One of the neighborhood's more hotly-anticipated restaurants, chef Mark Simmons' New Zealand-inspired eatery Kiwiana, will be opening next week in the space last occupied by Lucas Fine Foods, on Union Street just west of Seventh Avenue. I had the opportunity to drop by last night and chat with the chef/owner, who appeared on Season 4 of Top Chef and also honed his chops at neighborhood restaurants Get Fresh (now Juventino) and Melt.
"My friend and I built this whole restaurant, from scratch," he told me as I entered. "We wanted the space to look like it's from the 1950s or 60s, and have a real homey, comfortable feel."
There are 40 seats in the smallish restaurant, along with 5 at the bar (the liquor license should come in within two weeks, and when it does they will serve several specialty cocktails, along with a predominantly Australian and New Zealand wine list and beers imported from New Zealand, like Steinlager and Boag's). The restaurant will be BYOB until then.
Back near the kitchen, you'll encounter a china cabinet that's an exact replica of Simmons' grandmother's. "Kiwiana means 'kitch,' similar to 'Americana'," said Mark. "We've got some china in here, along with my mother's teaspoon collection. Pickling and jarring is huge in my family, so we'll keep some jars up here along with a few ingredients we use."
With that he removed a curious container from the shelf, containing horopito, an herb from New Zealand that has a spicy, pepperlike kick. "We use this in our fried chicken," he said.
"We wanted to showcase what we're all about with our menu," the Invercargill, New Zealand native said. "Everything on it is close to my heart. These are the staples of New Zealand cuisine."
Signature dishes will include the above-mentioned horopito and buttermilk fried chicken with bitter greens and truffled honey (top), smoked and pickled Green Lip mussels with house-churned butter (above), floral and oaky manuka and marmite braised baby back ribs with kobocha squash puree (below), seafood chowder pies, and the lamb burger, which comes topped with a sunnyside up egg and pickled beets ("It's the only way to have a burger in New Zealand'" said the chef. "It's like our Philly cheesesteak."). Daily specials will also include a rack of lamb.
A featured dessert is the raspberry lamington, below, sponge cake doused in raspberry liqueur and topped with cherries and a dollup of coconut cream.
"It's been my dream to open a reataurant since coming from New Zealand seven years ago," he told me. "Top Chef was a great stepping stone for me. It was an incredibly humbling experience, but it cemented the belief in myself that I could open a restaurant of my own."
With the ahead-of-schedule opening of Kiwiana, Chef Simmons has come full-circle, and has chosen the neighborhood he calls home to do it in. "I love this neighborhood. I've lived here for three years; why would I move away when I have it all here?"
Kiwiana, 847 Union Street Brooklyn NY 11215. Phone: 718-230-3682.