When Jane Miller Rennert moved to Windsor Terrace 12 years ago, she had no plans to open a restaurant—much less establish the burgeoning Prospect Avenue foodie empire she now oversees with business partner Jeremiah Fox.
“It was really just being in this community and seeing what the needs are that made us want to do this,” says Miller Rennert. “Windsor Terrace really dictated what we opened.”
The pair originally met at Juice Box Wine and Spirits, which Miller Rennert’s brother opened and where Fox worked as a longtime manager. Almost three years ago, they found a vacant office space one block up Prospect Ave and started working on their dream restaurant project. It took a couple years to turn the quirky, narrow little property into Della. In the meantime, when another space became available across the street, the duo quickly moved on opening two somewhat less ambitious projects: The Prospector, a trendy beer and cheese shop, and The Fox and The Crepes (which serves pancakes, not forest creatures).
With Della, which finally debuted this January, they sought to give “our wonderfully sleepy neighborhood,” as Miller Rennert calls it, a “neighborhood restaurant that over-delivers.” The beautiful little restaurant is worth the wait. In designing the main dining room, they embraced the limitations of the narrow space rather than avoiding them, adding a curved ceiling that lends the feeling of dining in a Pullman car. On a recent Friday night the room was filled with both date-night couples and plenty of parents with children, and the food is indeed a cut above most neighborhood eateries. A perfect scallop crudo special came on the half shell, swimming in a tart lemon-cider vinaigrette and topped with roe. Porter-braised short rib is charred and smoky on the outside; no-knife-needed tender throughout. On the far-less meaty side, I loved the macrobiotic farro salad, spiked with sea beans (a salty coastal green) and hijiki (a hearty Japanese seaweed); each add unique little bursts of flavor throughout. Chef Eric Lapkin is a veteran of Lupa and Del Posto, so it’s no surprise he also brings excellent fresh pastas to the menu. A winsome duck ragu pappardelle comes with toasty bread crumbs on top for a delightful carb-on-carb crunch.
Della just launched weekend brunch this month, featuring potato latke eggs benedict and house-cured gravlax. They are also readying a rear garden space for later this spring. While the tiny kitchen won’t be able to churn out food for too many more people, they’ll have a separate outdoor-grill menu for the garden space.
Formerly sleepy Prospect Ave is now Windsor Terrace’s busiest restaurant row, with other popular spots like Le Paddock Bistro, The Adirondack Bar, and Brooklyn Commune. The latter is the site of a second new neighborhood empire in progress. Chris Scott and Eugenie Woo just completed a creative expansion of their space that allows the small kitchen at Brooklyn Commune to continue churning out cafe fare during the day, but then at night provide soul food for next-door Butterfunk Kitchen, which opened this month.
“We’ve hosted 25 different supper clubs at Brooklyn Commune,” says Chef Scott, “and whenever we went with a southern theme it was always packed”—thus inspiring the cornbread and catfish heavy menu he’s put together for the new spot. There are a few twists that set Butterfunk apart from the so-many other soul food-influenced spots opening around Brooklyn. “Everyone and their mother is doing the fried chicken in sweet tea,” says Scott. “Growing up, my grandma always had a lemonade or some kind of punch along with her iced tea, so I though, ‘let me take the chicken and brine it in that.'” Using a not-too-sugary lemonade amped up with black pepper and lemon zest, Scott says it acts to pull out some of the fat in the chicken and bring out the flavor without turning anything too sweet. There’s also whiskey-and-coke glazed meatloaf, fried oysters, and a green bean salad finished with seared ham and a corn dressing made from Kings County Distillery’s corn-liquor Moonshine. Having grown up outside Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Scott’s cooking is influenced by Amish country, and you’ll find some Pennsylvania Dutch touches in the form of menu items like Shoofly pie (a gooey, molasses-based treat). There’s also live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Prospect Avenue’s restaurant row isn’t the only reason for foodies to head to the neighborhoods straddling the southwest corner of Prospect Park. Immediately south of here, locals will argue over where Windsor Terrace ends and where Kensington and Prospect Park South begin (if you want to really mix things up, throw in Caton Park; of course old-schoolers just call all of this Flatbush). Whatever you name it, there are some serious food spots debuting all of a sudden.
Church Avenue is already rich with taco shops, but that didn’t deter the trendy new La Loba Cantina, focused on traditional regional fare from Oaxaca and elsewhere in southern Mexico. I wanted to love this place: authentic street food snacks, including several things I’ve never seen before in Brooklyn; relaxed, vintage-cantina ambiance; adorably attentive service; and nothing on the menu above $12. But the food fell flat for me. The enticing tlayuda—a toasted oversize blue-corn tortilla made with fresh masa from Queens’s Tortilleria Nixtamal and smothered in pureed black beans, melty Oaxacan cheese, tomato, radish and greens—is preposterously difficult to eat. It’s served on a pizza pan but unhelpfully not cut into pieces; when the waitress arrives with a knife it cuts right through to the wax paper below and creates a not-so-hot mess. It’s also light on flavor, save for a very, very spicy hot sauce on the side. A tasty bowl of guacamole comes spiked with the subtle flavor of hard-to-find aguacate leaves and the promise of freshly-fried chips, yet they’re cooked to a way-too-hard, overly greasy extent, making me actually wish they’d stuck with store-bought. A “mezcal mule” cocktail smacks me across the face like I’d been talking about mezcal’s mother, the fresh ginger juice no match for this aggressive spirit, and what’s the point of mixing a cocktail if it only tastes like booze on booze?
A couple blocks over, a more unsuspecting newcomer lies among the stretch of auto body shops lining Coney Island Avenue: Werkstatt. Austrian chef Thomas Ferlesch, last seen in Brooklyn at Thomas Beisl, his longtime restaurant across from BAM in Fort Greene, actually has a New York restaurant pedigree that goes back way further. In 1981, he was cooking at Vienna 79 on the Upper East Side and became the youngest chef ever to nab a four-star review from the Times. Coney Island Ave. is definitely not the Upper East Side and the space (a former garage) is lined with salvaged industrial elements, a wine-bottle chandelier, and even a motorcycle gracing one wall. The unfussy food is decidedly heartwarming: huge slabs of breaded chicken schnitzel; cheesy, bacon-accented spaetzle; and giant pretzels to dip in housemade Hungarian cheese. On the less gut-busting side of things, I greatly enjoyed the sweet and spicy Brussels sprouts topped with smoked paprika, chili pepper, and a lemon-habanero aioli.
So if you think there’s no reason to get off the train and eat in between Park Slope and Ditmas Park, think again!
Della; 1238 Prospect Avenue (near Reeve Place); 718-633-0249; dellarestaurant.com
Butterfunk Kitchen; 1295 Prospect Avenue (at Greenwood Avenue); 917.909.0421; butterfunkkitchen.com
La Loba Cantina; 709 Church Avenue (near E. 7th Street); lalobacantina.com
Werkstatt; 509 Coney Island Avenue (at Turner Place); 718.284.5800; werkstattbrooklyn.com