Neighborhood: Red Hook
365 Van Brunt St.
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There's a reason the waterside neighborhood of Red Hook is affectionately called "the village of Red Hook" by some of its long-time denizens. Located in the tiny coastal proxy south of Carroll Gardens, the nearest subway stop is a twenty minute walk from the heart of the neighborhood, something that has led to a bit of isolation, even in overcrowded Brooklyn, and allowed the community to operate on its own terms. At the heart of that resilient, close-knit community is a place called Fort Defiance.
Calling it a restaurant doesn't really do it justice, especially not after super storm Sandy hit New York City last fall. Although "the Fort," as daily patrons call it, was a central meeting point before the flood, it was Sandy's torrential downpour and rising waters that turned the local cafe into a literal fortress for many of the stranded, homeless residents of Red Hook in the aftermath. Working together, local business owners rebuilt most of their own neighborhood without much help from the outside world. A wood beam carved with a telling phrase now sits just outside the restaurant, to the right of the front door, a reminder of the past: "The eyes of the world are watching in awe."
Owner St. John Frizell opened Fort Defiance in 2009—exactly four years ago this coming Friday—and his dedication to well-crafted, locally sourced cuisine, classically created cocktails, and good, old fashioned hospitality has earned recognition from the likes of The New York Times, The Village Voice, Gourmet, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker. But, perhaps more importantly, its become a haven for community. Closed for just over a month while recovering from Sandy's devastation, the restaurant is fully back in service 6.5 days a week, offering coffee, pastries, breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch on the weekends, and cocktails aplenty for locals and international visitors alike. Whether you live in the neighborhood, or are just dropping by for the evening, Fort Defiance delivers the gourmet experience without an ounce of pretension and with an irresistible neighborhood charm you have to experience to fully appreciate. Part coffee shop, part critically acclaimed restaurant/cocktail bar, and part neighborhood town hall, Fort Defiance is what happens when a cocktail-connoisseur-turned-entrepreneur puts quality and community at the heart of his business plan.
A five-course-dinner designed to impress out-of-towners, complete with a mouth-watering chicken liver pate with bacon-onion jam ($7), fresh oysters, and a Saxelby cheese plate and/or charcuterie selection. There's rotating, seasonal appetizers and mains like the local lettuces with radish, cucumbers, and sunflower seeds ($11) and roasted Berkshire pork chop with grilled broccoli rabe, caramelized fennel, and salsa rossa ($24). The wine list, carefully curated by James Beard nominated wine director Alex Halberstadt, offers the perfect complement, no matter the course. The extensive cocktail list is complemented by inventive concoctions the attentive bartenders can whip up at a moment's notice, ensuring your cup runneth over instead of running dry. I recommend the Last Word, a cocktail from the first decade of the 1900s that’s equal parts gin, green chartreuse, and maraschino liquer.
Also worth experiencing is the Fort's weekend brunch, which borders on heavenly, particularly if you're in the grip of a hellish hangover. St. John spent several years in New Orleans, and that southern influence surfaces in dishes like the Creole red beans on toast; served with andouille, two fried eggs and pickled onions ($10), it will cure your headache instantaneously. Or, there’s the sweeter option: a deep-dish Dutch pancake served in its own tiny skillet, accompanied by bacon, and topped with crème fraiche and berries—maple syrup optional ($10). Each of these are served with a Counter Culture pour-over coffee, a classic Bloody Mary with Aquavit instead of vodka, and a pickled okra garnish ($9). It’s a big brunch for a remarkably small price, but there’s the option to take the free weekend Ikea ferry back to Manhattan afterwards, and walk it off.
Whether it’s as an after-dinner delight or a brunch beverage, the Irish Coffee that St. John has perfected—Powers whiskey, freshly shaken and sweetened with heavy cream, espresso and nutmeg—is a tiny treat you need to order. Dubbed “the best in the known world” by The New York Times, it's a must-have for any patron, in both daylight or darkness.
WHAT TO BRING:
If you’re coming from the train—walking shoes. It’s a fair distance from the closest F/G stop at the recently re-opened Smith & 9th street stop. Otherwise, an understanding that this food and these beverages have been crafted with care and concision will do. A healthy respect for cocktails as an art form and an appreciation for the bartenders that make their living by shaking and stirring the perfect libation. This isn’t a local watering hole—it’s a cocktail bar filled with ambitious bartenders who have won awards for their work—sip slow accordingly.
ONLY REGULARS KNOW:
Every Monday night, the restaurant turns down and tucks in for a high-volume “Burger Night.” A burger and a beer for $12 is a great deal almost anywhere, but it’s even more enticing considering that the patty in question is 4 oz. of ground organic chuck from Pino’s Prime Meats in Brooklyn, cooked to temperature, and served on a toasted brioche bun alongside tomato and romaine. Cheese selections, bacon, a fried egg, or bacon onion jam are also available as additions. The beer selection varies from Red Hook’s own seasonal Sixpoint selections, Kolsch and other local beers. If you're not pro-suds, the nightly cocktail punch, a libation that varies weekly, is also available to compliment your beef.
THE UNSPOKEN RULES:
Unless you’re a novelty-seeking cocktail enthusiast, there’s no need to order off-menu here. Each drink is well-balanced and historically indicative of some important era of the alcoholic spirits it celebrates. In other words, it has a story to tell. Our final word of advice—don’t touch the special, glassed-in shrine that houses 1940s cocktail devotee Charles H. Baker Jr.’s historical Japanese cocktail shaker. Even the coziest communities have their hot buttons.