‘Since July 15, I’ve spent tens of hours and hundreds of dollars at Der Pioneer. I know every inch of this space.’
The silver lining of being slightly deflated is that you don’t roll all that far. Recently, I moved from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, to Kensington. It’s been a slow move, carried out with a Radio Flyer wagon and those blue bags you get at Ikea, and it’s left me beat.
But I’m finished now and, boy, what a difference a few blocks make. I’ve long known it true for bagel shops that inertia and human nature dictate the one closest at hand is yours, even if it’s crummy. As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey/Love the one you’re with.” I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by the best bagels (Absolute Bagels), pretty good bagels (The Bagel Hole), and a glint-above-average bagels (Terrace Bagels). Now, the piss-poor bready bagels of Bagels R Bakin on Church Avenue are mine. All I can do is order my egg and cheese on an egg bagel with equanimity.
A few weeks ago, however, instead of walking toward the city and a future of mediocre breakfasts, I turned toward Ocean Parkway. After just two blocks, I espied a circular sign jutting out of a glass storefront. On it was a logo, a vector illustration of a canelé. The word der was written above it and the word pioneer below. A chalkboard out front bore in wobbly chalk a pithy Mark Twain quote about life’s sensual pleasures. In the window, I saw people sitting on stools, laptops open, and a La Marzocco espresso machine gleaming. I had found home.
Der Pioneer opened in March 2017. The men behind it are Björn Böttcher, 44, and Greg Barbiero, 39. The blond one is Böttcher, obviously. The hirsute one is Barbiero. Both have impressive CVs: Böttcher, a native of Hamburg, Germany, worked for many years in the kitchens of David Bouley at Bouley, Kurt Gutenbrunner at Blaue Gans, and with Shea Gallante at Cru and Ciano. Barbiero, on the other hand, had embarked on career as a biochemist before falling in love with Italian cuisine, a pursuit he perfected first under Gallante, and then under Saul Bolton at the Brooklyn mainstay Saul. They met in the kitchen of Gallante’s now-shuttered Ciano. Both can be seen, accompanied by only two sous chefs, hard at work in the tiny glass-walled kitchen behind the front counter.
The logo drew me in, but what made Der Pioneer home was the plate of franzbrötchen, swirls of buttery cinnamon dough that look like a croissant gone wild. The sight of them there in crazy glazed array was deliverance. It was Moses gazing over the Promised Land. It was Plato’s prisoner emerging from his cave. It was Offred getting the fuck outta Gilead. See, for the last three years, I’d been a Brunswick Café guy. Brunswick is a coffee shop on Prospect Park West. It was my coffee shop, and I knew everything about it. Among the known things was that the pastries were…fine. Every morning at 8 a.m., they arrived in a cardboard box from Balthazar, the same as any other coffee shop in the tristate area. And every morning there we were, me and my kids, waiting for two pains aux chocolat, one pain aux raisins, a macchiato, and two glasses of water. But you can only go so far with store-bought. After I dropped the kids at school, I’d return for a few hours, hole up by the window (outlets), and order from a desultory menu of disappointing sandwiches. Eventually the routine, as routines do, grew tedious.
At Der Pioneer, on the other hand, the pastries on the laden plates of the counter are still fresh. They will ever be so. Made just a few feet away, lemon blueberry muffins burst with lemon zest and lemon peel. The generous allotment of blueberries in the blueberry danishes nestle in a dough so flaky and light it disintegrates like an ancient text roughly treated. Since the canelés are in the logo they better be signal and, no surprise, when freed from their heavy copper molds, the Bordelais pastries are caramelized like oak on the outside but as gooey and sweet as a Sandra Bullock rom-com inside.
The pastries are Böttcher’s métier and deeply personal. The franzbrötchen — essentially a combination of a croissant, a cinnamon roll, and a heart attack — are rarely seen outside his hometown, Hamburg. The savory menu, which is surprisingly extensive, comes from Barbiero and his tiny four-burner stove. Despite the name “Der Pioneer,” his isn’t the genius of the trailblazer. It’s the talent of the restorer. He takes the known and polishes it until it shines anew. Barbiero is precise in his measurements and assiduous in his execution. A short-rib hash, a diner staple, is ennobled by port wine jus and topped with a pair of definitionally flawless poached eggs. When broken, they bind the bits of potatoes and cut-up celery and carrots into breakfast manna. The breakfast burrito, which, like many of the menu items, was born from a customer request, is the size of a rolled-up Sunday New York Times. The sheer exuberance of the cheese-bound, bean-befriended, avocado-coated scrambled eggs threatens to escape the tortilla before entering one’s mouth, which would be a Shakespearean tragedy.
There is no reason the cheeseburger at a coffee shop should be as good as this cheeseburger is. The natural juices of the patty, which sits wondrous high in its sesame bun, are bolstered by oozy cheddar and the ministrations of sautéed onions and homemade pickles. In the mouth, rendered fat and char! In the hands, a slobby party! It comes with a pile of garlicky roasted potatoes that glisten as if on a rocky beach in Maine and a small side salad of enormous freshness. I guess. I just ate the burger and saved room for the hot dog, unusually long with more snap than a beatnik café and more juice than a fully charged laptop. But if you don’t feel like emerging into the swelter of Church Avenue in a food coma, go with the seasons. Summer is expressed as sweet corn and poached eggs. The corn, generously apportioned but nonetheless light, is spiced with a hint of jalapeño. A spicy aioli is artfully swooshed, fine dining style, along one side of the bowl. The eggs, again, poached as perfectly as a highly qualified candidate. A summer salad of grilled apricots and peaches, with roasted beets and pickled radishes cut into translucent coins and walnuts, is classic anti–heat wave fare. I should know. It’s 100 degrees and I’m staring at this plate thinking, “Man, I love it that they give a shit enough to form the components into an elegant crescent!”
Since July 15, our move-in date, I’ve spent tens of hours and hundreds of dollars at Der Pioneer. I know every inch of this space. There are four outlets along the perimeter. There are five stools that line the front counter, the one facing the window onto Church Avenue. The second one from the door squeaks when you spin the wooden seat to raise (or lower) it. If you sit in the corner, you get better access to the outlets but the sun blinds you from about 9:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There are six stools on the side counter; the fourth one in from the door is wobbly. I know because I’m sitting on it now. For a few days last week, when Böttcher was on vacation, the nozzle on the watercooler broke and we had to make do with measly carafes. Now it’s back, thank God. There’s a long beautiful wooden table that seats eight in the front but I didn’t know it was made from golden acacia that fell in a Thai forest until I asked.
Already enough moments have passed here that I feel part of the fabric, the slow osmosis of making a new neighborhood yours. Most of the moments are small, the ands, buts, and thes that make up most of one’s life sentence. Deadlines hit; deadlines missed; coffees drunk; lunch eaten by the glow of Google Drive. But already the five-dollar words are beginning to appear as well. A few weeks ago, we celebrated my youngest son’s fifth birthday here with a single-serving raspberry gâteaux. (Well, two actually — one for his older brother because who wants to spend a birthday fighting.) Along with the delicate hazelnut dacquoise and the sacher cake, the gâteaux lurked in the display case like an escapee from a fancy Upper East Side patisserie slumming it in Kensington. So pink it could be a millennial toy, so sweet it could be a dream, a single raspberry was perched upon the raspberry yogurt mousse. A speck of gold leaf sat fluttering like a flag staked atop a summit, as if to claim that this was the land of the small triumph, the quiet victory, the vanguard of home.