I live in New York City, home to thousands of restaurants, including many of the greatest in the world. The opportunity to eat so well is one of the many reasons I’m here.
More specifically, I reside in Brooklyn, a borough whose world-renowned restaurants include the sophisticated River Café and the old-school steak house Peter Luger. But mostly, Brooklyn offers the quieter pleasures of neighborhood restaurants—convenient, reliable and friendly.
But because Brooklyn is part of NYC and shares its energy and ambition, its best neighborhood restaurants find a balance, creating a space where they can express their personal vision while still providing diners with comfort and value.
Camperdown Elm in the Park Slope neighborhood hits those higher goals. Since it opened in June 2017, it has become my go-to for occasions that demand special attention but don’t require a trip to “the city.” I’ve taken friends and family, and even threw a 90th birthday party for my mother-in-law there. Over these visits, I got to know the staff and learned about their backgrounds and goals.
The restaurant is owned by chef Brad Willits and general manager Ignacio Monclus (and a silent partner who manages the financial side).
Willits, 37, is from South Florida, where his father owned a restaurant. He worked his way up the kitchen ladder and steadily north geographically until he landed at New York’s Aldea in 2013, where chef-owner Georges Mendes has a reputation for elevated Iberian cuisine. When Mendes opened Lupulo in 2015, Willits shifted over, and there met Monclus. “I tasted Brad’s croquetas de jamón and said, ‘Let’s open a restaurant together,’” recalls Monclus, 33.
But first, they split up. Willits went to Agern, an ultracontemporary Scandinavian restaurant, and Monclus to Amada, a Spanish spot by celebrity chef Jose Garces. “Amada was a terrific restaurant,” explains Monclus, “and our all-Spanish wine list was full of benchmarks. But I wanted to do something on my own, with a little more soul.”
Monclus grew up in Huesca, Spain, and as a teenager read the novels of Paul Auster, who lives in Brooklyn and has set some of his fiction there. They whet his appetite for the borough, and while reality hasn’t exactly matched fiction (nor has Monclus met Auster yet), the Spaniard has found himself at home. “For me, the amazing thing [here] is this combination of diversity and community,” he says.
Camperdown Elm replaced a popular, more casual restaurant and immediately set itself a challenge with a more ambitious menu and higher prices. At first, there was resistance.
“There was a time when we asked ourselves, should we make the food simpler,” Monclus admits. “But we decided to stick to our vision. And then people came around. We found that in Brooklyn, here in Park Slope, people are open to trying new things.”
Some of those “new things” are on the menu. Willits focuses on local and seasonal ingredients but gives them an Iberian accent. Cauliflower is served with the classic Catalan sauce romesco. Rice crackers are topped with a mackerel pâté, which bridges Spain and South Florida. Atlantic scallops get an Asian touch with charred onion dashi.
The wine list skews Spanish but also looks abroad. “I choose wines that complement Brad’s cuisine,” Monclus notes. “The food is bright and vegetable-focused. So it wants lighter, fresher wines. I also want to serve what I love. And I find that people are willing to try them.”
The list is short, at about 40 entries. I’ve enjoyed a Txakoli rosé; a white from Etna in Sicily; and the Rioja classic Viña Ardanza from La Rioja Alta. One day I had a thirst for Garnacha, so Monclus opened three versions, all from different regions in Spain and with very different characters. My most recent discovery was Pedro Parra’s Imaginador, a Cinsault from the remote Itata Valley in Chile.
Monclus says that on any given night, about half the customers are regulars, while positive press and word of mouth have drawn diners from Manhattan and beyond, especially on weekends. But while the 26 seats in the dining room may be reserved, the 18 seats on the patio and 15 seats at the bar are for walk-ins. And most of the time, they are comfortably filled with people having a good time.
Park Slope has welcomed Camperdown Elm and supported it patiently as it figured out what it truly wanted to be. “We have to do what we believe,” Monclus says.
That’s a fine theme for a business, and for a community. A neighborhood that can offer a restaurant like Camperdown Elm is a fine place to live.
441 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.; (347) 294-4786; camperdownelm.com ■