You're a long way from Brooklyn, man...

If your ideas about this borough come from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," boy, have YOU got some catching up to do!  Brooklyn has really come of age and is a very good place to experience a lot of what makes The Big Apple special.

Our hotel, the Hampton Inn Brooklyn Downtown, was fine.  The rooms were small, as one would expect in New York, but decently appointed.  Service was very good.  Staff greeted guests as they passed in the hall, on the elevator, in the lobby. Breakfast was provided, and there were many good restaurants within walking distance when it came time for dinner.

Although the hotel also has an indoor and an outdoor bar, I didn't really warm to either one. Fortunately, there were others close by, like the Secret Side Bar in The Tillary Hotel across Tillary Street.

For those who would just as soon sip some wine in the privacy of their room, there's a great little wine shop called Myrtle Wines and Spirits just a few blocks away at Myrtle Ave. and Fleet Place. It has an expansive selection of wines across virtually all price points and some very knowledgeable staff as well.

Beautiful brownstones line the streets of Borough Park

Because of New York City's quirky liquor laws, grocery and convenience stores and delis can only sell alcoholic beverages below a certain proof. Full-alcohol (around 12 percent) wine and spirits can only be sold in liquor stores.

One of the more interesting side notes of my stay in Brooklyn was that I was there when the drug lord El Chapo was sentenced at U.S. Eastern District Court just a few blocks away and -- we later learned -- his wife was staying at our hotel!  They kept it low-profile for obvious reasons, and we actually didn't learn of it until the last day of her stay, but it was rather surreal.

While the nearest subway station was about a half-mile away from my hotel, that's not bad by New York standards. I told my agency NOT to rent me a car, as one can get a week-long unlimited ride pass for the subway for $32, while one night of parking the car at the hotel was $36. Live like a local when you can.

There were several restaurants within walking distance that I enjoyed, including Forno Rosso, an Italian place that had a great happy hour with nibbles that made a full dinner unnecessary. Menya Jiro was a noodle house that was also delightful with great variety and reasonable prices.

About a half-mile down Flatbush Avenue was a complex with a Target, Trader Joe's and other stores, as well as a food court in the basement. One Japanese place, Han Dynasty, was OK, but Pierogi Boys was unimpressive.

Another couple of places required a walk of nearly a mile, but were both well worth it. My favorite was the Brooklyn Heights Wine Bar & Kitchen. It embodies what I love about New York: small places that love what they do, and do it extremely well.

Baked brie at Brooklyn Heights Kitchen and Wine Bar

I popped in during happy hour for a glass of wine and some nibbles. Got a semi-dry Spanish white and probably the best rendering of baked brie that I've had in some time. Truly baked, with lingonberry jam, pistachio nuts, and toast rounds. The cheese was actually hot enough that I had to let it cool, lest I burn my tongue. My server, Hallie, introduced me to some other happy hour wines that were also impressive. The 45-seat place offers a 2003 Temperanillo Cabernet ... for $6 a glass! How can you say no to a 16-year-old wine at that price? And no, it hadn't turned. It was round and smooth, and not TOO full. For $6? Pour me ANOTHER!

If you like wine and good, reasonably priced nibbles, try this place. Or don't. The rest of us will thank you for leaving us more room to enjoy this hidden gem.

Another interesting place is situated on the Brooklyn Navy Yard: Rooftop Red's.

Rooftop Red's is a a combination wine bar and rooftop vineyard. The growing grapes are identified by their varietals, and signs adjure guests not to touch the plants. There are several outdoor areas where one can sip a New York wine, which is what they feature, and perhaps indulge in a light nibble.

Grapes growing in raised beds on the rooftop

While it is cute, its location on the Navy Yard means a "reservation" must be made beforehand and guests must pass through the guard gate. Then, they must climb five flights of stairs to the roof garden, as they're not allowed to use the freight elevator. Which may help explain why the place is primarily popular with a younger crowd. The older you get, the tougher five flights become.

But once you arrive, you're treated to some nice views of the skylines.

The Brooklyn skyline with an incoming storm

The wines range from O.K. to pretty nice, and the prices are fairly reasonable but the snacks are basic grocery store fare and no outside food is allowed, which is too bad because it just doesn't have enough to offer to make me want to become a regular. Still, if you're looking for a pretty pleasant one-time experience, it might be just the ticket.

One Sunday, I actually walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and into lower Manhattan before hopping the subway to my favorite neighborhood on the Upper West Side. The weather was warm but not unpleasant, there were plenty of people around, and one could see why New York is regarded as a great walking city. Driving, not so much.

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan

While my colleagues and I made the most of NYC during our time off, we were there to work, and one of our temporary offices shared a building with the New York Police Department's Film and TV Division.  Walking out one evening, I asked an officer about the division and its responsibilities.

"Any hour of any day -- 24/7/365 -- I can guarantee you someone is filming something somewhere in New York City." Their job is making sure things go smoothly, from crowd and traffic control to whatever else comes along. Not a bad gig, especially if you like meeting the occasional celebrity.

From Brooklyn, it was off to Berks County, Pennsylvania. That'll be the focus of my next report.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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