Going to college isn’t about reading the works of Shakespeare or grasping Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. It’s not about getting drunk every night and hooking up with random people. OK, maybe it is, but it’s also about whiling away the hours in the low-key, bohemian café near campus—that cozy place staffed by inept but attractive undergrads who pour endless cups of soy lattes, where the food is filling but never fussy.
Karloff—a recently opened café and restaurant on the border of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens—is just that, only the grown-up version, catering to the post-collegiate set who’ve moved on to the wilds of Brooklyn. It doesn’t have plush, deep sofas, but that won’t stop you from wanting to linger and read the newspaper or indulging in a coffee klatch at the large communal table up front. The space is familiar, but a touch quirky. Menus arrive attached to clipboards, and water is poured into handled Mason jars. The walls are decorated with stretched burlap coffee sacks instead of wallpaper, while Christmas lights twinkle quaintly above, casting a warm glow over the wooden tables.
The menu reminds me a lot of Veselka’s, the East Village stalwart equally popular with Ukrainian émigrés and kielbasa-loving club kids. The food at Karloff isn’t fancy but has that cooked-by-an-Eastern-European-grandmother-once-she-made-it-to-America taste. Vareniki ($7 to $8) are small dumplings stuffed with your choice of meat, potatoes, or sour cherries. The potato ones were my favorite, and unlike pierogi, which I often find too dense and heavy, these are light and toothsome. Accompanied by a dollop of sour cream, 20 pieces come per order, large enough for a whole meal even though they’re listed as an appetizer.
Karloff also makes a mean latke, with crisp brown edges and enough shredded potato in the middle for that crunchy-gooey perfection. Two puck-size pancakes can be topped with ingredients ranging from peppers and onions to lox, but opt for the plain ($7), with only sour cream and applesauce on the side. What can I say? I’m a purist.
Eastern European cuisine is dominated by browns and ochres, but one ingredient adds a burst of welcome color—beets. At Karloff I found them far more successful in a vibrant chopped salad flecked with dill ($7) than in hot borscht ($5), which was mostly broth with little vegetable. The bland mushroom barley soup ($5) also didn’t do anything for me, but the creamy split pea ($5) was warming on a blustery evening when temperatures matched those of the endless steppes.
I’d make a meal out of potato pancakes and dumplings, but Karloff serves heartier dishes, too. Cubes of pork are transformed into a light goulash ($13) and served with nutty kasha (or a heap of mashed potatoes if you think buckwheat groats taste like dirt). While it didn’t achieve a Proustian effect, returning me to the two years I spent in Hungary as a child, it tasted like good homestyle fare—perhaps slightly better because I didn’t have to make it myself. The beef stroganoff ($13), meanwhile, yearns for an added wallop of sour cream and decadence, but it is moist and tender. Veering from the cuisine of the motherland, Karloff also offers a range of burgers and classic lunch-worthy sandwiches, including a massive, savory lox-stuffed croissant ($12), and a decent lamb burger ($9), juicy and slathered with spicy Russian mustard and grilled onions.
Plates of cookies, rugeleh, and strudels idle next to coffee siphons and French presses on the coffee bar counter at the front, greeting both the elderly customers popping in to pick up takeout orders and the locals who’ve come for their cappuccino fix. Skip these sweets (as well as the cloyingly hot Russian eggnog) and look farther down the counter toward the display case of Jane’s Ice Cream, an artisanal producer based out of Kingston, New York. Sure, the Hudson Valley bears little resemblance to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, save for an abundance of pale women in wool capes, but who cares when you’re peddling exciting ice cream flavors? The caramel apple spice reminded me of velvety, frozen cider, while banana cookies and cream and chocolate halvah were fresh takes on old standbys. The only letdown was the initially awesome-sounding salty pretzel, which turned out to be neither salty nor pretzely. Scoops start at $2.50, while sundaes are $7.
Kids, of course, love ice cream, and Karloff becomes a magnet for the Mommy Brigade during the day and at weekend brunch. Instead of the hushed tunes that play during the evenings, the background music becomes a cacophony of baby cries—not a rare occurrence in Brooklyn. However, Karloff doesn’t have a liquor license, so you can’t drown out the din (or your sorrows while you’re at it) with mimosas.
The service, too, could be better, although the staff is friendly and accommodating. Over the course of my three visits, I had incorrect dishes sent to me, appetizers brought out alongside entrées, and some items forgotten altogether. Just think of it as the authentic communist approach to service, but with a smile.