Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In God's Country, Good Eats, if Not a Good Home

The bench outside Pies and Thighs adds to its homey appeal. The white wine Sangria, below, is not the one on the menu at the Cornerstone Restaurant and Lounge but it looks nearly as refreshing. Top photo from; bottom from

“I was surprised when you told me you lived on the Upper East Side,” avers CP who is Brooklyn born and resides in Bay Ridge with her two lovely children.

Yours Truly is a little ashamed to disclose that in the four-plus years that she has lived in New York, she’s only ventured into Brooklyn a handful of times, and then not to the most fashionable n’hoods.

Brooklyn. God’s country is what one of my church pals calls it. Of course, she resides there. The image of Brooklyn emblazoned on my psyche is the one that was placed there in the 90s when I lived in Boston and would come down to New York to visit friend/colleague, KG.

It is Friday (6 August) night and CP, this Paris buddy-in-the-making, and I are dining at Hundred Acres to commemorate our respective birthdays (Me 2nd/Her 12th). I’m having fried chicken breast w/greens, while she is enjoying a burger and a mound of fries that is driving me to distraction.

KG lived in Park Slope, which I Loved with an obvious capital L. It reminded me of Boston’s Back Bay and the South End with its row upon row of imposing brownstones and eclectic shops. When I moved to New York in 2006, though, I knew I would be moving to Manhattan. Not necessarily the UES, but definitely Gotham.

CP recommends Forth Greene, which she talks up like nobody’s business and to a lesser extent, Williamsburg. Both would be an improvement, she declares, over the blandness and sameness of the Upper East Side. Without further elaboration, I am unfortunately and surprisingly looking for a roommate. In Brooklyn, I don't find a roommate or a home, yet I find some essentials.

Because I didn’t quite know how to get to Fort Greene. Didn’t look it up, as the idea was on the brain when I awakened Sunday morning to prepare for church. It took some moments for my companion, LP, and I to get to the heart of the place. Where resides interesting shops, restaurants and upwardly mobile/progressive peeps of various ethnicities about whom I’d gotten an earful less than 48 hours earlier.

Once we turn off of Vanderbilt Avenue onto DeKalb Avenue the heartrate begins to increase exponentially. Either side of the street is lined with shops, restaurants and peeps. Eye candy galore. A very nice young lady who earlier steered us to the heart recommended that we drop in on Chez Oskar but we are bedazzled by the courtyard seating of Cornerstone Restaurant and Lounge just across the street. Not a table – at least not a well-placed one – can be found in the courtyard. We opt to dine inside at the window.

The menu is enticing enough with a little heart – Cobb salad and a little soul – Chicken/waffles, Mac&cheese. LP, likes his cobb and is sufficiently impressed with the mac&cheese to suggest I have a taste. It is good but not spectacular; ditto for my chicken/waffles.

Spectacular is the white wine Sangria. I see it on someone else’s table. It’s a beauty. Heretofore, I’d not the pleasure of a really good white wine Sangria. I ask our server for a sample. Alas, he informs me, it is only made to order – couture cocktail! It being my birth month during which I celebrate the whole of it, I’m in a celebratory mood. I roll the die. Besides, nothing will steal my happiness this month. NOTHING. Not moving; not disagreeable Sangria.

The Sangria is made with Agave, Saint M Riesling, Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, blueberries, strawberries, oranges. The fruit mixture, which is soaked in the Riesling overnight, can also include watermelon, blackberries and apples. There is no lemon or lime beyond what is used as a garnish. The combination does the unspeakable to my palate. To LP’s, too, who orders some sort of mixture of Cook’s “Champagne” (I see the bottle and make a mental note to order nothing with Champagne in it) and mango juice. Not only does he drink what I pour for him into a small water glass, he orders a white wine Sangria for himself as soon as he relieves himself of the mango concoction. It's an 8; Sangria is a 10.

Sufficiently wined/dined, we continue our exploration of Fort Greene, which does not easily lend itself to comparisons along the lines of “it reminds me of.” Not so for Williamsburg, most recently famously known as a haven for artists and others in search of “cheap rents” close to Manhattan.

The moment I come up out of the L train at Bedford Avenue, I am thinking of some of those blue-collar towns north of Boston (i.e., Revere). And the comparison could change from street to street. During the several hours I spend here, I am reminded of Hull, Massachusetts (where I used to live), a few picturesque New England towns, Carmel California, and of some towns in the Hamptons I visited years ago. I feel at home.

The place I feel most at home, though, is the storied Pies and Thighs. I decide to dine here – not because of all the writeups, including in “The New York Times” or the loud buzz – but because when I perused its menu online Saturday night I saw rhubarb pie as one of the desserts.

Rhubarb. I was familiar enough with it as a savory. But did not have the pleasure of it as a dessert until I lived in Paris. The boulangerie across from my building in the 15th arrondissement carried it every late spring/early summer when rhubarb is in season. The first time I tried it I was smitten. SMITTEN. On Saturday night, my Monday was already off to a good start. And it didn’t dampen after I spoke to PandT on the horn and was informed that the rhubarb pie was gone for the season. Next year.

There is still the Fried Catfish Box, and I’ll find something else to have for dessert. After a somewhat longish walk down Driggs Avenue from the Bedford Avenue L train, I arrive. I place my hat on one of the hooks, refresh myself in the ladies, and come out to take a seat at a table for four. Immediately, a smile crosses my lips. The table is formica, and the same pale gray color of such a one at which I learned table manners in the house of my beloved grandparents – the people who raised me to be a good person and good citizen of the world. A flood of memories – all of them good – damn my mind. Around my table and the others is a motley mix of chairs that have seen a lot of life.

It’s charming, and as someone who grew up in the South eating fried catfish that was only hours earlier extracted from the lake/creek/brook, I’m impressed with PandT’s rendition. The rest of the box – tartar sauce, cole slaw, pickles – is passable. The cornbread, though, could stand considerable improvement. It doesn’t have a lot of sugar but what is here is too much. Is sugar or flour or too little cornmeal to blame for the cakey consistency, rather than a more crispy one, I wonder. The box also comes with a side. I initially choose fries. At the moment they are out. My server, who offers to take me on a proper tour of W’burg, recommends the watermelon salad.

Here’s watermelon, cucumber, jalapeno peppers and a little ginger. It’s super refreshing and serves two roles. First, as a more healthful counterpoint to the fried catfish, tartar and cornbread. It doubles well, too, as a palate-cleanser before my lemon-blueberry pie. I’m lovin’it. And look at this watermelon juice! Good table manners dictate that I do not drink from the bowl, after all I am not in France drinking milk or hot chocolate. Instead, I pour the juice into my Shandy, a combination of White Rascal beer and one-third lemonade.

Nothing less than a little bit of heaven, a good appetizer for the southeastern view of Manhattan that awaits me at the East River.

Learn more about Hundred Acres at; Chez Oskar at; Cornerstone Restaurant and Lounge at 718-643-4216 until is live; Pies and Thighs at

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