New York dining: chef Clodagh McKenna opens up her Williamsburg diary
The popular chef headed to the hipster heaven and found great food
Streetscape in Williamsburg along Broadway with empty chairs on hazy day. Williamsburg bridge is visible in the background.
Serving lunch at the über trendy Diner on Broadway
I’ve been visiting New York City for years, for both work and pleasure, but of late I’ve been drawn away from the mayhem of Manhattan towards Williamsburg, a neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Just 10 minutes on the subway from lower Manhattan, it is where many young creatives have flocked, to create a village of live music, theatre, independent stores, cafes and restaurants – lots of restaurants. The food here is fresh, seasonal and local.
Williamsburg is very easy to access from Manhattan – the L line (the grey route on subway maps) stops right in the centre of things at Bedford Avenue.
On my last visit, I got the subway from John F Kennedy International Airport to Williamsburg. It costs $5.80 (€5.20) and takes an hour. It’s mainly above ground and runs through all the neighbourhoods, giving a really interesting introduction to the area – and a saving of about $50 on cab fare which you can spend later on a couple of glasses of wine and some delicious cheese.
Next morning, head to Devoción (69 Grand Station) for the best coffee in Williamsburg – its Colombian beans are roasted in-house. It’s a beautiful space with brick walls and a skylight – fans of the TV series The Good Wife will recognise it. Grab your coffee to go and walk down to the Hudson river, just three blocks away. You’ll see a small park with a cobbled beach in front. Sit and enjoy the best view of the Willamsburg and Manhattan skylines, it’s breathtaking. If you really love your coffee, other places to check out include: Blue Bottle on Berry Street (bluebottlecoffee.com) and Toby’s Estate Coffee on North 6th Street (tobysestate.com).
They cost $3.25 each, and people flock here for them – and the delicious retro cocktails. I sipped a Peace Treaty ($13/€11.50), a delicious mix of bourbon, Vergano Americano (a twist on vermouth), génépi (a herbal liqueur) and fermented chili bitters. It was sensational.
They also have a great selection of American craft beers and if you’re not an oyster shucker like me, then the potato tortilla is pretty delicious. It’s got a local neighbourhood vibe, with communal tables and wood panelling that makes you feel you’re in a cabin in Vermont rather than in NYC. I didn’t stay for a main course (but I have been told their brick chicken is very good) because I wanted to check out Diner – which has the same owners – a couple of doors up at number 85.
Diner has become a Williamsburg institution; the space is very plain but it’s the staff and food that bring hipster folk here in droves. The menu changes daily, with a real focus on seasonality.
I ordered the Rabbit Milanesa, which was rabbit done two ways – one, as a fried milanesa (a breaded fillet) and the other as shredded braised meat over a salad of green leaves, carrots and peas in a mustard dressing. It was fantastic, the contrast of the two textures being the highlight. For dessert I had buttermilk and corn custard with grilled peaches, it was creamy and savoury but sweetened beautifully with the peaches on top.
The following day I needed to work off all the food, so I headed to Soul Cycle. The best way I can describe Soul Cycle is that it is like a dance party on a bike, in a candle-lit room. When I am in New York I try and do it every day, it’s a serious spinning session on a stationery bike, with 45 minutes of cardio against a loud soundtrack of dance music. It has a massive cult following so you need to book online a few weeks in advance. Be warned though, it’s addictive. They have 17 studios in New York, with a great one on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg (soul-cycle.com).
With an appetite worked up, I headed back on my culinary tour to Maison Premiere (maisonpremiere.com). This Bedford Avenue spot is a 1920s-style bar/restaurant. I fell in love with it the minute I walked in, with its worn leather banquettes, marble bar, wooden and glass panelling and a beautiful garden terrace. Maison Premiere is famous for its shellfish, so I ordered a half lobster from Maine ($19/€17 or $30/€27 for a whole), which was sweet and melt in the mouth, with hints of tarragon.
They have an impressive absinthe menu, so I sipped a Vilya Absinthe Verte from Montana ($13/€11.50), served with a sugar cube and ice.
It really feels like you’ve gone back in time here, and everything is delivered with great decadence. It’s definitely my favourite place in Williamsburg.
There was one place that I never made it to, that I can’t wait to try when I am back this month, and that’s Black Tree on Metropolitan Avenue. Each week they butcher and cook a different animal – sourced from a local sustainable farm – and then they build their menu around it. This might make a nice idea for a restaurant in Ireland. I’d certainly like to see it.
After all that eating, if you’re looking to see live music, then St Mazie on Grand Street (stmazie.com) is your spot for an evening of jazz, with performances most nights.
On my last morning in Williamsburg I had an early start and despite multiple Google searches, I couldn’t find anywhere open at 6.30am. But if you want a decent coffee and can hold out until 7am, the coffee is very good at the Atlas Cafe on the corner of Havemeyer and Grand Street.
So spread your wings on your next New York visit and make a meal of a trip to Williamsburg.