Beacon in a Brooklyn Wasteland

Written by Matthew DeBord on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



68 5th Ave.

(betw. Bergen St. & St. Mark’s Pl.)

Brooklyn, 718-857-1833

About a
month ago, I decided to walk up the road from where I live, up the hill, up
toward 7th Ave. in Park Slope, to get a haircut and grab some lunch. I was a
fool, such a fool, because while there is a perfectly satisfactory barbershop
on 7th Ave., there’s absolutely no place to grab lunch. Nor dinner, for
that matter. Breakfast? Who knows, I eat that at home.

There are numerous theories
as to why this is so. One is that Park Slope proper is a self-impressed, stultifyingly
predictable bastion of leftists raised on straw-basket Chianti and oily dumplings
and the moldering legend of Adlai Stevenson, on politics that haven’t budged
a whit since 1975 and won’t. Another is that Park Slope proper is lousy
with parents who require takeout, devoutly rotten takeout, and have never considered
the prospect that decent restaurants can also produce takeout, that the birth
of children does not instantly invalidate quality takeout.

And so on. But none of this
speculation genuinely concerns me. I prefer to study the culinary wasteland
of 7th Ave. with a mixture of bemused bafflement and harsh prophecy. Because
the restaurant situation in Park Slope is changing. Slowly, very slowly, but
it’s changing nonetheless. And 7th Ave., that asphalt tenderloin of gourmet
boredom, is being left behind.

Call it the Smith St. effect.
Park Slope wonders how Boerum Hill, which it once regarded with disdain, can
encourage a minor restaurant revolution while the Slope remains mired in irrevocable
dining stasis. Trouble is, Park Slope, despite its reputation, is really one
of the most conservative neighborhoods in the entire city. The denizens of 7th
Ave. want nothing to change, ever. They combine, dispiritingly, lethargy and
recalcitrance. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the classic conservative
line. In Park Slope, it was always broke, and fixing it would demand a revolution.
And much as these people love to sink into their sofas with Reds on the
tube, they’re about as revolutionary as Calvin Coolidge.

Which means that 7th Ave.,
for all practical purposes, is out of the action, food-wise. Leaving the next
closest major commercial thoroughfare, 5th Ave., down in what a friend of mine
calls "Park Gulch," free to begin ridding itself of its bodega-on-every-corner
ethos and start getting some new joints.

What potentially ticks me
off is that these new restaurants really don’t owe any allegiance to 7th
Ave., but 7th Ave. will claim them anyway, allying the Gulch with the burgher
precincts up the hill. Spiritually, however, these new eateries are much closer
to Smith St. (both streets share a past rich in ratty little convenience shops
and lots of brown citizens, in thunderous homeboy signification). If it weren’t
for the vast and threatening chiaroscuro flats–dead warehouses, chainlink
fencing, bodyshops, high weeds–that spread across 4th Ave., then bridge
the Gowanus Canal on the way to Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill, this affinity
would be more obvious. As it stands, however, the gnarled Aquarian tendrils
up the hill wind downhill and wrap themselves around the new arrivals, embracing
them in a vile countercultural clinch. The new arrivals aren’t going to
resist–they need the business. But I can complain. If I want to.

Right now, the best restaurant
on 5th Ave. is al di la, the cozy Italian trattoria that debuted quietly a little
more than two years back, half a block from Cucina, the former boss of the strip,
but a restaurant whose shine has begun to fade. Pretty soon, al di la was packing
them in, and deservedly. Chef Anna Klinger’s Venetian-inflected food was
simple and stunning. Her husband and co-owner, Emiliano Coppa, was an able host.
Al di la felt more like an everyday eatery, and thus was Klinger and Coppa’s
scheme to provide a sub-Cucina option for Slopers (and Gulchers) vindicated.
Best of all, al di la was of Brooklyn. Oftentimes, Cucina seemed of Paramus.

Still, by contrast with
Smith St., and despite the advent of several other new restaurants along the
Gulch’s spine (including the ill-conceived and recently revamped Vaux),
it was a limited triumph. Until Convivium Osteria opened several weeks ago,
also under the helm of a husband/wife team. Now, Gulchers can pretty much forget
about 7th Ave. altogether. We can hang at the bottom of the hill, alternating
between al di la and Convivium and slip every so often into Los Chorros, a tidy
Salvadoran off Bergen St., for a bowl of the best chicken soup in the borough.
Convivium, based on the info I was able to pick up during one visit (and, honestly,
I should have gone back before writing this review, but the place just seems
so promising), is a collaborative effort. The cook is Basque, the wife Portuguese,
her lover (okay, the husband) Italian.

This ethnic diversity (as
well gustatory commonality) has been worked into the menu, which contains a
little bit of everything. You could start with some crostini, or some bacalhau,
or a seafood soup involving mussels, clams and shrimp. Or you could do what
I did, which was select the carciofi all romana con guanciale, a pair of artichokes
prepared Roman style, cooked until soft in olive oil, then sprinkled with some
chunks of guanciale, a kind of thick bacon, similar to pancetta. It was unbelievably
delicious. It was sop-it-up delicious.

I sopped, while listening
to the couple seated at my table (some dining is communal, at large heavy tables
that the management says they’re planning to sell, as a sideline business)
gripe about there being too much salt in the whole snapper and the entree-portion
bacalhau. I sipped the nice Spanish red table wine that Convivium had thoughtfully
provided, gratis, while waiting for their liquor license to come through (they
should have it by the time this sees print, and they plan an ambitious wine
program, including a basement cellar, along with a selection of sherries, and
Port to accompany certain desserts). I pondered the decor, which involved low
lights and a variety of Gothic/peasant/dockside motifs–your thick-chain
block-and-tackle, your flickering gunmetal candelabras, rough walls bedecked
with an assortment of scavenged farming and kitchen implements, dried dangling
peppers and pomegranates, leaded stained glass in moody jewel tones, a rustic
autumnal diorama arranged in the front windows. The music trickling from discreet
speakers was a compilation of nuevo-flamenco songs. Exceptionally post-Gipsy
Kings, deeply limber, supple and enough to make me feel very happy.

Just in time for my platter
of smoked fish. Trout. Bluefish. Eels!

"Do you know what you’re
eating?" the wife asked, after suspiciously noticing that I was taking
notes on my Handspring Visor (I claimed it was my "hobby," and she
didn’t buy it, and thus was I busted). "Oh yeah," I babbled.
"It was the eels that got me. I just can’t get enough…eels."

She pulls up a chair and
tells me about the space’s former life. I always thought it was a shoe
store for Guatemalan midgets who longed to master the tango. Rumor has it, however,
that it was a front for a numbers racket. In any case, it’s now Convivium
Osteria, and Convivium Osteria is preparing to serve tapas during the afternoon
and, when the weather warms up, open its back garden. There is joy in Gulchville.
(And take note: for the moment, Convivium is operating on a limited dinnertime
schedule–call for details.)

I fold over pieces of smoked
trout and impale them on my fork, then usher them toward my mouth. Visions of
lazy weekdays eating tapas dance in my head. My objectivity is flying right
out the front door. Finally, a worthy restaurant right around the corner from
my house, and one that serves all the food I love to eat. I poke at a small
pile of fennel and dill heaped in the middle of my plate. For dessert, I down
a hunk of grilled pecorino cheese, drenched with honey, and I down it fast,
and I wish there were more.

"You can sit for as
long as you like," the wife tells me. "There’s no rush."

But there is a rush: I can’t
get back soon enough.