Editor's note: Ed Levine is off this week; Carey Jones, editor of Serious Eats: New York, is filling in.
It might be unfair to call Ditmas Park an unlikely dining destination, but only in the last few years did this Brooklyn neighborhood sprout the kind of restaurant row that got Manhattanites ("Ditmas where?") hopping on the Q train. First came The Farm on Adderley, bringing seasonal, New American food to Cortelyou Road; last year, the loosely Filipino Purple Yam. And, perhaps our favorite of all, Mimi's Hummus.
The Mimi's team has already expanded next door with a smartly assembled market (audaciously named Market) of fresh breads, cheeses, and pantry staples, a spot for a fresh pastry or an Illy espresso. And one of Mimi's owners, Avi Shuker, opened long-awaited wine bar The Castello Plan with partner Benjamin Heemskerk just this weekend.
Locavore, contemporary Asian, strong coffee, small plates—throw in a speakeasy-style cocktail bar and Cortelyou's got the Brooklyn boxed set.
The Castello Plan is named for the original 17th-century map of lower Manhattan, penned by Dutch surveyor Jacques Cortelyou, the namesake, of course, of Cortelyou Road. (Still with us?) Equal parts nautical and urban, exposed brick and darkly varnished wood, it's a gorgeous, dimly-lit space with high tables and a few set-off nooks for couples or parties to duck out of the already formidable din. As muted and elegant as Mimi's is lively and cheery. Lengthy, far-reaching wine list, by the glass and by the bottle. Gracious service. It's a lovely spot for a drink and a few bites, either before or after a meal.
But if dinner's in your plan, duck two doors down to Mimi's—whose hummus really is worth crossing boroughs for.
The Castello Plan
The Castello Plan
1213 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn NY 11218 (map); 781-856-8888; thecastelloplan.com
Service: Chatty and very knowledgeable
Setting: Elegant, dark, lively wine bar
Compare It To: The Vanderbilt
Cost: Glasses of wine $7+, small plates $6-15
With twelve small plates plus a spread of cured meats and cheeses, there's plenty on chef Natasha Pogrebinsky's menu to pair with any of the 100+ wine selections or ten Belgian beers. True to cartography theme, the wine list is printed on the backs of sepia-toned regional maps, and ventures considerably beyond California and the Continent. Most glasses fall into the $7-12 range.
Asked for a crisp, drinkable white, Heemskerk uncorked a 2007 Menetou-Salon from Domaine Jean-Max Roger ($12/glass), a slightly mineral, nicely dry Sauvignon blanc with real notes of apple and grapefruit, from a Loire Valley appellation quite near Sancerre. We loved it with the tangy, mild Cana de Cabra.
The cheeses available (3 for $12), though numbering only eight, ranges from the blu di bufala, a pungent and somewhat uncommon aged blue cheese of water buffalo milk, to an oaky, smoky Spanish queso ahumado de Pria.
Along those smoky lines, we loved the smoked herring-like sprats ($6), with tumeric mayonnaise and paprika salt.
For a cleaner bite, there's an elegant, if pricey cured salmon ($8) with black tobiko.
And for something more substantial, we all enjoyed the rabbit stew ($15), lean meat cooked until tender with okra and potato in a ginger-carrot jus.
But this is a wine bar, not a full-on restaurant; portions are dainty, and even before drinks, the bill mounts quickly. Stop in for a glass or a bottle; talk over your choices with a staff on top of their wine list. But if you're really looking to eat up, you need only wander next door, to...
1209 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn NY 11218 (map)
; 718-284-4444; mimishummus.com
Service: Swift and smiling
Setting: A sunny, cheery eight-tabled room
Compare It To: Miriam, Hummus Place, though better than either
Must-Haves: Mushroom hummus, meat hummus, beet salad
Cost: $20 or under for two courses
It only takes a sniff, upon cracking open the door of tiny Mimi's, to understand why we sent you there. Cumin and garlic and cinnamon, meat stewing and pita baking, mushrooms simmering and onions browning—it all hits you in one deep, rapturous breath. Though the menu is simple, hummus and eggs, soups and small plates, very little we tried fell short of spectacular.
