W hen the New York Times Magazine ran a prominent story in October about Basil Pizza and Wine Bar, a new kosher restaurant in Crown Heights, the writer, Frank Bruni, told of the place’s ambiance and its efforts to bring together Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. But, as a letter writer bluntly pointed out the following week in the magazine, Bruni, formerly the paper’s restaurant critic, didn’t say much about the food. Good intentions and all, it was the pizza that the letter writer really wanted to hear about.
The good news is that Basil’s pizza is great — thin, crisp crust with freshly prepared and flavorful toppings. My companion and I tried the Wild Mushroom Pizza, the most popular dish on the menu, piled with goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, truffle oil and mushrooms. I’d happily try it again.
And the mood of the room is upbeat and warm. The kitchen is open, with a wood-burning oven in full view, behind a long sleek marble bar. The main room seats about 50, at small tables that are easily combined and at stools around a large rectangular communal table. The glass outer walls bring the neighborhood inside, and the contrast is stark; Basil looks more like Rome than Crown Heights. But photos of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneeerson, underline the Chabad presence.
The restaurant is on the Caribbean side of Eastern Parkway — across the wide avenue from 770, the seat of the Lubavitcher movement, with its adjacent Judaica shops and kosher bakeries offering, on the day I visit, free coffee to the shlichim, or emissaries, in town for a worldwide gathering. From 770, Basil is one block south on Kingston Avenue, on the corner of Lincoln Place, next to a Dominican beauty salon. While some Jews and Jewish businesses have moved to this side of Eastern Parkway, this is largely a West Indian neighborhood, with recent arrivals of young people who’ve been priced out of places like Park Slope and Williamsburg.
Basil opened last March. It’s something of a hobby, or, in his wife’s words, a midlife crisis for founder and main owner Daniel Branover. Born in the former Soviet Union, he lived in Israel before moving to New York eight years ago and runs an energy-management business based in Israel. His father, who now lives in Crown Heights, is the distinguished physicist and former refusenik Herman Branover. Daniel Branover, the father of seven, travels a lot and while he keeps strictly kosher, he’s a foodie — although, admittedly, he hadn’t heard the word “foodie” before opening the restaurant. He felt that Crown Heights lacked the kind of casual fine dining that he appreciated. He wanted a place with good pizza, that served a quick but good breakfast with well-made croissants and really good Italian coffee that people can pick up on the run (Basil opens at 7 a.m. and stays open until late at night), as well as homemade pasta, varieties of fish beyond the ordinary and serious desserts — Basil serves homemade pastries and ice creams, including basil ice cream (vanilla with basil leaf).
Beyond the food, Branover wanted to create a place where people of different backgrounds, those who kept kosher and those who don’t, could dine together. He found that even in Israel, where Arabs and Jews have wide differences and “more reasons for animosity,” individuals had more to do with each other than Jews and blacks in Crown Heights. In Israel, his mother worked as a pediatrician serving Arab villages, and was frequently invited to share meals with the families she served, something that doesn’t happen in New York. “When you break bread,” Branover says, “you break barriers.”
When the space opened up — a friend approached Branover with the thought of opening a hardware store or some other business on this corner — Branover felt it was the perfect location for his dream restaurant, as it was close enough for Jews and non-Jews to wander into.
“There’s a positive energy here. It sounds mystical. It’s true,” he says.
On my two visits, for dinner and lunch on weekdays, the restaurant was filled mostly with Jews, Lubavitchers as well as Syrians and observant Jews from other parts of Brooklyn, with a few neighborhood people. Clara Perez, the manager, says that Sunday afternoons are a popular time for neighborhood people to stop by after church. Our Catholic waitress who lives down the street and is thinking about law school says that her priest comes on Sundays. Branover says that hipsters and yuppies come in late at night. But prices can be high for many locals.
Day after day, Perez is the face of the restaurant. Around her neck, she wears a small Jewish star, and a photo of the rebbe is in the holder with her security cards. Her full head of dark hair almost looks like the sheitels, wigs, of local Orthodox women. But she’s Catholic, and an admirer of the rebbe and of Jewish traditions. She has worn the photo since her daughter was very ill and recovered.
Born in Bogota, Colombia, Perez moved to the United States as a child. During her more than10 years working at El Al she met Branover, who flew frequently. She was curious about Judaism and he gave her books, including a book of Psalms, which she continues to read and study. When he was thinking of opening the restaurant, he contacted her.
“She could seat 450 people on one plane,” Branover says. “She didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, but she knew the people business and that’s what this is all about. “
Her Latina habits run deep and, as we talk, she touches my arm for emphasis every few seconds. When I joke about this, she says that one chef, who is religious, used to wear a sign around his neck: “Don’t touch me, Clara.”
She looks up to religious people, and is aware that with the rebbe’s picture on the wall, this is more than a restaurant, and certain codes of behavior prevail.
“The rebbe wanted everyone to be more godly and that’s a good thing,” she says.
They have a mashgiach on premises and while the Times article suggested surveillance of diners by the kosher certifying authorities, Branover and Perez say that’s not the case. Perez has, however, had to ask women to curtail their renditions of “Happy Birthday,” so that their voices wouldn’t offend the men in the room, in keeping with Jewish law. The music that’s always playing is classical or instrumental; if there are voices, they’re male. Perez is aware of rules, boundaries and fine lines.
“If a yeshiva boy starts talking to a beautiful waitress, I tell my waitresses to say they are busy. Jewish people have their own way of life, and we don’t want to be disruptive,” she says. “No one asked me to come into their backyard and start behaving in my culture.”
At lunch, I order an unusual panini on the menu — eggplant and carrot, with sheep’s milk feta and marinated figs. When I tell a fellow diner at the communal table what I’m eating, she orders it too, and passes over some basil fries. She and her family are followers of Chabad on the West Coast, in town for a wedding at 770 that evening — she had heard of Basil in California. The elder Branovers come in, and Clara kisses Mrs. (Dr.) Branover.
While he says he’s in no way a spokesman for Chabad, Daniel Branover feels that this sort of outreach is in keeping with the rebbe’s teachings
“It’s a great idea,” says Sol Cole, who is dining with two friends. The young Lubavitcher from Melbourne, Australia, who is in the retail business here, enjoys seeing that “people are accepting of others. It’s great for people to get out of their own environments.”
The kitchen staff is diverse, but only the Jews are permitted to turn on the ovens in accordance with Jewish law. The chef is an Italian from Genoa; the pastry chef was born in Israel and prays during the day in a downstairs space. The waiters are of mixed backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual preference; all dress modestly. One busboy who moved to Brooklyn from Jamaica two years ago said that he never knew anything about what kosher meant before. “You got to respect other people’s beliefs,” he said. He hopes that his family will come by and try the food.
The one Jewish woman among the floor managers shows us the restaurant’s adjacent room and kisses the mezuzah on the door as we enter. Available for parties and also used in the evenings for the overflow crowd, the room seats 55. So far, it has been used for sheva brachot, the post-wedding celebrations, as well as birthday and anniversary parties, but not yet for a bris.
My dinner at Basil ended on a surprising, perhaps mystical, note. When we got our bill, we realized there was an extra charge and the waitress returned with a corrected version. The total: $77.70. Exactly. Service included. We questioned her whether this was a joke, but she didn’t recognize the landmark address.
Basil (www.basilny.com) is at 270 Kingston Ave., Brooklyn. Call (718) 285-8777 for more information.