hook; 773-931-7900

Chef Dave Sclarow and general manager Anna Viertel famously uncovered an ancient oven hidden behind a false wall when they were transitioning their outdoor-market pizza business into a bona fide brick-and-mortar operation. Restored and gleaming, the white-tiled center of Moto’s kitchen would not look out of place in a sanitarium scene on a Ryan Murphy show, and yet it is turning out some of the most delightful and inventive pizza in the city. Local greens and preserved lemons top one, slab bacon and soft-poached eggs go on another, and the fantastic clam pie is less of a Don Pepe’s homage than it is a transmogrified bowl of chowder, with rounds of mozzarella adding creamy gustiness. Service might be slow, and during busier dinner services, the staff might not pick up the phone altogether. But against all odds, the faint rumble of traffic on the Gowanus Expressway above can be alluring, especially when combined with the back-lit, colorful guts of old pinball machines that adorn the walls. There’s also the standing post-pizza invitation to linger for a slab of valdeón with blueberry jam, along with an after-dinner glass of sherry.

2. Fort Defiance
365 Van Brunt St., at Dikeman St., Red Hook; 347-453-6672

Charles H. Baker, the 20th-century raconteur, has always been the bar’s spiritual lodestar. St. John Frizell, a Baker acolyte and the Fort’s proprietor, likes to slip one or two of the late bon vivant’s concoctions on the drinks menu every so often, where they appear alongside the city’s absolute best piña colada and Frizell’s own drinks. A dozen oysters and a bottle of muscadet goes for $40 on Wednesdays, and Matt Fleming, who cooked at the Spotted Pig, fills the menu with local touches, such as a fava crostini with ricotta that’s made eight blocks away, on Commerce Street. The muffuletta is layered with high-grade ham; beefy corned short ribs pop up as a special; and the long-running chicken-liver pâté, offset with smoky-sweet bacon jam, represents the spirit of the place, a blue-plate soul that still likes to get a little dressed up every now and then.

3. Hometown Bar-B-Que
454 Van Brunt St., at Reed St., Red Hook; 347-294-4644

A recent glut of seven-figure real-estate transactions may account for the spectacle that awaits visitors looking for a pound of brisket or smoked turkey on the weekends. Specifically, this cavernous dining room is full of diners who politely nurse pints and eat pork ribs with plastic cutlery instead of their hands. Any jarring sensation of having landed on an alien planet (or Manhattan), however, is tempered by the copious hardwood smoke wafting through the air, the crusty and behemoth beef ribs weighing down the paper-lined trays, and small tubs of briny whiskey sour pickles. (Also, go during the week, and early, to avoid crowds.) Owner Billy Durney recently introduced Chinese sticky ribs and swapped out a hot-link-type sausage with a pepper-and-provolone number, an ample demonstration that Brooklyn barbecue is real style, after all.

4. The Good Fork
391 Van Brunt St., nr. Coffey St., Red Hook; 718-643-6636

All of the restaurants that appear on this list benefited from the example set by Ben Schneider and Sohui Kim in 2006. Schneider’s background as a carpenter enabled him to build the Good Fork from scratch, and in the process he created a kind of scrappy but dignified restaurant that probably couldn’t exist anywhere else. Each Red Hook kitchen that has sprung up since has shared much of the same homespun trajectory. Kim’s menu is as inventive and eclectic as ever; her excellent steak and eggs with kimchee rice, as well as her chive-and-pork dumplings, remain a draw (neighbors get livid whenever they disappear temporarily from the menu). Next up is the debut of Das Parakeet, the Fork’s pint-size backyard, which has been renovated and appointed with enough greenery that Kim and Schneider have taken to calling it a “beer jungle.”

5. Grindhaus
275 Van Brunt St., nr. Visitation Pl., Red Hook; 718-909-2881

Erin Norris likes to point out that her excellent “haus” bread starts with tap water and supermarket flour that was “machine milled by homies we’ve never met.” It may be served with tahini butter one night, pistachio romesco or beet hummus the next. Its fans are legion. There’s a cozy backyard in warmer months, and Joe Macchia, the chef, favors local fish such as line-caught bass or Montauk cod. He also makes one of the most undersung hamburgers in the city proper: Invoking its namesake, beef is ground with a scant amount of pork belly, sourced from nearby Fleischer’s and smoked by Hometown Bar-B-Que. (The bun is also local: an off-the-shelf model from Fairway.)

6. Kevin’s
277 Van Brunt St., nr. Visitation Pl., Red Hook; 718-596-8335

Kevin Moore runs a bustling catering business and a raw bar on Governors Island, and this multitasking might account for the fact that his place typically eludes best-of lists. On weekends, however, Moore can be found in his chef’s cap and jacket sending out shrimpy amuse-bouches, or shucking Fishers Island oysters, or twirling thick Raffetto’s noodles in a pan with seared sea scallops. The presence of hollandaise-doused poached eggs on hefty crab cakes during brunch time makes it clear that Moore has little interest in pushing menu boundaries past the general beachy vibes. His excellent lobster omelette, which runs as a special, makes the convincing case that it should remain that way.

7. Red Hook Lobster Pound
284 Van Brunt St., nr. Verona St., Red Hook; 718-858-7650

The illustrious lobster-roll purveyor’s owners regrouped after Hurricane Sandy to reinvent their storm-tossed flagship, and the overflow area, once designed as industrial chic (scattered picnic tables and interrogation-room lamps), has since blossomed into a full-service dining room. The heavily decorated space often comes across as an alt-universe, freak-flag TGI Friday’s, especially when the staff is jolly and the kitchen sends out funnel cake. There’s also enough nautical-flag décor to occupy a semaphore freak for hours, and Navy Grog to match. The expanded, beyond-lobster-roll menu includes bountiful fish and chips, plump Berkshire pork hot dogs, and, of course, hefty portions of Steve’s key-lime pie, which is crusted with graham crackers and set just a few blocks over, on Van Dyke Street.

The Absolute Best Restaurant in Red Hook