BROOKLYN MAGAZINE

The team behind Van Leeuwen Ice Cream doubled the size of their Balinese-inspired Greenpoint restaurant, and got their hands dirty in the process.

In 2012, Laura O’Neill and Ben and Pete Van Leeuwen, co-founders of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, opened a restaurant in Greenpoint. They called it Selamat Pagi, “good morning” in Indonesian. The menu was inspired by cuisine from that region and was also largely vegan. Behind the restaurant’s main dining room, the company produced every ounce of its organic and vegan pints.

“When we took over the space and it had a kitchen we said, ‘Let’s do an Indonesian restaurant,’ and that became Selamat,” O’Neill told me recently, sitting at the table near the front window in the restaurant’s new and much more casual re-design. Selamat, then, was more of a pet- than passion-project when it opened, and looked pleasantly yet more predictably Brooklyn: Scandinavian-inspired, with a combination of old and new fixtures—original pressed-tin walls on one hand, and muted minimal finishes on the other.

Recently, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream moved its over-burdened production operation behind the dining room to a 5,000 square foot warehouse in Greenpoint. As a result, the restaurant was able to double its floor space and get a makeover that better reflected the co-founders’s current tastes. Primarily, that meant a focus on creating a more fun yet still minimal look. And through large and unpainted particle board booths in front, palm-frond wallpaper, and neon lighting cast throughout, they’ve achieved it.

Following the vision of design firm Carpenter & Mason, O’Neill, along with the help of her staff and some very talented woodworkers, undertook the project alone. The work was cosmetic but extensive, and completed in just a couple of weeks. “We didn’t want to lose sales for more than two weeks, and didn’t want the team to not be able to make any money,” O’Neill told me, as we both sipped on a Soju-based Bird of Paradise that was frothy, buttery yellow from passion fruit, and topped with a sprig of mint.

To push things forward as quickly as possible, O’Neill became the de-facto project manager. “It was fun, too, renting all the equipment around here—everything you could ever want is in these streets: sanders, a lumber yard. At G.T. Rentals you can rent for the day for just 30 bucks,” said O’Neill. Plus, she was gifted with a ready and willing staff. “Everyone had done a ton of DIY stuff in the past. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, just show me where and how you want it.’

At that point we were munching on some Selamat classics—spring rolls with greens as wraps, pumpkin coconut curry, and a vegan dish called the Bali Bowl with lentils, papaya salad, and a veggie paté. “People get married to dishes, and when you take them away they get really upset,” O’Neill observed, explaining why the menu, in additon to the space, had not been given complete reboot. I noticed a blue dot on the floor, a remnant from the prior space. “I was sanding the floor, and we did it by hand around the perimeter,” she said, which accounted for its imperfections. But of course, that’s the charm of D.I.Y.: You see the love in the work.   

“It was fun, too, renting all the equipment around here—everything you could ever want is in these streets.”

O’Neill sourced all the materials from diverse and often cheap sources. The magnetic wallpaper design from Visual Magnetics came via her friend Ame Cotton, who is a textile designer at Liz Casella studio. “They gave us a good deal because they haven’t done a lot of restaurants,” said O’Neill of the non-permanent wallpaper company. The low-hung wicker lampshades above the bar came from Etsy; O’Neill’s boyfriend and bandmate, Greg Yagolnitzer, who is an artist and animator by day, designed the neon palm tree in back, and O’Neill chose a local fabricator to produce it.

Carpenter & Mason designed the large, rudimentary benches that fill up the front dining room. While the plan was to sand and paint the particle board and poplar frames they’re made from, O’Neill never got to it. “I think it looks better raw. It’s a huge part of the look,” she said. “The priority was not to get the highest-end material. It was like, let’s use better materials where it matters, and not worry about it where it doesn’t.” That took some guts, I thought, not to worry too much about being fancy, especially around here. “Restaurants are kind of smoke and mirrors, you know what I mean? It’s commercial use, so it has to be hard-wearing.” And while the marble tabletops might look fancy, they were the cheapest of all—free—leftover from their new ice cream production space, which had been an old marble warehouse.

