I forget how vast the states are and how different each of the towns and cities within it feels. I felt it when I first visited Williamsburg last Christmas, an eery stillness I hadn’t come across before, so far removed from friendly Seattle and busy, noisy Boston. Arriving in Brooklyn, fresh from Seattle I get hints again of that blanket of quiet, like the calm before a storm. I can’t quite put my finger on the cause. I don’t know why I should expect that it’s so different to what I’m used to; perhaps in part it’s due to the expansive blue skies and sprawling sidewalks and roads, a more languid pace of life, though probably not right here, that’s so very polar to the tiny, bustling and (always in my mind anyway) green and freshly rained-on roads back at home. Pounding the wide streets of Williamsburg I’m sharply aware of each sound, as though it’s fought to break through a broad muffle, like a bullet through cotton wool; the roll and clatter of a skateboard, the sharp beeping of taxi horns, the faint rustle of leaves, the constant woosh then short rattle of the wheels that follows in line with each of my steps.
Finding myself in this still unfamiliar city, fresh off the overnight flight (sans sleep) and unable to check in until late afternoon I find comfort in the unknown familiarity of a coffee shop who’s name I’ve seen on Twitter on numerous occasions but one I didn’t get the chance to visit on my last trip. Dragging my cumbersome and growing luggage, I head towards the closest Gorilla Coffee to where I’m staying and plot at the end of it’s long bar for the foreseeable, my simple plan; to imbibe all the stimulants in my close proximity. Like a mirage, I spy Donut Plant doughnuts in the small glass counter at the shop front and quickly order lest they disappear before my eyes. I add a liquid, filter brew injection to my sugar order of Meyer lemon and poppyseed and retreat to my corner clutching WiFi gold.
Gorilla turns out to be the perfect spot to hibernate and deal with a burgeoning inbox, I don’t find the coffee perfect to my tastes but it’s certainly good enough and the atmosphere is accepting, soothingly dark against the bright outside and I’m left unbothered.
I find my Williamsburg Airbnb apartment easily enough, my second time using the fab website and I carry out what I expect will become a regular routine; methodically I check inside cupboards, look behind curtains and underneath furniture, I’m not even sure what for, anything unsavoury I guess. This is downstairs from where the owners live and I’m unnecessarily panicked by a door, locked from their side, that must be at the bottom of their stairs, and another that opens into a garden, both hidden behind curtains. I’m equally spooked by a sinister and looming boiler cupboard door that I automatically shunt my suitcase up against to contain any ghouls or the like that may have taken residence.
Feeling bairly able to hold my head up, I’m determined not to let my first, and only one of two nights here go to waste. I had met Jenny from the NYC based blog Melting Butter at an event in London’s L’Entrepot and we agreed there and then to hook up when I was in her ‘hood. Not sure where to hit up in this expansive city, I decide to stay local, not really relishing the thought of travelling, and ask for her suggestions; Reynards is her quick response and I’m endeared by the fox on their website that reminds me of a London favourite, the Talented Mr Fox. I do love a bar, this one has a rooftop one, and although I have sights on Roberta’s for pizza or Mission Cantina for Mexican, I snap at her suggestion, my rationale being that I don’t really fancy hanging around on my own waiting for a seat at either, not something I would have minded ordinarily with company.
I somehow manage to cock the whole thing up and feel like my one night out in Williamsburg was a bit of a wasted one.
It all starts so well; I walk into the handsome, glitzy room of Reynard’s within The Wythe Hotel and perch at it’s bar, faintly dazzled by the dressed-up clientele and expansive warehouse-ey room with brick walls, sky high ceilings, glamorous lights and epic windows. The menu, which is heavy with brasserie classics looks good but I fancy a drink and a nibble so order what I think is going to be a snacky cheese and greens plate, on the menu as ‘stracciatella, multigrain, ramps’. I’m not expecting and am rather disappointed to be delivered the other meaning for the sloppy Italian cheese; that being a clean tasting vegetable broth that’s very nice but not really what I had in mind.
The negroni is good as is the barman who engages in some gin chat with me as I people watch, this informal bar area leads out to a more austere dining room setting towards the back of the building. The main reason Jenny has recommended this place is that the view from the rooftop bar is supposed to be stunning. I’m afraid I never got the chance to see for myself as I have failed to bring my passport along for ID purposes (despite being served without it at the downstairs bar!).
Disgruntled, I take this second disappointment in my stride and head back to a bar that’s look and menu had caught my attention on my way up, The Counting Room, this was to prove to be my third and final mistake. Despite being fairly empty, I reasoned it *was* Monday night, I join a gaggle of others at the bar, squeezing into a spot in the corner. I order a pressed sandwich from that menu that had caught my eye, a truffled grilled fontina cheese and ham number in particular, I also order devils on horseback, just for the sake of it. The room sure looks the part but I can’t shake off a negative vibe that permeates, I select a drink and try and shrug it off. My Hide and Seek looks good on paper, a mix of Old Tom gin, Bols Genever, Campari, Aperol, Cocchi Ross, black pepper tincture and rhubarb bitters, but doesn’t quite work to my palate, the black pepper a touch too aggressive. My toastie is depressingly cardboard like, the dates at least are good. I think my chagrin is due mainly to the disinterested lack of engagement from the barman which really feels like it lets the place down, maybe it’s better at weekends. I’ll never know….
