Petite Crevette, the House of the Flying Lobster

By January 31, 2014 no comments Permalink

On a mild night in January, Neil Ganic, wearing a white chef’s coat, his signature porkpie hat tilted low, greeted customers at his restaurant, Petite Crevette. The room appears to be the foyer or staging area of a larger place, but this is pretty much it: maritime curios, tight tables, original artwork and framed photos below an aqua-green ceiling. Two line chefs, sequestered in the minuscule kitchen behind a barricade of coolers and counter space and hanging bric-a-brac, conjure aromas of grilled fish and saffron amid the soft sound of Latin jazz. Most who enter either know Mr. Ganic personally or know of him and his rather formidable reputation.

In 1993, after many years in Manhattan restaurants, Mr. Ganic was encouraged to open a restaurant in Brooklyn on a desolate block of Atlantic Avenue that dipped toward New York Harbor. With Amanda Green — British expatriate, beloved bon vivant and mother of Mr. Ganic’s two children — he opened La Bouillabaisse.

“Smith Street was a war zone,” Mr. Ganic, now 61, recalls. “And Atlantic Avenue didn’t have much happening besides the Middle Eastern places.”

La Bouillabaisse was a hit, and three years later Petite Crevette opened as an offshoot down the block. The original conceit was that Petite Crevette would be a fresh fish market, where you could also have your purchase cooked to order, to be enjoyed at home. Eventually, a few tables were crammed into the tiny storefront, and the pair of seafood bistros seemed to be safely established.

But as Brownstone Brooklyn became a culinary magnet, the 2000s brought many challenges to the couple’s small franchise. Rents rose with the tide of gentrification; both restaurants were shuttered and reopened in nearby neighborhoods, where neither lasted long. Today, the only remaining entity is the third incarnation of Petite Crevette, opened on Union Street, at Hicks Street, in the Columbia Street waterfront district by Mr. Ganic in 2005, on a balcony block overlooking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

In 2008, Petite Crevette annexed a former flower shop next door to add tables for the locals and the food tourists who routinely overfilled the front room. The additional space also somehow accommodates several antique mirrors and appliances; an accordion; a photo of Ms. Green, who died in 2008; and a four-foot sculpture of a naked woman.

Wanda Hernandez, 59, was a patron of the original Petite Crevette. “I remember the place on Atlantic Avenue. And then I bumped into Neil over here,” she said between courses. “We’ve seen the changes, but the food has always been great. It’s a nice, quaint place.” And with regard to the enigmatic owner, Ms. Hernandez added with a coy smile, “Neil is Neil.”

Neil was definitely being Neil one November night in 2009. In an instant that became notorious on New York food blogs, a couple complained about the quality of the lobster in the cioppino, sending the dish back to the chef. Twice.

In a fit of rage, Mr. Ganic burst from the kitchen, brandishing a live lobster as a symbol of freshness, which he deposited — or threw, depending on who is telling the story — on the table of the unhappy patrons. Mr. Ganic acknowledges the legend of the flying lobster with a shrug, saying, “It brought me more attention than I’ve had in years.”

The burden of half a lifetime in the restaurant business shows in Mr. Ganic’s face, his more-salt-than-pepper goatee and tense, hobbled posture. But his countenance is informed by eyes that burn, displaying a tenacity that has helped him endure through the maelstrom that is the modern restaurant business in Brooklyn.

A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. And when, in 2011, Mr. Ganic opened a wine bar next door, he named it the Flying Lobster.

Published on The New York Times: Petite Crevette, the House of the Flying Lobster

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