Even with the addition of IKEA, Red Hook is still defying predictions of gentrification and remains its off-kilter, rough-edged self. Maybe it’s the lack of a subway, but the neighborhood feels far from the claustrophobic bustle of the rest of the city. The Good Fork is still the area’s only true destination restaurant, but if you’re anywhere nearby, there are various relatively new eating and drinking options worth considering.
Most notable is Chef Neil Ganic’s latest twin set, Annabelle’s and La Bouillabaisse, which sit directly opposite IKEA’s massive blue façade. Ganic took over the old, beloved Lillie’s space and turned it into Annabelle’s, then converted the space next to it into La Bouillabaisse, a proper seafood spot.
Ganic is a prolific restaurateur, and he is entirely, single-mindedly devoted to seafood in general—and bouillabaisse in particular. The first wildly popular La Bouillabaisse anchored Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue in the ’90s before folding. In the intervening years, Ganic embarked on a series of ventures that included a stint at the now-defunct Bouillabaisse 126 and the opening of his own restaurant, Petite Crevette, in Carroll Gardens. Ganic was born in Yugoslavia and got his start as a merchant-marine galley cook before coming to New York in 1969: “As a fisherman and a sailor, we cooked whatever we caught,” Ganic says. “Those are my favorite dishes.”
The newest La Bouillabaisse inhabits an oddly spare, profoundly un-hip space, with white-leather banquettes, green-vinyl-padded chairs, green wallpaper, and cotton tablecloths. Happily, the bouillabaisse is so good that everything else recedes into the distance as you slurp broth and crack shells. Bobbing in Ganic’s favorite stew, you’ll find half a Maine lobster, fat diver scallops, masses of mussels, and a half-dozen gulf shrimp. The broth is rich and fragrant with garlic, saffron, and white wine. It’s a wonderful, generous dish—obviously the product of obsessive care. Ganic doesn’t mind that his version features different seafood from the classic Marseilles soup: This aromatic bowl jumbled with seafood is $22, a very good deal.
There’s also delicious seafood Provençal ($22), which comes with the same prolific array of seafood as the bouillabaisse, but in a pool of spicy tomato sauce that tastes of garlic and roasted red peppers. The short menu rounds out with bistro basics like steak with caramelized onions, but I’m not sure why you’d bother. There are thousands of better places to eat a steak, but only a few places to gorge on crustaceans at such a fair price.
Annabelle’s, Ganic’s venture next door, is a good place to get a drink and hear live music, but the food is only serviceable. Maybe I’ve been corrupted by the age of small plates, but platters of protein, vegetable, and starch just seem wrong at a bar. A friend remarked that her crab-cake entrée—fries, asparagus, crab cakes—reminded her of wedding food. Tilapia and shrimp crisped in brown butter was tasty but a bit overcooked, and a steamed-mussel appetizer was surprisingly undersalted. Annabelle’s best offering is a salad that combines jumbo lump crabmeat and avocado—and that combination has no business being anything but good.
Cocktails are a much better bet. Try Bitches’ Brew, which combines lemongrass-infused vodka with maple syrup and cayenne. The bar also hosts live music Wednesday through Saturday: On a recent Wednesday night, we heard honey-voiced Debbie Knapper croon classic r&b, as well as a few Erykah Badu songs.
Over at Brooklyn Ice House, it’s the cook who’s singing. She’s a rail-thin, older woman who sports enormous headphones along with her chef whites. She sings to herself in the dive bar’s small kitchen as she sizzles up big baskets of crisp fries or tosses wings in plenty of hot sauce. The smoked-brisket sandwich here isn’t going to conjure up memories of Texas, but it’s pretty great bar food, a pile of smoky, bovine shards of meat on a soft roll. Wings are properly hot, and the fries greaseless and crisp. Along with a good selection of draft beers, there is the inevitable, scruffy classic—a beer and a shot—offered up only half-ironically. Try the Stevedore (PBR and Evan Williams) or the Liberty (Bud and rye whiskey).
You won’t find shot-and-beer combos at Tini, which looks like a wine bar crossed with a Pottery Barn living room. Overstuffed white couches and a few communal tables host a jocular, friendly bunch that seems to be made up of the owner’s best friends and neighborhood regulars. Tini is everyone’s secret restaurant dream: Open a comfy little place, uncork the wine, invite your friends, and voila!—the instant good life. Usually, it doesn’t work that way in the real world. But Red Hook is still insular and close-knit enough to support a very small operation. The food is simple but very worthwhile, running from cheese and paté plates to thick toasts topped with Gorgonzola, figs, and honey to a fantastic caramelized-onion ham tart.
Botanica doesn’t serve food yet, but it has the distinction of being Red Hook’s first fancy cocktail lounge, the sort that’s almost as common as frozen-yogurt dispensaries these days. It offers the suddenly trendy absinthe service, as well as tasty booze concoctions made from local fruit and herbs, like a raspberry gimlet. This being Red Hook, the cocktails are $10 each instead of $12—thank goodness for small mercies.
And then, of course, there are IKEA’s weirdly delicious Swedish meatballs. Those bouncy, cream-slicked orbs inspire secret, slightly ashamed devotion. (Not unlike ABBA, IKEA’s hyper-capitalized Swedish brethren.) That’s OK: You can stop by for a lamp, and no one will ever know you stayed for dinner. What happens in Red Hook stays in Red Hook.