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After just two years at the helm of The New York Times' dining section, Sam Sifton moved over to the National desk, where he is currently the editor. Sifton was a different kind of critic, weaving in literary and rock 'n' roll references throughout reviews of restaurants he analyzed in poetic tones. He honored the art of food critique and angered an avid readership by giving greater focus to the more theatrical elements of dining in New York: the setting, the cast of characters, the dialogue—all parts of the restaurant puzzle less thoroughly dissected by other critics.
He also brought attention to under-the-radar ethnic restaurants and places whose praises might otherwise have gone unsung. The Sifty Fifty, a list of his 50 favorite restaurants in the city, served as a kind of new Zagat guide, and people turned to Sifton for guidance on where to find the best spaghetti carbonara in Manhattan and how to impress a girlfriend's finicky parents.
No need to continue speaking of Sifton's skills in the past tense, however—his new cookbook, which draws from his experience answering reader questions during Thanksgiving, will hit shelves October 30th. To whet our palates in anticipation of the book's release, Sam shared his favorite places to eat undercover in and around his Red Hook neighborhood.
Pizza, slice: The best neighborhood slice is at House of Pizza & Calzone. It is, however, very difficult just to have a slice there. The point of the restaurant is the deep-fried calzone. It is not crispy, precisely. It is never greasy. It is simply a pillow of ricotta built around a slice of ham, wrapped in a cloak of gold. It is the finest calzone in New York City. This is true even on Fridays, when there is no ham in it.
Pizza pie: Lucali is the clear winner here, even when the wait to get into the dining room runs to 75 minutes and the tension mounts in your head like steam. It's a great pizza. That much will be revealed in time.
Cheap burger: Sit at the bar at Rocky Sullivan's, watching the game, chatting with George, drinking a Bud. Here comes a cheap burger, and it's just fine above its nest of fries, better still with another Bud and a slash of mayonnaise across the bun. Salt that. On the best nights there isn't a soul for two blocks in any direction and the smell off Erie Basin is all saltwater and tidal funk. This is what we do.
Fancy burger: Consistency matters. The Good Fork has it—and a warm, grown-up neighborhood vibe to go along with the food. Here are parents and children and parents of parents, third-daters preening, everyone in between. Have a burger at the bar, along with a spouse, child, or downloaded novel, and see.
Sandwich: There are plenty good sandwich options at Defonte's, an old dockworkers' canteen near the mouth of the Battery Tunnel. But fried eggplant with fresh mozz and a scattering of hot peppers is the best, best consumed with a Manhattan Special coffee soda and two tabloid newspapers in 30 minutes or less, sitting in the front seat of an American-built vehicle.
Coffee: Stumptown roasts coffee in Red Hook, but no longer seems to sell it brewed in any sort of helpful way. You need to head all the way up to Iris Café, under the BQE, to find it made.
Bagel: There are no credible bagels available in South Brooklyn at this time. Head up the slope to Prospect Park instead, get a dozen at Terrace Bagels, and count yourself lucky.
Delivery food: There are no credible food deliveries available in South Brooklyn at this time. You hear that, Andy Ricker? Some Pok Pok wings to go, brought on a bike, real fast?
Breakfast: Stay away from brunch and good coffee. Eggs over-easy and dishwater joe at Court Street Coffee Shop should put you in the mind of the neighborhood that was, and which should always sort of be.
Nicer wine, beer, or cocktail bar: Buttermilk Channel—it's so nice we call it a restaurant. The burger's right up near neighborhood best, and the fried chicken walks away with that prize. Brunch brings throngs, and the fall brings a deep hunger for lots of duck meatloaf, as often as possible. But Doug Crowell's artful and excellent wine list is reason enough to bring people to crowd 'round the bar experiencing the length and breadth of American wine making—and perhaps staying late enough to drink deeply of its bourbon traditions as well.
Chinese takeout: What has happened to Chinese takeout food in South Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights in the past 30 years is nothing less than a tragedy, and there is nothing in the region to compare to the greats of the past, notably the late lamented Chun Yuan and China Chili, both on Montague Street. But Lichee Nut will do in a pinch—at least so long as you add to whatever order you make at least one plate of dry-sautéed green beans or bok choy with garlic.
Late-night eats: One of the great things about South Brooklyn is that it folds like a tent around 11. You can haunt your way along Smith Street looking for late-night grub. But the dark side streets tell the story. This is sleepytown, USA. Hit the BQE and head up to Williamsburg, you want that late-night steak frites.
Date night: Dark table in a corner at Prime Meats. Share a wedge salad, some bluefish rillettes, a glass of rosé. Hold hands. That's nice.
Can't-miss neighborhood spot: Can't beat a lobster roll at Red Hook Lobster Pound. Really, you can't.