That’s it – the only photo you’re going to get of the entire evening I spent at Chef Cesar Ramirez’s Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare on Friday, December 2. This is because the chef operates a strict no photographs and no note taking policy. “Just enjoy your meal” he told me, somewhat exasperated, when I lamented the fact I would never be able to remember all the dishes. I started out repeating each dish as it came out, and then repeating in reverse order everything that had come before. But I gave up at around the 7th amuse and took Cesar’s instructions – after all, when one is in a kitchen, the only appropriate reply to a direction from the man in charge is “Yes Chef.”
I had read about Chef’s Table while in London and promptly put it on my list to do when I came back. By which time unfortunately (for those trying to get a reservation) they had received a third Michelin star, making it even more impossible to get a table, or rather, seats, since there are no tables. So I did what any resourceful office girl would do: put a recurring meeting in my Outlook calendar for 10:30 every Monday, when the reservation line opens. On my first try, I had my phone on release-redial for 30 minutes straight when finally it started ringing. My heart started pounding and when someone finally answered I said, in a hopeful, somewhat breathy, perhaps mildly desperate voice, “Hi, I’d like to make a reservation, if possible.” “Hold please.” After which followed a stressful few minutes of solid silence. Afraid I had been dropped, I grabbed the phone from the desk next to me and started dialing using that one too. Finally I got an actual reservationist who put me down for 2 at 7pm on Friday, December 2. Success!
Chef’s Table is BYO, so the first step was to buy wine. Michele Smith, sommelier and manager, recommended we start with a blanc de blancs Champagne, white Burgundy, red Burgundy and an auslese or spätlese Riesling. 4 bottles of wine for 2 people is a lot, so I brought a half bottle of champers and the two bottles of Burgundy I had bought 5 months ago in St Georges de Nuit and shlepped back across the ocean wrapped in lots of plastic bags and bubble wrap for protection.
Contrary to my usual style – which is to arrive at the last possible moment and almost (and occasionally actually) miss flights, trains, etc – Diana, my partner in crime for the evening, and I showed up 30 minutes early. The confirmation email had fiercely admonished that the first courses would be served approximately 10 minutes into the reservation. If you were late, tough. And so, as Manhattanites unused to venturing into the wilds of Brooklyn, and imagining ourselves getting on the wrong train, getting lost, getting stuck in a tunnel on a train and having to climb over tracks wearing highly inappropriate footwear, we left plenty of room for error, and as a result ended up cooling our heels outside the restaurant for a good half hour, watching the staff set up (from whence above photo).
By the way – Chef’s Table is in Boerum Hill, on a nondescript street across from a parking deck, and is attached to Brooklyn Fare, a fantastic grocery store. You literally eat in the kitchen, it’s all one room, although the dish washing takes place in a little out of the way corner by the bathroom.
At five minutes to 7, we were allowed inside. Wine service is all self-service, but the restaurant does provide a big communal ice bin, corkscrews and an extensive range of glassware. The 18 guests are seated in a semicircle facing the kitchen, with diners staggered in two groups (one at 7pm, the next at 7:45, and at least one more seating at 9:45). I got what I consider the best seat in the house – at the far end right next to Chef Ramirez, so I could see all the action and hear him introduce each dish.
Speaking of which, I can remember 18 courses, in varying degrees of vividness. The first one was orange and squash soup topped with a bit of fresh yogurt foam, served in a shooter glass. “Are we supposed to drink it?” someone asked. “I would” replied the chef. Then came fluke with pickled daikon radish, just one bite, then Japanese red snapper. “How is it different from regular red snapper?” I asked. Chef replied that it is a cold, deep water fish and so has a higher fat content than Florida red snapper, for instance. “Just taste it!” Yes Chef! It was sublime.
Inspired by the Japanese omakase style meals (Japan has been rising up my “to go” list for sometime and may have skipped a few places as a result of this dinner), what followed was a series of tiny plates containing 1-2 bites of seafood each – kampachi, a kumamoto oyster with Meyer lemon, tuna with fresh wasabi, something with mustard, another something with crispy leeks, a slice of some kind of enormous shellfish that Cesar described as a cross between an oyster and a clam. Each one a little explosion of flavor that met with concentrated lulls in conversation.
There was a creamy sea urchin pâté served on a tiny brioche with a slice of black truffle on top. (Embarrassing Admission: may the seafood gods and food experts strike me dead, but I actually do not like sea urchin. Blasphemy, I know.) There was an incredible rouget filet served over Iranian saffron rice, and smoked cod with potatoes and caviar over little red onions that came in a covered, egg-shaped dish and when you lifted it off there was a little puff of smoke. That might have been my favorite single dish. It was creamy and salty and smokey and tangy all at once.
Oh! But then came chestnut ravioli with shaved white truffle from Alba. I smelled the truffle first, and whipped my head around to find the source. “Time to switch to red” Michele informed me. And then the duck with a baby turnip. Somewhere along the way Diana and I had started speaking Spanish with el Chef (he was born in Mexico), so there was a discussion about how you say turnip in Spanish (it’s nabo). And then we had befriended the two Swedes sitting next to us and were swapping wine while talking about great Swedish inventions like Spotify, Hövding (the invisible bicycle helmet) and, of course, Fäviken.
This was a wonderful quirk of the restaurant: in what other 3-star Michelin establishment (or 1 or 2 star for that matter) do you casually chat with the chef, share wine with strangers and engage in conversation with your fellow diners? By the end of the evening it was like at dinner party for 10 in someone’s (very fancy) kitchen.
Finally there was some cheese followed by elderflower sorbet over some sort of berry. The result of no photos or notes and quite a lot of wine, not to mention dishes, is that none of us can remember what the berry was. It reminded us of raspberry. But it wasn’t. I’ve got one vote for cassis, and another for “infused blueberry.” Who knows? It’s not really the point – it was delicious and there was gold leaf on top. Which brings me to another observation: Chef’s Table is not about locavore sustainability. It is about opulent, top of the line ingredients: caviar, gold, Japanese red snapper, Iranian saffron, white truffles from Alba. I appreciate a good farm-to-table restaurant as much as the next person (or perhaps even more, depending on the person), but it is fun to eat this kind of over-the-top, rare and expensive cuisine as well. Once in a while.
And finally, last but not least came fig purée, a small cake and lemon thyme ice cream.
Completely sated, but on a huge food and adrenaline high, we entertained ideas of going somewhere local, but quickly abandoned that and instead hopped on the C train to West 4th street and hit up Little Branch for some cocktails.
Key Takeaway: eating in a kitchen + BYO + talking to strangers + incredible food = 3 Michelin Stars.
In case you are frustrated at the lack of visual aides in this post, I refer you to Chef’s Table’s Facebook page or the NY Times slideshow. For further reading, here is an interesting Bloomberg article, a review from New York Magazine’s Adam Platt, and one from the NY Times. I also feel compelled to say something about Chef Ramirez’s attitude, since it has been so maligned on a variety of blogs, including Law & Food. I can’t say anything particularly defensible about the description of the exchange described, but personally I found Cesar to be extremely friendly and easy going, eager to talk with us and know how we were enjoying our meal, and to describe his approach and the ingredients. So if you keep your cell phone in your bag/pocket, smile and be generally nice, you should be fine.
Location: 200 Schermerhorn Street between Hoyt and Bond Streets, Brooklyn, NY
Subway: the 2, 3 to Hoyt Street, a few blocks away, or the A, C, G to Hoyt-Schermerhorn right across the street
Prices: $185 per person, plus tax and 20% gratuity. Plus your wine, obviously.