Jul 27, 2015
Ranking the Baklava of Brooklyn: A Tour of the Borough’s Best Baklava
An ode to baklava would also be an ode to the layers of phyllo dough, chopped nuts, and honey that are used to make this rich, sweet pastry. Oh, tasty baklava, baklağu, or even baqlāwa, where do you come from? And, what makes you so, so good?
While the Greeks and the Turks both stake a claim in inventing baklava, historians have traced three possible ancient origins for the modern pastry: a Roman cake, a layered bread from Central Asia, or the Persian lauzinaq dessert. From one of these, the story goes, the recipe was modified here and there, and then became popular during the Imperial Ottoman empire. As the empire expanded into large parts of northern Africa, southern Europe, and central Asia, the dessert was modified again by regional chefs and now comes in many varieties.
Traditionally, baklava is made by filling the layers of phyllo dough with chopped pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, kaymak, or almonds—although we found that Brooklyn baklava mostly comes made with peanuts. It’s prepared in large pans, cut into triangles, diamonds or rectangles, and then baked. It’s only after the baking that the honey (or rosewater) is poured over the baklava and allowed to soak in. Finally, once the pastry cools, the baklava is ready to eat.
If that sounds like a lot of work, there are plenty of places in Brooklyn that make baklava in their kitchens so you don’t have to turn your oven on in this summer heat. But which ones make it best? Recently, I—along with three other reviewers: Anastasia, Riad, and Paola—went to ten restaurants that serve baklava to do a taste test.
What were our criteria for what makes a good piece of baklava? We checked to see that the layers were not burned, that the honey was inside the layers (not just drizzled on top), and that it melted in our mouths (instead of being tough to chew). If the filling was bitter, that means it was roasted too much. If there was a good topping, that got an extra star. From there, it’s possible to get particular about the size of the pieces (smaller is better) and the quality of the nuts—note to Brooklyn: Pistachios will always trump peanuts.
Here are our results, ranked from worst to best:
10. Chick P Restaurant: A small unassuming restaurant just down the street from an outdoor basketball court, Chick P also makes falafel, hummus, and shakshuka. Unfortunately, their baklava ($2 per piece) lands unquestionably in last place.
“What am I eating here, bread?” asked Riad when he first tried a bite. The rest of us agreed that the baklava tasted old and dry, kind of (I thought) like eating a Baby Ruth candy bar or (Anastasia thought) like eating “raw, salty, peanuts.” Maybe baklava just isn’t their strong suit.
490 Bergen Street, Prospect Heights
9. Darna Falafel: First opening its doors in Cobble Hill four years ago, this tiny establishment had quite a crowd of people eating outside and multiple, empty trays of with what looked like baklava residue under the the register. This, I thought, seemed like a good sign. Unfortunately, Darna’s baklava ($1.50 per piece) was having a bad day. At first glance, the bottom layers appeared to be burned and the pieces were too big. Paola said it tasted “overwhelmingly of peanuts.” Riad agreed, adding that the nuts were “over-roasted” and that the overall effect was “very heavy and not well-balanced.”
200 Court Street, Cobble Hill
8. Damascus Bakeries: Rumor has it that Damascus is one of the best Middle Eastern bakeries in Brooklyn, so we were all excited to try their baklava ($4.50 for 4 pieces). I had been told at the bakery that the pieces were super-fresh (just made that morning), and the pistachio topping surely looked like an excellent sign. Alas. We all agreed that the baklava was burned, which overpowered the taste of the pastry.
Paola said, “It’s difficult to tell what it would taste like if it wasn’t burnt.” Anastasia agreed, adding “otherwise, it’s moist with a generous layer of peanuts.” Riad said he couldn’t tell “what the filling is made of—it seems like leftover peanuts that were not even cleaned well.” Damascus, we won’t give up on you; I’ll be back.
195 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn Heights
7. Tanoreen: Compared to the other restaurants on this list, Tanoreen is big, with a spacious sit-down dining area and a separate door around the side for take-out orders. The hostess took me through the kitchen instead of making me walk around the block, however, so I could see that the food being prepared looked very fresh. The smell made me hungry. This place, I thought, will be the real deal.
Instead, Tanorren’s baklava ($6.50 for 4 pieces) was just okay. Riad was not a fan at all, but Paola thought the baklava was “good, but a bit dry.” She wondered if they used rosewater since the flavor was a little different. Anastasia thought the filling may be a mix of peanuts and pistachios. She liked the flaky layers, but thought the baklava was “somewhat dry.” To me, the nuts were nicely and finely ground, but there was not much honey. Still, I intend to come back here for dinner—their baked kibbie and shulbato are on my bucket list.
7523 3rd Avenue, Bay Ridge
6. La Goulette: Arabic music was blasting when I came into this restaurant, which had walls painted an intense blue and white. A family walked in right behind me and helped themselves to some menus by the register (there’s no waitress service). Since the baklava pieces were huge, I only ordered two ($7.62 for both), and figured that we could just cut them up later to split during the tasting.
