Thanks to its incredibly diverse immigrant population, the stretch of South Brooklyn from Coney Island to Sheepshead Bay is one of the city's richest feeding grounds for those interested in ethnic eats. Unfortunately, as readers know, it is also one of the low-lying neighborhoods hardest hit by the Sandy surge. As of last weekend, power was still out in large chunks of the district; dirty sand soiled the streets; and piles of sodden furniture were piled in front of homes. In the typically fickle aftermath of disasters, some businesses seem to have pulled through relatively unscathed, while others have far more damage to contend with.
This column has long been a fan of the dense and dark Russian and Lithuanian breads produced by New York Bread. Its ovens and retail store are housed in a building on Coney Island's north side, backing onto an arm of Gravesend Bay. On the night of the hurricane, Gennady, one of the owners, stayed hoping to protect his equipment. But when the water started coming through his door and kept rising, he jumped in his car and drove home over the Verrazano bridge just minutes before it was closed to traffic.
When he was able to return, he discovered that the water had covered the first floor to a depth of six feet. Since then, he has been waiting—so far fruitlessly—for Con Ed to turn on the power so he can see which of his refrigerators and ovens still work. Meanwhile, he and his workers are cleaning up, and every three or four hours they feed their bread starter, the heart and soul of their entire baking business. Once he gets electricity back, Gennady is planning to upgrade all his equipment and come back bigger and better than before. Up on the second floor, Gennady stored a few loaves of dense Lithuanian rye and fruit bread that he baked just before the storm. Ten days later, they were just as delicious as new.
Brighton Beach, the next neighborhood east, seems to have power. Shoppers bustle along Brighton Beach Avenue's Russian shopping strip under the elevated train tracks. Many of the stores and restaurants on the south side of the street appear to still be closed, perhaps due to water damage, while those on the north side are open for businesses. The exception here is M & I International Foods, one of the oldest and largest of the neighborhood's many gastronomic emporiums. One of the owners said that the storm caused the roof to collapse, destroying the entire interior. "We will rebuild," he vowed.
Sandy's floodwaters flowed many blocks inland. One of this column's favorite ethnic bakeries is Georgian Bread, where Badri, the owner, makes the city's best shoti and khachapuri breads. The bakery's address on Neptune Avenue is almost half a mile from the beach. Nevertheless, the relentless water filled its first floor storefront to a depth of about two feet. Georgian Bread is now back in business, but Badri is worried that the water somehow penetrated the walls of his special tandoor-like oven. The first few shoti loaves that came out didn't bake as evenly as before. They may have been slightly browned on the edges, but their flavor was just as good as always. We are confident that he will work out the kinks.
Two weeks after Sandy, South Brooklyn from Coney Island to Sheepshead Bay and beyond still needs your help. You can donate volunteer time, food, clothing, and other necessities through many organizations. And you can go there to dine and shop, because the district's many restaurants and markets need your patronage to survive the next few months.
[Note to self: The next time a hurricane approaches, buy a few loaves of Lithuanian rye!]