Shrimp and grits with an egg. One of the highlights of Colonie's brunch.
Three young entrepreneurs cut their teeth in Manhattan restaurants and decided to take a chance on Atlantic Avenue. They rented a space near Henry Street that was vacant for five years. They gutted it (because they had to) and threw all the money they could collect—including donations from a Kickstarter campaign—into a high-concept interior design. They battled with contractors (there was a choking incident with a plumber, a tearful storming of the Department of Buildings).
In the dead of winter, February 2011, sunshine streamed through tall new windows and Tamer Hamawi, Emelie Kihlstrom and Elise Rosenberg threw open the doors to Colonie, at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. By 6:30 p.m. every table was filled.
Colonie has been slammed ever since. There is a one-hour wait on weeknights, two hours on weekends.
Reviews in the New York Times, GQ and elsewhere highlighted Colonie’s local, sustainable and farm-fresh seafood, cheese, meat, salads and vegetables, and New York beers and wines, bringing diners from as far as Lebanon calling for reservations.
Chef Brad McDonaldThis summer, Colonie hired chef Brad McDonald, who’s worked at the world’s best eateries, including Manhattan’s Per Se and Essex House, and Copenhagen’s Noma, an edgy Nordic cuisine shrine with an emphasis on foraging (serving for instance food on the rocks from which it was gathered, and items such as live shrimp) that was ranked as the best restaurant in the world in 2010 and 2011.
In August the foursome signed a lease for a large space in Dumbo. Details are vague short of fine, organic, local food.
At Colonie, with a sleek design that is part Euro, part Manhattan, and part wood-, tile- and exposed-brick Brooklyn, featuring an open kitchen and a wall of live plants, the vibe and décor play a role in the restaurant’s popularity.
Brooklyn Heights architect Alex Meyers of MADesign took materials from an old barn as well as church pews to create a minimalistic but rustic interior, with reclaimed wood on the ceiling, floors and custom table tops.
An antique mirror rescued from the old Toy Building in Manhattan hangs over the bar.
Hamawi, a DJ with a collection of 60,000 songs, hand picks an ever-changing soundtrack. The eclectic, global tunes that on a recent visit ranged from Prince and Michael Jackson’s Thriller to trip hop, are a huge hit, sparking a buzz among online reviewers. Other random items such as the kale salad have also garnered online chatter.
Clearly, Colonie seems to have struck gold.
At night, with warm lights flickering on white glass behind the bar, Colonie has a relaxed, luxurious feel. But it’s not been all local-cake-and-cream.
On a hot and rainy morning I sat down with Tamer, Emelie and Elise to discuss Colonie and how it came to be.
The idea, they said, was that there were no great restaurants on the north side of Atlantic Avenue.
“We wanted the people of Brooklyn Heights to have a place to go where they didn’t have to cross Atlantic,” Tamer said.
“So there would be no reason to leave,” Emelie added.
Tamer has lived in Brooklyn Heights since 2005.
“People would come and visit, and their gripe was the same,” Tamer said. “Here we are in arguably the most beautiful neighborhood in New York City, one of the most affluent, with a diabolical food scene. We’d sit around and discuss the issue.
“None of the theories seemed that solid. It just seemed that nobody was doing it. We finally decided to do something.”
The three met as the opening staff of Public, on Elizabeth Street, a popular, Michelin-starred restaurant owned by the design and concept firm AvroKO, which also designed and owns Double Crown and The Stanton Social.
“We wanted to do our own thing,” Tamer said. “We wanted something simple, with a warm ambiance. We have a genuine passion for hospitality. We like to show people a good time.”
“We know how to throw a good party,” Emelie said.
Colonie is distinctly Brooklyn. Most of the materials used to build the restaurant are recycled.
“We keep things local as much as possible,” Tamer said. “We can tell you exactly where our fish comes from, the boat where it was caught.”
They looked at an address on Columbia Place in Brooklyn Heights before stumbling on the empty spot with high ceilings on Atlantic. In the rear of the restaurant is an unusual curved brick wall, with two windows.
The space was rough, and “the landlords were desperately trying to rent it,” Tamer said.
Under white sheet rock, they saw a peep of exposed brick.
“That’s how Colonie was born,” Tamer said. “We were seduced by the natural charm of the space.”
