Eating and Drinking by the Reopened Smith-Ninth Street Station

The Smith-Ninth Street subway station is the tallest in the world, which should be cause for some civic pride. Unfortunately, tumbledown infrastructure and ratty innards have long kept riders from luxuriating in the skyline views. Two years and a cool $32 million later, the F and G have at last returned to this stretch of Brooklyn. The station’s new façade is unexpectedly space-age, putting aside eighty years of industrial cred for a look that’s more Funkadelic than Wilco. Although the Gowanus may not quite be ready for destination dining status, both sides of the canal have some great places for getting your eat and drink on, accessible once again by the grace of the MTA.

Buttermilk Channel takes its name from a nearby stretch of Brooklyn waterfront, although buttermilk fried chicken with cheddar waffles is what put it on the map. If you’re looking for a killer brunch and don’t mind a wait, this is your place. Just up Court you’ll find Prime Meats, where the two Frankies take their eyes off the boot for a look back at Germany and old New York. The biggest raves are for the burgers: hefty half-pounders of Creekstone Black Angus, tender and packed with flavor.

A couple of doors up is the Falcinelli and Castronovo original, Frankies 457 Spuntino, where the pork braciola marinara and housemade pappardelle are sublime, and everything else is merely mind-blowing. Nearby La Slowteria is a neighborhood newcomer with a line in Mexican slow food. Duck comes pulled and stuffed in a crispy potato taco, slow cooked in posole stew, or paired with black mole. If it’s barbecue you’re craving, Fletcher’s has the hookup, with a maple- and oak-fueled barbecue pit imported from Texas. That should hold you until the new Dinosaur Bar-B-Que comes online. Another GoWo player is Bar Tano, which compensates for a trafficky corner with a chill Euro interior. The kitchen turns out better than solid bruschette, americo burgers, and lightly charred pizzas.

On the boozy end of things, Abilene and Lowlands peeps bookend the Gowanus with a pair of low-key neighborhood drinkeries. A little closer to Smith-9th is Draft Barn, where 250 brews have been culled from every corner of the earth for your sampling pleasure. On an even bigger scale is The Bell House, an instant G-Slope classic with stellar booking. Tonight the concert hall turns into Wasablanca—a mashup of Casablanca inspirations and Wasabassco burlesque. Wait until tomorrow and can catch epic dance party The Rub. Dance party Mister Sunday is back for at least one more summer at neraby Gowanus Grove. This year’s sessions start on May 12th, with Brooklyn brews, dancing under the poplar grove, and huaraches from the Country Boys. There are worse places to contemplate the Smith-Ninth viaduct, and wonder why they built it so damn high. (Okay, it’s for the tall ships that once plied the pristine waters of the canal.)

Photo by City of Strangers/Flickr.

[For more great places to wine and dine, visit the BlackBook New York Guide; To keep up on the latest openings and events, subscribe to BlackBook Happenings; More by Ethan Wolff; Buy Ethan’s book; Follow him on Twitter

This Week’s NY Happenings: The DeKalb Classic, Meatball Slapdown, ‘Mad Men’ Premiere

TONIGHT: No-Fooling April Cocktails For DeKalb Ave.
Spring has sprung in Fort Greene, with glasses being raised tonight for inaugural cocktail competition The DeKalb Classic. Local faves like Madiba, Roman’s, and Chez Oskar will be throwing down for best bartender and cocktail crowns. Cornerstone’s entry (pictured) is barkeep Chris Rue’s St. Rue, a bright blend of Greenhook Gin, St. Germain, and lemon, with a vernal sprig of mint. You’ve got a month to track down the five cocktails and place your vote, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.

The DeKalb Classic kicks off tonight, April 1st, at 5pm. Cornerstone (271 Adelphi St., Fort Greene) is among the five participating venues. Tickets are $50 and the event runs through the end of the month. To learn more about the restaurant, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

THURSDAY: Meatball Madness
Look for an all-out meatball royal battle as local superstars like Buttermilk Channel, M. Wells Dinette, and Prime Meats square off for sphere supremacy at the Meatball Slapdown. Ted Allen is among the celeb judges; host Brooklyn Brewery will keep the suds flowing.