I shuffle off with my tail between my legs, popping into a supermarket on the way to Instagram weird and wonderful American snacks. As you do….
Rising late, and tired, I’m determined today will be better. I grab a caffeine fix at so so Gimme Coffee and entirely confuse myself trying to find the correct subway line at a single station name which has two completely different locations on opposite ends of the same, lengthy road….confusing much?! I finally make it to the bottom of East Village and wander up to Box Kite on a number of recommendations. It’s the best cafe I visit on this trip; small and unassuming, unpretentious, unfancy and warm, and staffed entirely by girls on my visit. It’s simple done very well indeed and the coffee is excellent; I have a Madcap espresso that is served with a tiny biscuit on the side. I quiz the barista on good spots to eat in the neighbourhood and generally gather myself together.
I nearly try somewhere new, nearly, but in the end can’t resist the Momofuku noodle bar as I walk past, then quickly back again. It’s relatively late in the afternoon and I easily get a seat at the bar. Curiosity has me ordering ‘nugget’ potatoes from the section of the menu labelled Spring and they arrive in a bowl, the potatoes crushed and fried with beetroot, soft onion, pine nuts on a smear of yoghurt. It’s a dish I’d make at home. I umm and aghh over a couple of the mains, swinging between a special of pork belly, something that does sound pretty special, and a spicy dish that encourages warnings from the waiter. Spicy wins, I want fiery heat and this noodle dish, that is alarmingly hidden beneath giant mounds of honeyed cashews, shizuan spiced sausage and spinach, is mouth tingling but not overly so, and the abundant chilli oil makes the spinach a touch too oily for my liking. It’s a bowl so generous I uncharacteristically actually leave some, worrying that I’ll never make it on to dinner, no matter how late, otherwise.
I’ve arranged to meet Jenny for a coffee and enjoy a big mug of batch filter Stumptown at Third Rail while we catch up. Another meh, if I’m honest. The coffee not the chatter. The chatter prompts us to move the conversation on to cocktails, where she guides me over to Angel’s Share, an actual speakeasy style bar, through an undisclosed doorway, and past a Japanese casual dining joint. The bar itself is tiny and feels a little like an ornate balcony with windows over looking the East Village and watched over by a mural of angels; it’s all at once faintly exotic and naughty with an air of faded opulence. We sit at the end of the bar and both order a whisky based cocktails that is presented in a cloud of heady smoke, a second is slightly less successful as I don’t like that aggressive cinnamon flavour the Americans seem to love, forgetting momentarily they don’t treat it in the same way as us Brits. A snack of chicken meatballs with a very soft egg as a dip is a delicious revelation.
It turns out what’s supposed to be a date night between Jenny and her fiancé has been hijacked by the presence of his best friend, this suits us perfectly as gives me an excuse to join them. We decide on Navy, a hip new restaurant in SoHo which doesn’t have a table until around 9pm but works out well, as we drink wine until we’re ready to make a move, then loiter at the bar with cocktails when we get there. A closer inspection of the cocktail menu, heavy on sherry and vermouths, reveals zero spirits, apparently this is not uncommon in newer spots due to heavy liqueur licensing laws. My Lower Manhatten, a mix of Fino, cream sherry, Antica Formula and barrel aged bitters is very drinkable and doesn’t suffer overly from the lack of gin (I would have liked gin) and I LOVE the ice crusher that sits aat one end of the raw bar; a hand operated, be-wheeled beast. Once seated, between the four of us, we pretty much manage to order the full menu, which although billed as a seafood restaurant that reinforces the ‘navy’ theme of its moniker is easy for me to navigate.
Fried sweetbreads with mustard mayo and cubed radish are addictive as is a little vegetable dish of mushrooms and fiddleheads with yoghurt. Tiny crispy gnocchi with charred ramp and a poached egg would make a perfect brunch dish and a sharing plate of sliced pork chop with preserved peach and chicory is a real triumph for feasting. The only disappointments are the bread, no artisan stuff here, just a strangely thick slice of brioche and the desserts don’t really enthral us either.
Everything about Navy is so Polpo it could be straight from Russell Norman, though I suppose this is meta for me as my reference point for the inception of this style is a bit inverse. The night finishes messily in a dive bar where I force them to make me Negroni’s and feed the juke box an endless selection of Seattle favourites much to the chagrin of the younger patrons.
I awake the following morning with the hangover of absolute doom and attempt to drink it under at Blue Bottle Roastery, I love the space here and the two filter mugs I sink are excellent but don’t sufficiently do the job alone, so I shuffle along to Egg at the recommendation one of the baristas. I’m expecting a small and trendy, ramshackle, dude food (urgh) type brunch spot, so am somewhat taken aback by an elegant and clean white interior that’s calming and serene, with a menu I can’t begin to do justice in my fragile state. I order a special of pork belly hash that’s frustratingly delicious, a dainty plating again where I’m expecting dirty great portions, but I’m able only just to tentatively nibble my way through half before giving up entirely.
Fool. I disappoint myself sometimes quite frankly.
I flee (slowly and painfully) to the airport in torrential rain with a growing list of places I still need to return; Booker and Dax for creative cocktails akin to those made at The Talented Mr Fox and Peg and Patriot utilising similar distillation and clarifying processes; Death & Co and Dead Rabbit for more cocktails; The Cleveland for brunch and aforementioned Mission Cantina and Roberta’s.
No doubt I’ll be back before too long…