These aren't the sort of bites you chew contentedly; they're the sort that forever change your notions of what certain dishes should taste like. A single meal at Mimi's shoved a few of my former favorite restaurants a notch or two down.
A basket of fluffy pita, white, wheat, or a mix of the two, may arrive at the table a few minutes before your dish. In such situations, I do try to wait for the rest of the food; no use in polishing off such a perfect hummus delivery vehicle. But if you can hold off when this pita's within arm's reach, you are a stronger person than I. This is fantastic pita, with a beautiful golden burnish, easy to devour on its own. Tear apart the pillowy layers and steam will pour out and tickle your fingers.
But it's soon eclipsed by the hummus—so smooth as to seem more like a buttery chickpea custard than anything that was once, in fact, just chickpeas. It melts on the tongue. Nothing grainy, nothing starchy. Simply put, some of the finest hummus I've ever had.
It serves as the base for five different plates, which range from tasty to mind-blowing. Though lemon and garlic considerably enlivened a chickpea-topped masabache hummus ($8), we found the chickpeas themselves a bit too tough; they were one of the few imperfect things on the table. (A stir in silky hummus solved the problem.)
The mushroom hummus ($8), on the other hand. Mushrooms stewed and softened in olive oil with the sweetness of onion and gentle heat of cumin—and so much more than the sum of those parts. I'd never heard anyone groan with pleasure over mushrooms before, but a bite of this dish sent our table into fits of eye-rolling and heart-clutching, like a bachelorette party diving into a molten chocolate cake. It simply ends up on your fork, on the pita, and in your mouth, until it's gone, and you wish it wasn't, and you might order a second plate, because eight dollars is nothing in the afterglow of this happiness.
And though hummus may be a perfect vegetarian protein, there's no reason for the omnivores among us not to crown it with meat. That meat hummus ($9), ground beef with cinnamon and pine nuts, loosely recalls the Moroccan flavors of a pastilla, savory, sweet, and cinnamon-laced all at once. It's a bite so aggressive that it doesn't get lost in a blanket of hummus—though a forkful on its own may be even more fun.
One shakshuka ($9.50), an egg-topped tomato stew, makes it onto the dinner menu, but two more show up at brunch, including one with braised Swiss chard and, our favorite, the Shakshuka margez ($11, pictured above), with long fingers of gamey, tender lamb sausage, plenty of salt, and an elusive, lingering heat. As the dangerously warm cast-iron skillet keeps heating the stew, the tomatoes around the edges cook down until sweet and caramelized; swipe that up with pita for a particularly tasty bite.
Don't expect baba ganoush from the eggplant "caviar" ($5)—the smooth, pulpy eggplant dip is far more sweet than smoky. It cradles a well of honey that's best paired with the more substantial wheat pita.
What makes this beet salad ($5) different from any other beet salad? one of my dining companions pondered. It's good enough to invoke that sort of quasi-religious musing. Nothing short of a perfect salad, tender beets with a wash of citrus, perhaps a sprinkle of cumin, a shower of parsley.
And adding to our growing sense that the kitchen could do no wrong, special meatballs ($13) were as delicious as they were unusual—lamb and bulgur wheat that falls apart at the poke of a fork. Loosely packed, they were juicy enough without the lemony broth, but even better with it, dissolving into a gently spiced, sloppy sort of soup.
Five of us left stuffed and dizzily happy for less than $15/person—after tax and tip. The space may be small, and the wine list limited, but if you're considering a ratio of pennies to deliciousness, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better spot.
As we ambled out the door, one of our party lingered by the window of a real estate storefront next door, glancing over the listings. "Thinking of moving in?" I teased. And that's what Mimi's does. It's not just a perfect neighborhood restaurant. It's one that, for at least a few post-hummus seconds, makes you consider whether you, too, shouldn't be in that neighborhood.