getting off the 7th avenue stop in south park slope, i followed the directions to 7th and15th street. before entering camperdown elm, i looked around the block. this looks super familiar , i realized immediately. i saw the cross streets and texted my friend, “didn’t you used to live on this block?” i asked, sending her a picture of the new resturant, with the cross street signs in the background. “i think?” she said. “i mean that’s definitely it!” we both tried to figure out briefly what was there before, what the block had looked like, how the neighborhood had been. I had brief visions of us dancing in some bar, maybe across the street? and my farewell party on her rooftop, it was just there i think? she’d moved away 4 years ago, which of course in rapidly-gentrifying brooklyn neighborhoods is basically a lifetime. this is the reality of life in our borough. change is the only constant (that and the rats), and we’re left standing in front of a new juice stand/artisan butchery/bao bar/tapas spot wondering what the hell was there before.
camperdown elm, however, has slipped into the neighborhood seamlessly. staying true to the integrity of the space, both the interior and exterior of reinvented space has maintained the historic architecture of what must be a 200-year old building; original tiled floor and ceiling in nearly perfect condition, the evening sun alight and alive through stained glass above the door, a raw, a tangible and exposed brick wall behind the bar, and perceptively compelling minimalist decor… even its name pays homage to its neighborhood roots, named after the infamous and seemingly endless elm tree in neighboring prospect park.
the experience already felt nostalgic, a bit like somewhere that had been there all along…
until, that is, the food came.
camperdown elm is providing an explosion of flavors, textures, spices, and bold new dishes that create an experience that is anything but familiar. it’s intriguing, it’s ambitious, it’s bold and oh-so-good for the soul. like both your first and last lover.
head chef Brad Willits hails from indian river, florida and thus inevitably concentrates on a seafood-centric menu, and my distinctively-curated virginia palate recognized and celebrated so many below-the-mason-dixon-line flavors. my favorite among a standout crowd of appetizers was the country ham on corn gunny cakes with a blueberry jam adhesive. its taste was gave me the feeling of the one kid from a small town who goes to college and comes back for christmas break for the first time. recognizable, familiar, but in a different package and one that every one in town wants a piece of.
the mood and atmosphere felt celebratory and charged. “we open tomorrow,” the bartender told me, eyes alight as she poured me another glass of sparkling.
the next course were fresh, briney oysters with a muffled-tropical minionette of pickled kiwi; the seasonal and subdued sweetness perfectly washed down the salty bivalves. next, a crisp squid ink rice cracker floated by, topped with a light mackeral pate, neither of which was overbearing; suspiciously un-fishy. then, small grilled cucumber slices wearing fancy ikura hats came along… and top of the evening to you dear sir! i said, eating it before any response was to be heard. finally a bold ending to the appetizer parade, a bundle of fried muffins with house made butter that reminded me of hush puppies in the loudest of ways.
the wine list, curated by nacho monclus from Spain is spanish-centric which is oh so perfect for this little hispanophile. my glass stayed full of dry, expressive cava for the appetizers and switched to an endless, filterless, raw, biodynamic red from Andalusia, which was pasisonate and alive for the stellar main courses.
the grandmasters of the parade consisted of a seasonally festive interpretation paella that more than stood up to its spanish ancestor.. which is something i wouldn’t say lightly. the next course, a hearty d’artagnan rib eye steak served nearly rare with a secret signature camperdown sauce that was almost more of an aus jous (god i hate that word. ugh.) and was perfectly paired with broccoli rabe atop a light cauliflower mash, just to make momma proud.
at this point in the evening I was pleasantly full and admittedly tipsy, buzzing with energy and networking like a busy little blogger bee. I was joking lightly with the team from Bklyner when I saw dessert coming out… oh no, I thought. there was no way i had room for dessert, especially because i admittedly had seconds, thirds, fourths of any appetizer that came around as many times. come on! i’m a poor starving blogger. i was simply proud i didn’t slip any of it into my bag. (though i thought about it, trust me.)
i had no room for dessert, but I remembered that when i entered into this event, a bit nervous and slightly late, i introduced myself to Karly at the door and she told me to get some wine and then, earnestly, grabbed my arm and said, “save room for dessert.”
i hadn’t done it, karly. i had no more room. but i had promises to keep and so when the delicate little squares of (what else from a floridian!) key lime pie came around, i took one. i forced my mouth open. i slipped it in.
sweet jesus almighty.
what was this? made not from key limes but from sea buckthorn, which was some sort fo magical, imported berry. all of the tangy tartness expected from key lime pie was silenced into a beautiful symphony of sweet and sour and slightly salty, bold and seductive flavor.
i had 3 more.
i ate three more of these magical delicacies because a taste like that, you take as much as you can without hesitation. because you just don’t know when or if it will come to you again, just as the sweetest and most seductive of lovers so often tease and elude us.
and after another glass of wine or two, i found myself interviewing the talented and remarkably approachable chef brad willits and taking a few pseudo-portrait photos of him in the best light i could find, conversing about the magic that goes into every menu, every night, every plate.
i walked out into the beautifully moonlight night aloft and fulfilled, and to be honest, i was left rather dumbfounded, wondering how exactly i got here. obviously, i arrived by the finnicky little G train, but how did i start getting invited to restaurant openings, discussing flavour (<— yeah look at me, i’m using the fancy spelling of things now.) palates with food critics and influencers. did they know that i couldn’t exactly afford dinner tonight? but i knew, honestly, that this was exactly what i’d been working toward for the past 2.5 years since i started my blog. working, writing, networking, writing, planning, writing, outreaching, writing writing writing.
this. my perplexed elation matched that of every taste that i put into my mouth. ambitious and nostalgic, unexpected yet deeply appreciated. a food and life experience that felt elevated yet rooted, and one that no doubt will continue to grow.
oh camperdown elm, i have no doubt that these roots run deep and that you will bloom with every season, on every night, upon every plate with no hesitation. chance favors the bold and there’s no chance that these flavours won’t emerge into the stunning, metamorphic institution that the neighborhood has been seeking yet didn’t know it deserved.
what not to miss
oysters with seasonal mignonette, country ham and gunny cakes, grilled octopus, d’artagnan rib eye, and that damn pie.