You don't need to eat at Per Se, Thomas Keller's exorbitant tasting menu venue in Manhattan's Time Warner Center, anymore. Perhaps you never went in the first place, because you thought a $1,000 dinner date was elitist and foolish. But many of you indulged. Per Se, after all, wasn't a Lamborghini, an out-of-reach-acquisiton that makes the buyer look like a jerk; Per Se was a night out to see Hamilton: a cultural phenomenon that middle-class food-o-philes saved up for. It was a place to understand old French indulgences (foie gras, truffles) and to seek fluency in new American luxuries (sous-vide short ribs, cryovac melons). Then the prices went up and the food went downhill. The New York Times published a devastating pan, and this critic said the tired cuisine was about what one would expect out of a high-end shopping mall. It all raises the question: Where does one now splurge for a crash course in modern fine dining? Simple: You visit the only major Kings County restaurant with a no-jeans policy. You visit Brooklyn Fare.
A man in a suit presents an overfilled trout roe tartlet. The shades of orange, brown, and white evoke the sleepy salmon cornets that inaugurate every tasting at Per Se. Then you take a bite. The fish eggs roll around in the mouth like piscine marbles, each edible sphere as firm and distinct as a grain of sushi rice. A layer of trout mousse underneath coats your palate, tempering all the unctuous excess. This is when you realize that chef Cesar Ramirez is subtly telling you that he can do better than Keller. And that you shouldn't settle for a tiny cornet when you can have what this glistening, golden creation really looks like: a proper crown.
That same man in a suit, who stands behind the U-shaped table, bestows another gift: a giant dollop of golden osetra roe atop a warm dashi sabayon, a high-end caviar that typically runs $60 extra at Per Se. At Brooklyn Fare, there's no extra charge; every diner is privy to these buttery, barely briny beads. With a flick of the tongue, they evaporate like a summertime tidal pool.
Brooklyn Fare's Affordable Origins
This reality also produced syllable-sized dishes served at such rapid pacing they sometimes felt like real time slideshows of food
New York's tasting menu venues, predominantly fancy, French-y, Midtown institutions in the early aughts, gave way to stripped-down American counter spots in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn in the decade that followed, with longer menus and smaller portions catering to our shorter social media attention spans. As rooms shrank, the number of courses seemed to grow, giving risk-taking chefs more room to experiment. This reality, alas, also produced syllable-sized dishes served at such a rapid pace they sometimes felt like real-time slideshows of food, edible press releases designed to be instantly preserved in the electronic amber of Instagram. Eat, snap, forget.
Brooklyn Fare, which opened in 2009 next to its namesake market, exemplified many of these trends, both good and bad. Patrons sat on hard metal chairs around a U-shape counter. Ramirez, late of Bouley, pitched up to thirty courses of French-Japanese fare at a breakneck pace. The tone was dinner-party strict. Ramirez would wait until everyone quieted to announce each course. Guests who were twenty minutes late would find themselves seven courses behind. (I once double fisted a few bites to catch up.) No pictures or note-taking were allowed; when I asked about this a few years back, Ramirez just smiled and quipped, "I just want everyone to leave their guns at the door." The lack of a liquor license meant diners brought their own wines, chilled their own wines (you had to make cute little snow mountains with crushed ice to chill the bottlenecks), and poured their own wines. And this was all okay, because dinner for two wouldn't run more than $500.
The Chef Table's Expensive Status Quo
Then Brooklyn Fare started serving wine. And as the economy rebounded, the cost of dinner inched up further. What was once one of the city's best bargains turned into one of our most expensive establishments. Dinner is now $306 per person, service included, which means a fully-loaded dinner for two, with beverage pairings, can scratch at $1,000. And that's okay, because while Per Se, at $325, has done little to merit its increasingly higher prices over the years, Brooklyn Fare has transformed itself from a lean, underdog chef's counter into one of the city's most comfortable and compelling expressions of haute cuisine.