I commented that it must take a fearless personality to do what O’Neill and the Van Leeuwen brothers have done: Build an internationally-known ice cream brand and neighborhood favorite restaurant in less than a decade—and make it look easy. I wondered, being master of her own projects for so long, could she operate any other way?

In response, O’Neill described seeing a man recently on a cigarette break near the Holland Tunnel. “He looked at his watch, and I knew he was thinking about his shift, and how many minutes he had on it,” she reflected. It was that feeling of being stuck in a job that she didn’t like that she wanted to avoid, and why she created a life that she could be in control of.

So while she may be, in a sense, never not working—the work itself? That, she conceded with her casual smile, has never been the problem. “I’m still a pretty good worker bee.”

TASTING TABLE

FOOD REPUBLIC

LUCKY RICE

GREENPOINTERS

INSIDE ELSEWHERE

How to Get From Brooklyn to Bali With 0 Jet Lag

We moved to Greenpoint exactly three days before boarding a plane to Bali. Three weeks later, we returned back to Brooklyn jet lagged and sun kissed and wishing we could eat more of the delicious dishes we discovered while away. So, imagine our delight when we realized that Selamat Pagi, one of New York's best Indonesian restaurants, was literally one block away from our new place.

Since then, adorable Selamat Pagi has become one of our favorite neighborhood spots. We love the vine-covered exterior, the ivory-painted tin walls, the pale wood bar, the sweet service, and — of course — the super tasty Indonesian treats. We mostly visit for brunch, when we can linger over turmeric tonics and Sriracheladas (a Michelada-inspired cocktail made of rice beer and Sriracha) and soak in the relaxing vibes. It's a damn fine way to start the day. Which makes perfect sense — Selamat Pagi means "Good Morning" in Indonesian.  

don't miss

Order whatever. You really can't go wrong. For brunch, we love the Nasi Goreng, a classic Indonesian dish made with fried rice, greens, a sunnyside-up egg, and tempeh or shrimp; the Spicy Beef Rendang, which is braised in coconut milk and comes with an egg and green papaya slaw; and the sticky black rice pudding with yogurt, mango and coconut. In warm weather, try to snag one of the two outdoor tables. Surrounded by bamboo and vines, you might almost forget you're just on Driggs Ave.

BROOKLYN MAGAZINE

Selamat Pagi Is Home to Our Favorite Vegetarian Dish in Brooklyn Right Now

We may have recently run a list praising Brooklyn’s very best bacon dishes (we’re talking bacon in a bowl with blue cheese), but the truth is, we have an even greater affinity for vegetables—so much so, we could have easily become vegetarian, if our job didn’t regularly require eating animal flesh with gusto. That being said, we fully expect our vegetables to behave pretty much like vegetables, and don’t much cotton to the concept of compressed soy products masquerading as meat.

It’s why we so appreciate Selamat Pagi—the Van Leeuwen crew’s perennially under-the-radar Greenpoint restaurant—largely overshadowed by their admirable achievements in the ice cream realm. Focused on Balinese cuisine, offerings are largely, naturally veggie-centric (save for that omnipresent smear of shrimp paste), while others incorporate actual protein as an accent, as in rice, herb and pickle-bolstered beef rendang.

So there’s no obvious need to bother with tempeh, which pops up in a cool salad of crispy shallots and long beans, or is provided as a topping for nasi goring, Indonesia’s national dish of liberally spiced fried rice. But highlighted in its own special box in the menu (and enthusiastically alluded to by servers) the bowl of mie goring tempeh practically demands notice—tossing tight, fried rectangles of the azuki bean and brown rice cakes (provided by local hero, Barry’s), with a tumble of rugged, toothsome, handmade noodles.

Actually invented in Java — Indonesia’s most populous island — it’s a pleasure to finally eat tempeh in the manner it was intended, i.e. not engaged in mimicry as burger or bacon. Especially when stirred into a sticky sauce of peanut butter and soy (which effectively emphasizes its profound earthiness and nuttiness), and offset by a lively mantle of fresh lime, crunchy carrots and sprouts.

