Summer Hitlist 3: Maimonide of Brooklyn
I make a point of checking out different vegan eating establishments whenever I’m in New York City – there probably isn’t another metropolis of this size in the world that has so many on hand. Nor, for that matter, so many omnivore-friendly restaurants that offer at least one vegan option – such as the case when I was staying in Brooklyn the first weekend of August, and ventured out into the Cobble/Boerum Hill neighborhood on a Sunday morning looking for something other than a bagel and fruit juice. On Smith Street I stumbled upon Apartment 138, which not only had a classic Brooklyn back garden, the kind I genuinely miss, but a “house made beet burger” with “arugula (and) citrus whipped feta.” Subtract the feta, add in the fries, a bloody mary and a coffee and it was a pretty good deal for the all-inclusive Brunch price of $14. The beet burger itself – a burger made of beets, not merely a beet between two pieces of bread – was absolutely delicious and though I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of the teenage Tony ordering such a meal, the fact that I’d just read some scientific study on the positive effects of beets upon athletes enabled me to enjoy it that much more.
This little meal was better, incidentally, than the all-vegan offerings at Red Bamboo on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village two days earlier, a “fake meat” Asian-style low-(ish) price café that served two of us some disarmingly realistic and tasty chicken drumsticks and barbeque wings but then let us down badly with a fake eggplant-parmesan hero and Philly cheese steak. There comes a point in one’s diet that the idea of a white-bread hero with lots of tomato sauce draped over some protein like substance – be it steak, eggplant or seitan – loses its allure compared to an inventive dish like a beet burger.
Then you go to Maimonide and the stakes (rather than the steaks) grow that much higher. I only read about this all-vegan pizzeria, which opened last November, in the Best of Brooklyn section of the current L Magazine that very weekend – there is something to be said for picking up those free New York weeklies from the street-side containers the moment you hit the City on all-too-rare visit – and although the write-up was inherently positive, it barely hinted at what was in store for me once I made the long trek down Atlantic Avenue, almost to the corner of the busy inter-section with Fourth Avenue, indeed, almost to the street where I lived for the best part of a decade.
Maimonide is more than just a pizzeria. It is, to quote founder Cyril Aoulizerate on page 3 of the comic book that comes with the menu, “a nod in the direction of Maimonides, scholar, philosopher, and physician to King Saladin, and a declaration of love to Brooklyn.” If you want to know more about Maimonide, you could Wikipedia him, of course, but the philosopher’s quote that sits proudly atop page two of the comic book – “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means” – is a good enough place to start.
So Maimonide believes in fresh, wholesome, vegan food, your parents’ concept of pizza be damned. But that doesn’t mean it takes itself too seriously; the very mention of the comic book should have assured you of that. The front section of the Maimonide restaurant features a couple of vast benches, Wagamama style, from where you introduce yourself to your neighbours and then help yourselves to the silverware in the drawers underneath. I didn’t have that option when I went there later on Sunday afternoon; there was a massive birthday party that occupied an entire table, and a DJ doing her best to play louder than the accompanying hubbub, and a bunch of families with various age kids on the other table, and the whole atmosphere generally evoked the notion of Brooklyn as the coolest multi-ethnic place on the planet. (Which, of course, it is.)
I sauntered out to the back garden, realized that I could not survive any more exposure to one of the most humid weekends of the year, and finally pulled up to one of two available stools at the counter, from where I could see the kitchen and jovial wait staff attending to every order with surprising cool and calm giving the hectic party atmosphere out front. Cocktails in the shape of honey wines and infused Proseccos were very much the most popular order of the day but the mark-up seemed a little excessive to me, whereas the thought of a half-iced ginger tea/half lemonade for a couple of bucks seemed like a gift by any standards. And come to that, so did the bottle of Southampton IPA for $5, considerably less than a decent micro-brew will cost you in any other restaurant in NYC.
But you wouldn’t come to Maimonide just for the drinks. Everything at Maimonide is vegan – even (what must be) the (so-called) butter-milk pancakes. And the burgers. And the nuggets. Having had my share of vegan burgers and fake-chicken style dishes for the weekend, I ordered up the Iron Man M.O.B., one of three flavors of the signature dish (“a secret house baked dough made with locally grown and milled organic flour”). The M.O.B.s come on a specially produced square plate that replicates the distinct Brooklyn Bridge arches, the pizza in one of them, the silver ware in the other alongside: it’s a good gimmick, but it would mean nothing without the quality of the food.
And… quite simply, this was the best $10 pizza-like substance I have ever eaten. Without question. The fact that I absolutely love the Iron Man toppings – roasted shiitake mushroom and sautéed kale – as part of any meal certainly had something to do with this, but I think it was the horseradish aioli that made the true difference, adding a tangy, creamy bite that caused the combined ingredients to dance on my tongue and all the way through my digestive system.
The M.O.B. was so damn good that I stuck around and ordered up my second plate of fries of the day; I excused myself with the understanding that these were “yucca fries” and presumably more healthy than regular potatoes. They probably are, but they’re also a little more of an acquired taste; that said, the $5 side came with a choice of three ketchups and was almost a meal in itself.
I’m not going to waste time complaining that M.O.B. wasn’t around when I lived down the street; I’m going to celebrate instead the fact that it’s there now and that I still get to hang out in the old neighborhood often enough to visit. That neighborhood has changed beyond most recognition since I left: The Who will be playing just a few hundred yards from my old home at the new Nets Arena in November, and I have mixed feelings about attending and giving support to developer Bruce Ratner’s rail-roaded ultra-urban monstrosity of an Atlantic Yards project. The great thing about M.O.B. is it feels like the Brooklyn I lived in for ten years, it looks like the Brooklyn I lived in for ten years, and it tastes like the Brooklyn I’ve always wanted more of. (Mind you, Maimonide opened a second location in Paris this spring.) There’s enough different items on the menu to keep me coming back many times over; whether I will be able to resist the temptation to order something other than the Ironman M.O.B. is a different matter. Either way, I have a new favorite vegan restaurant.