Hills & Gardens
By Trudy Whitman
Even before considering the comestibles, Atlantic Avenue’s newest eatery provides a feast — the visual kind. Colonie is deep and high-ceilinged. Cream-colored walls on one side are offset by exposed brick on the other. Unvarnished wooden banquettes frame the entrance. Next, you pass a handsome metal-topped bar illuminated by small, low-hanging nautical-looking fixtures. And then you stop dead in your tracks, because to the right is a wall covered with live greenery — 20 different species, including six herbs.
Although I had never encountered a decorative element such as the green hydroponic wall in a restaurant before, Elise Rosenberg, one of Colonie’s three young proprietors, assured me it was not unique. The herbs are purely ornamental, she informed me; they are not used for the restaurant’s dishes. (But the bartender did pinch a few stalks of mint when he ran out during a celebratory opening party, Rosenberg admitted.) As the wall of plants continues to hold your eye, you enter the primary dining area (the restaurant seats 55 guests) presided over by a gleaming open kitchen. A counter surrounding the kitchen allows patrons to watch the cooks work their magic.
Elise Rosenberg met Emelie Kihlstrom and Tamer Hamawi in 2004 when they began working as managers at Public, a popular and well-reviewed restaurant in the West Village. The friends shared the same dream — to open and run their own place one day. When they found the storefront on Atlantic Avenue — empty for five years but once the home of Petite Crevette — they knew it was time to make the big move. They left Public with the blessing of its owners and one of the restaurant’s former line cooks, Alex Sorenson, who in the interim had been honing his culinary skills at Mas and Sumile, also in Greenwich Village.
“Alex has a great relationship with our purveyors,” Rosenberg said admiringly.
Colonie’s cuisine is seasonal American with a strong focus on local ingredients and sustainable practices. Rosenberg agreed that sourcing locally is a trend, “but it’s a trend for a reason.” It’s a no-brainer that food grown and raised near its consumption point tastes better and is better for the environment, she stressed. Nor are the newly minted restaurateurs embarrassed about following the trend of using repurposed building materials. With the help of Brooklyn Heights architect Alex Meyers, they found such items as old church pews, which became the entrance-framing banquettes, and barn siding, which was reclaimed for the attractive wood ceiling. The plants in the wall of flora grow in containers made from recycled plastic bottles.
In another arena — online crowd funding — Rosenberg, Kihlstrom, and Hamawi are clearly trend setters when it comes to restaurants. The three pitched Colonie to Kickstarter, a website that helps filmmakers and musicians finance innovative projects. Initially, Kickstarter rejected the trio, arguing that a restaurant wasn’t a creative project. In a return email, the partners begged to differ — cooking is a creative art, they insisted, and elements that they planned for Colonie, such as the stage-like open kitchen were, at least in part, theatrical in nature.
Kickstarter was convinced, and the project was featured on the website, accounting for $15,000 in capital. Here are examples of how it worked: for a $10 investment, interested individuals were entitled to a glass of bubbly once Colonie opened. A tasting menu for two with wine pairings was yours for a $250 investment, and so on.
“Kickstarter was really a way to help market ourselves,” Rosenberg noted. “We posted signs about the project out front during construction, so it was an introduction to the neighborhood, and the response was amazing.”
Since Colonie’s foray into crowd funding, Kickstarter has agreed to assist other restaurants, Rosenberg said proudly.
In keeping with its philosophy of freshness, Colonie’s à la carte menu is printed daily. Standing out on either side of the food choices is the restaurant’s large selection of wines by the glass — bubbly, white, rosé, and red — beers and cocktails. For starters on the day of our interview the menu featured a daily oyster, a number of crostini, and a selection of cheeses from Saxelby Cheesemongers. Diners could mix and match small plates, vegetables, and salads, or order a traditional entrée. That day the large plates that were available were scallops served with kabocha squash and red cabbage; striped bass with orzo, sunchoke, guanciale, and parsley; pork chop with grits and glazed root vegetables; and skirt steak with fries, chili aioli, and braised greens.
Colonie (127 Atlantic Avenue, 718 855-7500) is open seven days a week for dinner, beginning at 5 p.m. Weekend brunch is also served. Reservations are accepted for parties of five or more.