Unfortunately, while I was cutting the first piece, the baklava fell apart—a bad sign. Anastasia said that while the pistachio topping was good, the “peanuts are kind of salty despite the sweetness” and “tough to chew.” Paola thought that her piece could use more honey (and I agreed), and Riad thought there was “too much phyllo, not enough filling” and that the phyllo was “not cooked all the way through.” Still, we discovered, undercooked phyllo is better than burnt phyllo.
159 Grand Street, Williamsburg
5. Faros Restaurant: The sole Greek establishment on this list, Faros was also the only place that did not have a super speedy take-out service. While two waiters raced around the long, slim, rectangular restaurant and tried to keep the stroller-and-baby crowd happy, I waited alone at the bar, hoping that this was not going to result in a parking ticket. A few minutes in, I got the jaw-dropping bill of $32.66 for 5 pieces, and wondered if I was accidentally about to taste Michelin-starred baklava. After ten minutes of waiting, I was finally handed my order in two large white bags.
What was inside the bags? Huge, individually wrapped pieces of baklava that strongly smelled of cinnamon and had a hearty sprinkling of powdered sugar on top. It didn’t look like baklava, but we all dove in eagerly anyway. Riad thought it tasted like apple pie, and said “the filling is made of figs and nuts, has too much dough, and the bottom layer should be crispier.” He added: “Baklava is not supposed be oval.” Anastasia thought the layers were too “cake-like” and that the filling was “too watery,” but Paola and I thought it was good overall, even though it didn’t really taste like baklava to us either.
84 7th Avenue, Park Slope
4. Sweet Delicacies: If you get here, like I did, and think the place is closed, try knocking on the glass door. A kindly woman will let you inside, apologizing that something about the air conditioning makes the door stick. Then if you look around and notice that the store is maybe like an office plus a living room plus a wholesaler combined, you know you’re in the right spot. The baklava is stacked on tables to the side, and is unbelievably (almost suspiciously) cheap at $3 for 4 pieces.
The pieces are small, come dusted with a light sprinkling of pistachio, and look like just the right shade of golden brown. Riad thought this baklava’s main advantage was that “it had rosewater, which is not cheap and is a sign of welcoming people.” He added, though, that it could use more stuffing. Anastasia said she could “taste a little of the rosewater” and thought that her piece was “very good” overall. I enjoyed that the nuts were very finely minced and ate my piece much too quickly, while Paola agreed and thought it was “wonderful.” Later, I regretted not buying two boxes when I had the chance.
113 Bay Ridge Avenue, Bay Ridge
3. Kofte Piyaz: Not a fancy restaurant by any means, Kofte looks like the type of place that might secretly have the best food which only locals know about it. It’s staffed by one friendly man who also doubles as the chef, has three tables squished inside (with bar seating), and boasts some very large mirrors on the wall. The grill is right behind the register. But also, I think to myself, this could be the type of place that makes bad food. Very, very bad food. There’s only one way to find out.
We dig in, and the pieces ($6.53 for 4) are small, light, and well-balanced in taste. “Not bad,” said Riad (who has by now become our toughest judge). “It has fake honey, but is not overly sweet and the layers are cooked well.” Paola gushed that it was, “delicious, buttery, and melts in your mouth.” And, Anastasia noted that hers was perfectly moist and that the filling was made of a peanut and pistachio mix. Conclusion? This is the type of place that secretly makes some of the best baklava in Brooklyn.
881 5th Avenue, Sunset Park
2. Kestane Kebab: This restaurant has their baklava in trays located alluringly close to the entrance, so even if you’re just walking by, the sweets are just there, tempting you. When I came, the restaurant looked like it was a quarter full of people, but most of them seemed to just be hanging out with the man who was supposed to be taking customer orders. He was annoyed and texting on his cell phone when he handed me my baklava, and I wondered if this was ominous foreshadowing.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The baklava (4 pieces for $5.44) was a huge hit. The pieces were small, looked golden to the right degree, and, I thought, were perfectly soft—mine melted in my mouth. Anastasia said hers was “not overly sweet and tasted fresh,” and Paola added that it had “a very good flavor.” Riad said, “This one is very good even though they used peanuts” because “the top layer is crispy, the bottom layer is moist and soft,” and “they used a generous portion of the filling.” Lesson? Do not be turned away from a baklava quest by less than ideal customer service.
110b Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint
1. Istanbul Park Restaurant: The crown jewel of this tasting is—hands down—Istanbul Park’s baklava. The restaurant is well-lit and spacious, and has walls shaded a nice coat of red. Arabic music was playing on the radio when I came in, and they weren’t too busy, so my prepacked baklava ($5.44 for four pieces) was in my hands within seconds of my order.
From the outside, the pieces looked very promising—small, with a light pistachio topping, and flaky but not dry. On the inside, this baklava had a pistachio filling that was “very moist and perfect,” said Anastasia. Paola agreed, adding, “Wonderful! Perfect texture, taste, and a lot of honey and pistachio.” Even Riad heaped on the praise, saying that this baklava was “very good—actually, excellent” and “simmered with the right amount of honey.” Compared to all the rest, we all thought that this baklava took the cake—or the gold medal.
293 7th Avenue, Park Slope
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