Black leather stools now allow for more comfortable feasting. Zalto stems stand tall in front of every guest. Sommeliers glide to and fro, picking out steely whites to pair with slices of gently charred mackerel. The slower pace and shorter course count (around fifteen plates or so), affords each dish more time for conversation and contemplation. That's hugely important if you believe that Ramirez's cuisine deserves a place in our ongoing culinary conversations, a tough standard to meet for a chef with no cookbook to reinforce our memories of his delicacies, few media appearances to tout his likeness, and a strict photo policy that keep his innovations somewhat under the radar.
The Importance of Old-School Luxuries
Wagyu, a majestic bovine breed whose flesh is as marbled as bluefin tuna belly, has developed somewhat of a reputation in New York, where it often precedes the word "meatball" or "slider." At Brooklyn Fare, Ramirez sets us all straight, serving an insanely expensive A5 Miyazaki over grated daikon and horseradish. The cut is so gorgeously fatty you could practically spread it over toast like marrow. The robust roots underneath, in turn, slice through the Wagyu's richness like the tart-spicy condiments on a roast beef sandwich.
Classic indulgences like caviar, truffles, and foie gras have slowly disappeared from tasting menus as our notions of luxury evolve to include more sustainable excesses like house-aged game, repurposed food waste, oily fish, and custom vegetables from bespoke farms. Of the city's long tasting menu venues, only Per Se and Brooklyn Fare consistently act as an immersion class into these high-end commodities of yesteryear. So it's a shame that you when show up for those marquee ingredients at Per Se they can cost up to $300 extra per person.
At Brooklyn Fare there are no two-tiered culinary experiences, no supplemental charges. Ramirez tops sweet hokkaido uni with the earthy funk of black truffle in August, or the more ethereal musk of white truffle in December. Each dish is just a bite, yet the flavors linger for minutes. Foie gras is included in the tasting as well, its livery oomph giving weight to a mind bending black truffle and king crab chawanmushi. And then white truffles appear again in a scoop of ice cream infused with the heady tuber, a single scoop that costs an extra $68 at Masa in Manhattan.
But while Ramirez lures us in with such goodies, he quietly wows with more subdued surprises: a soft bite of abalone in a sauce of its own liver. He slow cooks a slice of deep sea snapper but leaves the scales intact, letting the marshmallow texture of the flesh contrast with the rough exterior, crisped up like maritime baklava. The chef, always dressed in a white button-down and black-framed glasses, cherishes unexpected crunches. He strolls over as I notice how the skin on a duck breast is a bit more cooked than usual. "It's a chicharron, man," he says, before turning around and walking away. It was, without a doubt, the closest thing to a mic drop I've experienced in my decade of eating out professionally.
The meal eventually winds down. Shiso sorbet, spun in the PacoJet, is smooth as velouté. And liquid nitrogen-dipped milk chocolate soufflé, which looks as big as a can of tomatoes, somehow disappears on the tongue with as little weight as cotton candy. By this point Ramirez is working the room, chatting with every guest, shaking hands with everyone as they leave. Ramirez has, it should be noted, been accused of various things over the years, ranging from racism to making a guest cry (allegations which he's denied). I've visited Brooklyn Fare seven times since it opened (twice these past five months) and I've only encountered a chef so hospitable I once named him my favorite waiter.
Give Ramirez credit: he's turned his Tasting Temple by Cesar into something larger, a proper restaurant that's less about the chef and more about the guest, and a venue that still feels as relevant as ever as its strengths switch from the cutting edge (which it still embodies) to the classic (which it's becoming). That's aging with grace. That's your four-star replacement for Per Se.
Cost: $306 for 15-courses, service included. A shorter beverage pairing starts at $95; the full pairing runs $150. Neither of those two options include service.
Sample dishes: Trout roe tartlet, chawanmushi with foie gras, Hokkaido uni with black truffle, Miyazaki Wagyu with daikon and horseradish, white truffle ice cream, frozen soufflé.
Bonus tip: Reservations for any given week are released on Mondays, six weeks in advance. Brooklyn Fare will charge you credit card for the full price of the meal a week before dining. Beverages are purchased at the restaurant.