Eat, Drink, and Be Artsy: A Crown Heights Neighborhood Crawl
I know I've had a memorable evening out if I've managed to partake in all of the following: good company, good eats and drinks, and something thought-provoking. Be it conversation, or music, or film, that last element is easy to overlook, but on a recent Friday I was pleasantly surprised to work in all of the above while ambling with my wife through a conveniently compact pocket of Crown Heights.
In this case, art was our muse. Easily reproduced, this mini-tour of the area adds up to about a mile of outdoor walking, yet along the way you'll hit two stellar art venues, two tasty dining spots, and a gem of a neighborhood cocktail bar.
Stop 1: Five Myles Gallery
To sate your thirst for the artistic, start your journey in the mid-afternoon at Five Myles Gallery, just a short walk from the Franklin Avenue subway station, serviced by the 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains. Five Myles is a community-focused visual and performance art space (open 1 to 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday). The most recent exhibition paired vulnerable, spiritual wall assemblages by artist Carl E. Hazlewood with Olu Oguibe's powerful installations confronting gun violence in Africa. Five Myles fills time between shows by turning the gallery (and sometimes the sidewalk along St. Johns Place, as well) over to emerging local artists in an effort called the SpaceProgram. With its more freestyle approach to programming, the gallery reliably delivers a brash counterpoint to the slickness of Chelsea.
Stop 2: Brooklyn Museum & Saul Restaurant
No art-driven visit to the area would be complete without a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, five minutes on foot from Five Myles (hours here). Its collections in areas like Native American and Egyptian Art rival any in New York. Work up an appetite by marveling at Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, a touchstone of feminist art on long-term display.
Once you've filled up on aesthetic delights, it'll be time to reward your palate, as well. Your next stop is Saul, the museum's new restaurant. It's the relocated reincarnation of chef Saul Bolton's Michelin-starred spot that formerly occupied 140 Smith Street in Boerum Hill—and it came back as a handsome, well-groomed mensch.
On our visit, we grabbed seats at the bar shortly after Saul's 5:30 p.m. opening and couldn't have been more delighted with the service and food. Knowing we had more food in our future, we restrained our ordering a salad to share. Nevertheless, the amiable bartenders rolled out the red carpet, surprising us with amuses from the chef of beets, radish, and crunchy chips. Complimentary bread service appeared next.
The Salad of Roasted Squash ($13) with ginger, pear, and quinoa is a wise move for anyone who's a fan of cooked root vegetables' rich, caramelized flavors. It's a study in beauty and balance: thin, ginger-spiced rings of roasted sweet dumpling squash anchor the plate; basil and baby greens lend freshness; and crisp, cereal-like kernels of quinoa add textural complexity.
Stop 3: Tooker Alley
If you're able to drag yourself away from Saul's inviting warmth, head next to Tooker Alley, a lovable year-old cocktail bar located on the fringes of Crown Heights along Washington Avenue (about a three-minute stroll from the museum). Tooker Alley takes its name from a Chicago street that the "consciously nobrow, militantly inclusive" Dill Pickle Club once called home. All walks of life passed through this Prohibition-era melting pot, from elites to creative types to heckling hobos, and the bar does a fine job tapping that irreverent, welcoming vibe. Half the crowd seemed to be regulars. The binder-length, cheekily written cocktail menu invites you to scrawl your reviews directly on its blanks pages instead of Yelping the place online.
This time of year, a drink like Tooker Alley's Hi Falutin' cocktail ($12) really hits the spot. The combo of Whippersnapper American whiskey, Swedish Punsch, Byrrh, and lemon works wonders to shake off the windchill. The cocktail's name is lifted from its whiskey's bottle, which hails from Oregon's Ransom Spirits and results from an interesting marriage of bourbon and Scotch production methods. The malty character of the young Whippersnapper plays well with the cinchona-bark bitterness of the Byrrh.
Tooker Alley sings the classics just as well. The menu includes a full exploration of the Martini and its evolution. For a sense of its sweeter, fuller-bodied origins, go with the Martinez #2 ($12), a rendering of gin, sweet vermouth, and maraschino liqueur, garnished with a duo of inky-red cocktail cherries.
Stop 4: Barboncino
By now that earlier flirtation with food may seem all to distant a memory. To fortify yourself before calling it a night, head two blocks east to Barboncino. The Neapolitan pizza joint hums on weekend nights with locals hungry for some cheesy, blistered action from Barboncino's massive wood-fired oven.
If you end up having to wait awhile for a table, don't hesitate to order a Margherita pie ($11) as you're being seated. It's reliably saucy, with plenty of basil and rich cheese. The crust may not be the stuff dreams are made of, but its smoky char certainly satisfies.
Fine art, fine dining, well-crafted cocktails, and wood-fired pizza...not a bad night out. For the unschooled, this stroll through Crown Heights will come as a pleasant surprise. Demographic divisions have, at times, cast a dark shadow over the Brooklyn neighborhood. But these days it's ripe with welcoming, approachable gathering places that promise to not just stimulate the mind and palate. They create a sense of community.