To those who dwell in the densely residential neighborhoods of brownstone canyons and tree lined streets for which Brooklyn is famous, the industrial zone of East Williamsburg spread along the deepest reaches of Newtown Creek can feel a little desolate. In this urban frontierland, largely inhabited by artists and musicians camping out in working studio spaces scattered amid blocks and blocks of heavy manufacturing sites, Newtown, Alexandra Costin and Omer Shemesh’s little vegetarian sandwich, salad and soup spot, feels like a welcoming oasis. We stopped by to chat with Alex and Omer, and to try one of the house specialties, the halloumi sandwich.
So Alex, what should we have today?
Alex: I think I’ll make for you our halloumi sandwich. It’s lightly fried halloumi cheese with roasted Portobello mushrooms and eggplant, a cream cheese spread that we make with fresh herbs, and tomato and greens on our homemade black salt and rosemary focaccia.
I think it’s a really complex sandwich, both really fresh, and really savory. It’s very satisfying. It has a lot of different flavors and textures that I think work pretty nicely together.
To make it, we start with the bread. We make the focaccia fresh every day. It’s a potato bread. The potato just gives the bread a really soft, really nice texture inside. To the final dough we add olive oil and water and salt and a little bit of sugar.
We shape it as a round bread, drizzle it with a really nice extra virgin olive oil, poke some little holes in it so the oil can seep into the bread while it bakes, and we finish it with rosemary and a sprinkle of black salt crystals.
The black salt crystals are black because they’re aged with a little natural active charcoal. That gives it its color. Black salt is good for a couple of reasons – The active charcoal is good for you – a really nice detoxifying agent for the body, and it gives a really nice, slightly smoky flavor to the salt which I like a lot.
So it’s a very flavorful bread, with a nice crunch on the outside, and a really soft inside that’s lightly saturated with the olive oil. So it’s got that floral olive oil flavor, with the piney rosemary and the smoky salt and crunch of the black sea salt crystals. This we make every, every day.
So we cut the bread for the sandwich, and the first thing we do is spread both pieces of the focaccia with a cream cheese that we prepare ourselves here every day with a mixture of really fresh herbs. We mix in rosemary and thyme and parsley and pink peppercorn. The herbs change a little bit seasonally, to feature whatever the best herbs are that we can find. We grow our own herbs in summer. At this time of year we buy the best that we can find.
Next, we have some roasted portobello mushrooms and some roasted eggplant. We slice the mushrooms and we roast them at a nice high heat in olive oil, salt and pepper. We do the eggplant the same way, but we salt it first to tenderize it, and then we roast it. They both take on a really nice, intense flavor when they roast like that.
Then we add some nice fresh greens and a little tomato, and then the halloumi cheese. The sandwich is really about the halloumi. All of the other elements are there to work with the halloumi and with each other in different ways.
Halloumi is a cheese made from sheep’s milk. It’s very common in the Middle East, but you don’t see it so much here. We buy it from a Lebanese shop nearby. You can eat it raw, but it is really amazingly good when it’s grilled or melted or fried. We pan fry it right before we serve the sandwich, so it gets really nicely crispy on the outside and beautifully melted and gooey on the inside.
It’s a very savory cheese. It has a buttery, savory taste to it. Fried like this, it develops a beautiful caramelized crisp texture on the outside and melts really beautifully on the inside and it’s just delicious in so many ways. It’s the kind of thing you just don’t want to stop eating.
So there’s a lot of things happening in there – a lot of flavors, textures, temperatures. The bread has that smoky sea salt and rosemary. The cream cheese is cool and comes back at you with more rosemary and a lot of really fresh, aromatic herbs. The pink peppercorn adds a really nice note too. It’s a little sweeter than black pepper and it shares that kind of piney flavor with the rosemary, and brings a little sharpness to the sandwich which is really nice. The roasted mushrooms and eggplant bring some really rich, earthy, concentrated, warm, hearty, brown and almost meaty flavors to it.
And then there’s the halloumi with that nice pan fried crispy caramel on the outside and delicious, rich, creamy, melted inside that’s so savory and a little tangy and sweet too at the same time. The tomato and greens just add some nice coolness and texture to compliment everything else going on.
I definitely think it’s a pretty unique sandwich. It’s really fresh and bright and really savory and rich at the same time. It’s very satisfying. It’s a nice sandwich.
So guys, tell us a little about how you ended up here, doing this.
Omer: I’m from Israel originally. I’m a musician. I used to spend a lot of time travelling all over the world touring. I actually met Alex in Sweden when I was on tour, performing there. She ended up moving here to go to culinary school and we became roomates.
Alex: I grew up in Sweden. I’ve always been interested in food. I have a lot of really dear memories of cooking with my grandmother, who was from Romania. I’ve been cooking for myself for a long time. When I got out of school in Sweden, I decided I wanted to go to culinary school, and I ended up coming here to New York to go to a school called the Natural Gourmet Institute, in Manhattan.
It’s a little different from a regular cooking school. It’s not just about cooking. It’s also very focused on health and nutrition and Ayurvedic and Chinese approaches to those things.
Omer: Before we opened this place, it was a different place called Yummus Hummus. I was living nearby and working here part time when I wasn’t away on the road touring.
Alex and I had had the idea of opening up a place with Jay, who was the owner of Yummus Hummus, but then he decided that he just wanted to get out of it completely. He wanted to find someone to take the place over so he could do something else.
He was like, “Do you want it?” We didn’t expect it at all. We were just like, “Um, sure, OK, let’s just do this.” It kind of popped up out of nowhere. When we took it over, we closed the place down and then reopened two days later with an entirely new menu and a new name. it was pretty crazy but we just decided we were going to do it. It’s been an ongoing experiment ever since. [laughter.]
Alex: We did it really fast. I’m a vegetarian, and I wanted to do really great, satisfying vegetarian food, and we wanted to do as many things as we could do homemade. We kept some of the things that were on the menu but we changed the recipes completely, to make everything completely from scratch.
Omer: We live around here and we knew the neighborhood needed something like this. There aren’t a lot of places to eat around here. It’s not a really residential area. It’s pretty industrial – a lot of artist studios, a lot of music rehearsal places, and a lot of manufacturing. A lot of the local artists live in their lofts and studios. 3rd Ward is just down the block. Those are most of our regulars. And every once in a while some random people come by. But not so much. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood where many people just happen to be walking by.
Do you still find time for the music?
Omer: Alex and I actually play in a band together now. It’s an experimental polka band. Psychedelic polka. A little comedy too. Alex plays saxophone, clarinet. I play drums, guitar. We both sing. It’s called Momo Swift. We have fun with that. We’re both very involved in music. Opening this place has given Alex an opportunity to make her food and share it with people, and it’s allowed me to not have to play music for money anymore, so I can be here and focus on the creative aspect of it – of making my own music and playing with Alex, which is really great.
Newtown is located at 55 Waterbury Street, between Scholes and Meserole, in East Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.