The 4th Annual Meatball Slapdown at Brooklyn Brewery (79 N. 11th St., Williamsburg) starts Thursday, April 4th, at 7pm. Tickets are $50 for all you can eat and drink, with the proceeds going to charity. To learn more about the brewery, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

SUNDAY: Hamm And Whiskey
Where better to catch the premiere of Mad Men season six than a swank, Midtown lounge? Whiskey Park will do the honors, with themed cocktails, a trivia contest, and guests decked out in their swinging ’60s best.

The Mad Men viewing party at Whiskey Park (100 Central Park So., Midtown West) starts at 8pm, no reservations required. To learn more about the bar, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

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Industry Insiders: Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, Kitchen Magicians

It’s impossible to pin down exactly what makes some New York restaurants successful where so many others have failed, but whatever the secret is, Frank Falcinelli (left) and Frank Castronovo (right) are in on it. "The Franks," as they’re affectionately known, are the owners of Frankies 457 Spuntino, Frankies 17 Spuntino, Prime Meats, Cafe Pedlar, and the new Frankies 570 Spuntino, each one of them beloved by critics and casual diners alike.

The Queens natives grew up on home-cooked Italian fare courtesy of their respective grandparents, and learned the business from some of the world’s most renowned chefs in restaurants in America, France, Germany, and Australia. They partnered up in 2003 and put their collective experience into their first restaurant, Frankie’s 457 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn the following year. Its casual atmosphere and seasonal Italian menu – including what many consider the best meatballs in town – were an instant hit. "I believe the secret to our success is that we’re quality- and value-driven, and we’re respectful of our ingredients and our guests," says Castronovo. "It’s not a hobby, it’s a business," adds Falcinelli. "You take it seriously, you’re professional in your approach, and you know what you’re doing. You need friendly service, a good atmosphere, good-value alcohols, quality, good food, and clean bathrooms – the right stuff." With their universally beloved restaurant empire humming along, you’d think they could relax a bit, but Falcinelli takes nothing for granted. "My biggest fear is that I’ll wake up one morning to find that people don’t love meatballs anymore."

 

What kinds of things were you into growing up? 
Frank C: I was really involved with sports and played hockey and football, and I was on the swim team. I also got into art because my mom was into design and clothing. There were always lots of arts and crafts at home. Always. At least five open projects at any given time. I got into it and still am.
 
Frank F: I was always into cooking when I was growing up, and since I can remember, I wanted to be a restaurant owner. I was a creative kid and enjoyed art, music and reading.
 
Where did you pick up your best cooking skills, and where did you pick up your best management skills? Were they the same places?
FC: With regard to cooking skills, it was when I was in France, working under Paul Bocuse, and later at Bouley when I came back to New York. It’s been cumulative with regard to management, going back to my first job as a manager when I was 23 at Jean Claude. I also learned a lot from my grandfather, who was a colonel in the military. He had a tremendous work ethic and I learned by his example. One position did prepare me the best in terms of management and overall efficiency. I was an executive chef for a multi-million dollar corporate catering company. Huge staff and lots of last-minute parties and events so you and your team had to be prepared. It was tough but it really trained me to handle any situation. Restaurants are so easy compared to catering where there’s no set menu and you have to control food costs. It was an intense job with long days but I was determined and ended up staying for three years, and I’m so glad I did.
 
FF: I credit a solid foundation to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.] where I learned the basic fundamentals and later, expounding on these at the restaurants I worked at in France, and then working for David Burke and Charlie Palmer. They both were very influential. I learned a great deal from observing Charlie Palmer at Aureole. He was one of the first chefs to open multiple restaurants of that quality in different cities. He was a great manager and so were the guys at Myriad Restaurant Group when I was there, like Michael Bonadies who’s now down at the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville. He was an incredible manager and all of those guys who worked with me at that time. They were all graduates of the Cornell restaurant management program so I learned a lot.
 
