From Italian Ices to Asian Fusion in Brooklyn
Walking down Court St. in Brooklyn on a clear recent evening?this was down near that street's southern end, in the Italian precincts, toward where it runs out into Red Hook's soot?I passed a certain confectionery shop (it was called Pasquale's, or Minetta's, or Antonioni's, or Sforaggio's, or whatever) and experienced one of those shocking crystalline moments in which reality turns inward on itself, and the world around you throbs for a moment with a crazy flashing intensity, and it's as if the planet has been art-directed for a moment. You look around, expecting to see cameras, lighting crews, production assistants with neckscarves and clipboards and headphones and sore feet. You're experiencing one of those rare moments in which reality and representation seem to merge.
It was absurd. Here was one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in Brooklyn?Carroll Gardens with its Old World residue of ancient women with olive complexions pecking down the sidewalk in their black frocks like dainty old sparrows, crossing themselves, and guys argue in Italian in the dim storefront clubs. And the old trees sway in front of the houses, shaking off the hot day's dust, and everything's well-worn brownstone red and maple green and deep sky blue and you can see down the hill from the avenue into the lilac-shadowed streets along the Gowanus, and kids make chalk drawings on the pavement.
And as if that weren't all perfect enough?perfect like the idealized Brooklyn set for some romantic comedy in which the arrogant Manhattan financier falls for the outer-borough girl who sells the ices, sells the cannoli, sells the marzipan from the street-service window at Minetta's, or Antonioni's, or Sforaggio's?and as if that weren't all perfect enough, you glance into the bakery window and there she is, the girl from that romantic comedy herself. Ridiculous: she's sliding people ices in the evening, bird-boned, evincing a fashion model's spidery, spun-glass beauty, huge black eyes as wide as your fist, black hair pulled back over serious cheekbones?a frightening and tentacled gorgeous creature of the old neighborhood pasticceria.
This, I figured, is the confectioner Antonioni's daughter (or Cuccio's or Sforaggio's or Minetta's or Russo's or Paolucci's or whatever he's called). She sells ices each day after morning mass throughout the long summer (she blushes as she takes communion), and her meaty aproned father glares from behind his cake counter at the constant suitors, at the neighborhood gallants. Her brothers walk her home each night in her chastity, and smash the teeth of the presumptuous.
Eating outside in New York City sucks, it's like locking yourself into a garage and cranking up a Buick while, in the driver's seat, you hold on your lap a plate of teriyaki salmon. Why bother? You might as well just suck on a pipe. And at Faan, which is a stylish new pan-Asian restaurant on Smith St., eating outside is even worse than usual in a city in which you need a masochistic streak to want to eat anywhere but within the safety of four walls. The restaurant's located on the ground floor of a building that's atypically ugly for Smith St., which is a good-looking thoroughfare, a classic scruffy old low-rise tenement cityscape. Faan's building is a straight-up white-brick box designed according to the degraded esthetic of Housing Project Modernism. It stands out from the old buildings of Smith St. like a big white wound?it looks like Breschnev ordered it built. If you eat outside, you might have to look at it. And then, too, when you eat outside at Faan, you're sitting on this concrete loading block a couple of feet above the street. You feel like a truck's about to back right up to your table, complete with profane teamsters, and dump off a load of pallets.
So my friends and I said to hell with it and ate inside, which was a good idea, because?
But let's talk a little about the food in this space for a change. There were three of us, strapping, healthy young fellows all, capable of consuming many tasty pan-Asian dishes, and we ate the following?plus I'm including the stuff I ate when I returned to Faan alone at a later date:
A crispy calamari salad with lemongrass lime-ginger dressing. (This dish is described on the menu as "crispy calamari salad with & lemongrass lime-ginger dressing," but don't be confused?just cross that stray ampersand off on your menu and continue on your way toward culinary delight.) If you like crispy calamari?which I don't, I'm not a huge fan of fried stuff like that?then this is the dish for you, I tell you. (It's conveniently listed as Number 21 on your Faan Asian Fusion menu.)