Years ago, the space held Petite Crevette, a French seafood restaurant now located in the Columbia waterfront district. The trio figured there would be some restaurant infrastructure they could build upon.
They signed a lease.
And then things got ugly.
“We couldn’t have started more from scratch,” Tamer said. “We were pouring concrete slabs in the basement.”
The three had a lean budget, so they nixed hiring a general contractor, who usually manages the labor and paperwork. The trio thought they’d work directly with contractors.
“It was like signing a deal with the devil,” Elise said.
“The general contractors are like God,” Emelie said. “The contractors know they have to do the work or they won’t get another job. That’s why the GC’s are 20 percent more.”
The build-out presented one great problem after another. The contractors were slow, delayed work and demanded more money at every turn.
“It was traumatic. We were battling to get the work done. They had us by the [sensitive male area]. They’d come and go as they please,” Tamer said.
They had relied on verbal agreements and handshakes.
“There were depressing moments. We were discouraged,” Emelie said.
There were fights.
“The plumber had me by the throat one day,” Tamer said. “They had to pull him off me.”
Friends and family had loaned the trio money. They felt the pressure to open on time, but the date got pushed back.
They raised $15,000 on Kickstarter, a website that promotes creative ventures and invites the public donate money. Colonie was the first restaurant to get approval to raise money on Kickstarter, which garnered them some press. The publicity helped them out.
But then, there was the issue of permits.
The restaurant’s name is historic, says Elise. Back in the 1640s, when the Dutch settled Brooklyn, one of the earliest names printed on old maps was “Bruijkleen Colonie.” That’s where the trio derived the name. Indeed, when trying to open Colonie, they felt as if they were in a far off country.
“The Department of Buildings, dealing with them, it’s like you’re in India. There’s no email, everything’s in manila folders. You can’t find anything. It’s impossible to figure out where you are supposed to go. You get yelled at if you’re in the wrong line,” Tamer said. “It’s crazy.”
A week before Colonie was set to open, Emelie opened a letter stating they would have to wait three months for the liquor license. They were told there was no way around it.
“We couldn’t open a wine bar without a liquor license,” Emelie said.
The gorgeous Swede became enraged. In tears, she tore a path to the buildings department in downtown Brooklyn. Using her wit and fueled by adrenalin, she found her way into the office of a young man in charge of his own permitting unit.
“It all came down to Emelie’s charm. He fell in love with her,” Tamer said. “He pulled it off on that day. Our license was approved.”
“This guy, he was young. He seemed adamant about changing things. He was adamant and positive,” Emelie said.
And with that, Colonie was free to open.
A menu transformation, with McDonald, and the new venture, in Dumbo, is the next phase. The Dumbo restaurant will be bigger and more upscale than Colonie. If McDonald tries some Noma moves, it could be wicked, the start of a big thing.
Elise says the group’s hopes are modest.
“We look forward to coming out of the next project with fewer grey hairs!” she said.
Yes, it’s not easy to get a table at Colonie. There are no reservations (except for parties of 5 or more) and it’s busy most every night. Co-owner Tamer says to arrive before 7 p.m. to avoid a wait. Or, try brunch.
Brunch is excellent, featuring such delights as jumbo shrimp poached till plump and served on cheese grits, and duck hash with a fried egg. The Bloody Mary is the best in town (Tamer shares the recipe with South Brooklyn Post readers. Check it out).
For brunch as with dinner, Colonie’s menu is unique, yet simple and well executed, with an emphasis on local, organic and farm-raised foods.
Dinner features plates of meat with fingerling potatoes, elegant salads, plates of charcuterie and cheese, small bites and vegetable sides. The menu is separated into large plates and small plates—you can have some food with your drinks, or drinks with your dinner, whichever you prefer.
A fresh juicer behind the bar augments a popular cocktail list, and the bar features a custom wine and beer tap, serving New York wines and beers.
Check out Colonie’s Kickstarter video.
127 Atlantic Ave, near Henry
Monday-Wednesday: 6 -10:30 p.m. Bar open to midnight.
Thursday-Friday: 6 – 11:30 p.m. Bar open to 1 a.m.
Saturday: 5 – 11:30 p.m. Bar open to 1 a.m.
Sunday: 5 – 10:30 p.m. Bar open to midnight.
Brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
(718) 855 – 7500