You’ve both spent time internationally, in Europe, Asia and beyond. Did leaving the U.S. give you a perspective that has helped you succeed since you returned to New York? Are there any approaches to running a restaurant that you picked up overseas that you apply to your restaurants here in the U.S.? What do the Europeans do better than us? What do they do worse?
FC: Absolutely. It gave us a perspective and insight that has only helped us succeed — by learning from and being able to observe and understand cultures with long-standing traditions. Seasonality, for example. In Asia, I learned that you can cook with just a burner and a wok. It’s a minimalist approach but you produce great food and it was important to really understand that.
 
FF:  Any time you leave the country, you come back with a fresh perspective. Seeing and experiencing another culture is always exciting because things are done differently. The Europeans do some things better and they have a definite established way of running a restaurant, but they also repeat the same things over and over again. There’s more flexibility here, and in the last five years it’s changed drastically to a level of casualness that you’d never ever get before this time. It just wasn’t that cool to be cool, you know? The food had to change and restaurants today are more accessible in terms of value and atmosphere. This change is good because it gives people choices. You can get away with a lot more because you don’t have to operate in a certain mold. Today, it’s more creative and you’re freer to make decisions that you would never make before in a classic situation.
 
What is an average day like for you, if there is such a thing as an average day. Since you have several restaurants, how do you decide which ones to visit? Do you work together, or divide and rule, so to speak?
FC: We’re on a cycle rotation to ensure we stop by each restaurant and Cafe Pedlar several times a week and sometimes daily. With Frank, we do a little bit of both but more dividing lately because of the new restaurant to ensure everything’s running efficiently.
 
Tell me about Frankies 570 Spuntino. How does it differ from your other restaurants, and what is the common thread that unites them all?
FC: It’s center stage. I guess more center stage would be Rockefeller Center, but for us, this is it. Our philosophy and approach unite all of our restaurants.
 
FF: Same parents; different child. What you do with your first child is different from your second child, and with each kid, you learn something new. The common thread: same ownership and we stick to the plan.
 
How has business been going at 570 Spuntino? Does it require a lot of oversight because it is new, or is it sort of flying on its own at this point?
FC: It’s been great but it does require attention and oversight, and Frank and I are in the restaurant every day.
 
FF: Every new baby requires your time, but it’s something you love and you know it will always require focus, attention, and love — and insight and vision.
 
Does 570 represent the sum of all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained from your previous restaurants? Are you introducing any new ideas that you haven’t worked with before?
FC: Yes, it’s all of that. We bring everything from our collective training and experience to this new restaurant, and we wouldn’t do anything differently.
 
FF: Yes; it represents 50 years of experience between Frank and myself. We’re always taking risks but my biggest fear is that I’ll wake up one morning to find that people don’t love meatballs anymore.
 
You’ve got plenty to keep you busy, but what do you have planned for the future? Anything to look forward to during the winter season?
FC: Skiing! Christmas in Germany and winter skiing in the Alps.
 
FF: We’ll be focusing on Prime Meats, our German farm-to-table restaurant. We’re planning some things now for winter. For example, we’re going to break down a whole pig and have some wine and beer dinners.
 
What do you like to do when you have time off? Any hobbies of leisure activities that keep you balanced amid a hectic career?
FC: I’m doing what I love. I also love to be with my family and travel as much as I can.
 
FF: Cooking and entertaining for friends and family; sailing; hiking; metal and wood working; and learning how to fly a plane.
 

Photo: Darren Ankenman

Where Celebs Eat: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Williams, Betty White

Maggie Gyllenhaal @ the Fresh Air Fund gala: Al di La and Il Buco: anything there! ● Maggie Rizer: At Nobu I get everything. I like the sea bass and the lettuce leaves, the tuna sashimi salad, the shishito peppers, and the Kobe beef. ● Brian Williams: I’m laughing because my wife and I go to the same two places all the time! There’s a little French place on Lexington; there’s a pasta place on 49th, Alfredo’s, because it’s right next to NBC.