Vegetarian spring rolls, both in their fried and fresh incarnations. Both are all right, but they'd be better if there were more spring and less roll, you know what I mean? I mean there's too goddamn much dough, wrapping, packaging, etc., and not enough vegetation stuffed into the heart of the matter, see? There's too much outside and not enough inside, you understand? Oh boy.
Miso soup, on the other hand, is better than the stuff you'll find at your typical neighborhood Japanese restaurant. I liked that the tofu chunks, the feeling of which I always find unpleasant in my mouth, were unusually small, about a third of the mass of a sugar cube. (I had packed along a medical scale and a pair of calipers just in case a situation like this came up.) The mushrooms at the bowl's bottom were excellent, though.
A grilled chicken breast with lemongrass and lime juice was honorable, and served with white rice, but was nothing to write home about. Why should it have been? It was a grilled chicken breast, decent and generic. It tasted like the chicken I used to cook back as a sophomore in college and serve up to myself in my roach-infested kitchen, slathered in soy sauce over a heap of Uncle Ben's and washed down with Red Baron cherry-flavored malt liquor. On the other hand, the grilled pork chops with lemongrass were extraordinarily good?charred a little bit, browned and on their way toward caramelization. I recommend, as well, the teriyaki salmon, a beautiful rectangular slab of fish served on a graceful white platter and slathered in that delicate light-brown sauce. It's extremely good.
Faan offers an extensive sushi menu, and one of our group ordered sculpted platters of eel and other fish, but I don't eat sushi in the summer, I've learned the hard way. Looked gorgeous, though.
So this is a worthy place, especially since three people can stuff themselves for no more than $80, and especially since it's conveniently open for lunch and until 11 p.m., weekdays, midnight on the weekends. The help is great. But Faan has its eccentricities. My friends liked the decor. I kind of did, but sort of didn't. The place is painted in playskool blocks of color. Green wall, slate-gray wall, chocolate-brown wall, and a big thick pink pillar in the room's middle. And a sort of bean-shaped island in the room's rear behind which stands, and works, a hardworking (and probably clean) sushi chef, and that's constructed of light-blue tile. In other words: a riot of colorful colors! It made my eyes tired, made me want to purge my senses by looking at the concrete floor. But please appreciate the excellent tables. These are mounted slabs of stone in the middle of which are little wells in which float rose-petals and tiny candles that seem often to get so splashed with water that they won't light.
Another eccentricity is all the staff people standing around the restaurant in various attitudes (hands behind their backs, or on their hips, or holding menus), smiling at you. It can make you nervous. The problem is that there are many components to this restaurant, and each component requires employees to make it function. There's the front hostess' station, for instance, and a bar to the left as you walk in, and the sushi-bar in the rear, and then a bunch of just regular straight-up table waitresses. There's a lot going on, in other words, and a lot of people standing around poised to do it. The effect is of a provincial Asian airport, for example in Guangzhou or Chiang Mai.
We were done; the plates had been cleared; for some mysterious reason I was in the mood for an Italian ice.
"Have you guys seen who's selling the Italian ices at that place down at the other end of Court St.?" I asked my friends. "Am I hallucinating, or is that really happening."
They nodded solemnly. They knew what I meant.
"Yes. It's ridiculous," said one.
"It's just wrong. It's wrong," said the second, shaking his head.
There was a moment of silence.
"I bet you they're selling a quarter of a million dollars' worth of ices a day."
"Of course. It's crazy."
We left and walked through the evening along Smith St. Near the intersection of Union St. there was a red smudge on the sidewalk, as if someone, years ago, had dropped a container of paint. One of my friends pointed at it.
"See that? People buy their ices and then just run out here and throw them down and go back and buy more."
"It's just wrong."
Faan, 209 Smith St. (Baltic St.), Brooklyn, 718-694-2277, 718-694-2266.
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