Betty White at the Time100 Gala: Shun Lee Palace. ● Mark Feuerstein at the Royal Pains premiere party at the Lacoste store Fifth Avenue: Anywhere from The Waverly Inn to Smith & Wollensky. The most delicious chocolate souffle I’ve ever had was at the Four Seasons restaurant. In LA, Mastro’s or Boa. ● Henry Winkler: The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien is unbelievable! ● Amy Landecker: I just had lunch at Blue Water Grill, and it was fantastic. Union Square Cafe has a tuna steak that is just absolutely to die for. And Momofuku in the East Village is unbelievably excellent. ● Jill Flint: There’s one restaurant in Brooklyn that I’m absolutely loving called Prime Meats. My favorite dish is meat with a side of bacon and a little bit more meat. ● John Legend at the Sesame Workshop’s gala: Le Bernardin. I just love the whole tasting menu.

Industry Insiders: Vinegar Hill House’s Jean Adamson, Sam Buffa, & Brian Leth

Jean Adamson and Sam Buffa met while both were working at Freemans. Their relationship gave way to sharing a love of the food and aesthetic that formed Vinegar Hill House. Sam is also partners with Taavo Somer in the FSC Barbershop. Six months into their Brooklyn venture, the Vinegar Hill House team found Brian Leth, the chef de cuisine since April, formerly of Prune and Allen & Delancey. Leth excites patron with his locally sourced menu with ethnic flairs.

How did you start in the business? Jean Adamson: I started cooking in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had a fascination with cooking and went to the French Culinary Institute. Then I worked for Keith McNally for nine years at Balthazar and Pastis, but it was too easy there for me. I was just expediting the process, so I said, “I have to get out.” I started consulting for Frank Prisinzano of Frank, Supper and Lil’ Frankie’s. I helped him standardize things. I was getting their recipes in order so that in each restaurant everyone was doing the same thing. A friend then called me to say this guy Taavo Somer was looking for a chef at Freeman’s. Their consistency was really poor, and I’m good at producing large amounts of food at once. They were transferring into the first expansion so they needed a day-to-day chef to run everything. So I worked there for three years, and that’s where I met Sam. Sam Buffa: I was helping Taavo with the basic construction of their expansion. At the same time, the space at the front of the alley became available and I proposed the barbershop idea to Taavo. It’s still sort of my day job. Jean and I, from day one, have had similar interests. I always wanted to open a restaurant but had never worked in the field. I always liked the idea of building a restaurant.

How did you come across the space for Vinegar Hill House? JA: When Sam and I met, we were showing off the cool neighborhoods we knew in Brooklyn. I was living in Park Slope at the time, and the next day my landlord came to me and said the carriage house was becoming available in Vinegar Hill. It’s the house behind where the restaurant is now. I told him that I wanted it and I waited a year for it. SB: I told her to ask him about commercial spaces. Once we got the space it was like, “Oh shit now we have to open a restaurant.”

So you did. JA: When we told people about the location they were like, “No way.” When you’re milling around on a bicycle you just end up here. We opened last November after Sam designed the restaurant. We call the downstairs space “the den” and people rent it out for private events. I was the chef but was looking for a way to segue out. Then this gem, Brian, walked in the door. He’s changed the landscape of the restaurant. I always intended on being a local farms and local produce restaurant and he made that happen. He also wanted Brian wanted a Vita-Prep. It’s amazing watching the stuff he makes with it. Brian Leth: I’m a puree guy.

Where have you worked before? BL: I started cooking in New Mexico. A friend of a friend helped steer me towards a job at Prune and I learned a lot there. Then, I worked at Blue Hill and Café des Artistes. I was at Allen & Delancey for about a year. JA: Brian has a broad spectrum of food knowledge from having worked at so many places.

Are you already thinking about the next project? SB: I think its always on our mind. JA: We want to be solid here before the next place.

Something people don’t know about you? JA: That I’m nice. SB: I used to race motorcycles BL: I’m a serious Scrabble player

What are your favorite places? JA, SB, BL: Hotel Delmonico and Rusty Knot.

How about restaurants? BL: Ippudo, Prime Meats, and wd-50. JA, SB: Sripraphai for Hawaiian pizzas, Roberta’s, The Smile, Joe’s Shanghai for soup dumplings.

What’s on your favorite playlist right now? JA, SB: Lady Gaga and talk radio. BL: The Replacements and Steely Dan.