Then again, considering our newfound appreciation for Barry’s, we might just be willing to finally give Brooklyn Commune’s principled TLT (tempeh, lettuce and tomato) a try.

FOOD REPUBLIC

WHAT IS INDONESIAN CUISINE AND WHY HASN'T IT CAUGHT ON IN THE U.S.?

Walk around just about any U.S. city and chances are you’ll stumble upon a decent number of Asian restaurants slinging variations of dishes from the continent’s many countries and vast array of influences. And it’s no longer just the inauthentic, Americanized takes on these cuisines — large chunks of sticky General Tso’s chicken and imitation crab-stuffed California rolls — that people have come to embrace. We clamor for reservations to sit at the counter of the latest omakase-only hot spots and wait in long lines during lunch breaks at our local bánh mì vendors. We re-create northern Thai specialties at home and take pride in knowing how they differ from their more recognizable southern counterparts. Sure, we’ll order in sweet and sour pork every now and then, but we’ve come a long way toward understanding the efforts that have been put into replicating some of these countries’ traditional dishes in our homeland.

Then there’s the curious case of Indonesia, a sovereign state in Southeast Asia that comprises close to 20,000 islands and boasts an estimated population of more than 250 million people, making it the world’s fourth-most-populous country. A recent CNN International online poll of 35,000 individuals found one of the country’s trademark dishes, rendang, to be the world’s most delicious food. And yet pose the question “What is Indonesian food?” to the majority of the very same people described in the above paragraph, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare or a shrug of the shoulders. Good luck searching for a nearby establishment serving any of the island’s regional dishes. But why?

TASTE THE STYLE

Where should you go tonight: Selamat Pagi

Unfortunately, we can’t all go to Bali. Despite that we want to, despite that we’d love to be Julia Roberts, practice yoga in the jungle, drink coconuts and have Javier Bardem fall madly in love with us, for most of us, sadly, this will never happen. Sorry for the harshness, but sometimes the truth hurts.

But lucky for us, the owners of our favorite ice cream shop, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, realized this sad truth, and instead of just sitting around they decided to do something to fix it. Did they buy every New Yorker a ticket to Bali? No. But they did the second best thing which is opening up Selamat Pagi, a friendly Balinese oasis in Greenpoint where you should go for dinner tonight. Why should you go there? Because if you think Bali is only about surfing, rice patties, and yoga, one quick trip to Selamat Pagi will show you that you’re wrong. Apologies again for the harshness, we’re just trying to help. As it turns out Balinese food is amazing, and we’re pretty sure this is just about the only place in NYC where you can find it. It’s all about mixing ingredients like peanuts, chilis, keffir lime, lemongrass, and coconut (so like, every delicious flavor on planet Earth) to create dishes like Gado Gado, Mie Goreng, and Beef Rendang. And if those words mean nothing to you don’t worry, they will after your meal here.

So for anyone who’s ever dreamed of a getaway to Bali or for anyone who’s been there and has been dreaming of the food ever since (so that’s the entire population we’d assume), snag a table at Selamat Pagi tonight. It’s a whole lot easier than getting a ticket to Indonesia, and it’s pretty much just as delicious. Here are some more specific reasons why you should go:

  1. Selamat Pagi means good morning/good day in Indonesian. Just a little factoid to add to your arsenal.
  2. Drinkwise, order Killer B. It’s a neon green little number garnished with a neon red chili pepper, and you want it,. You want it bad. Note: Do not eat said chili.
  3. Don’t be fooled by the airy interior, warm and friendly staff, and dishes with the word “salad” in the name. The food here is serious and spicy. Real spicy. Particularly those salads, people, they’re sneaky.
  4. Get the Ayam Goreng Bumbu. For those interested in more Indonesian language lessons note that “ayam” means chicken and “goreng” means fried. For those interested in food note that ayam goring bumbu is Indonesian fried chicken and you need to eat it tonight.
  5. Never again should you utter the words: “Fried rice is boring.” Here it’s not boring and it’s topped with a perfectly runny egg that’ll satisfy all your #yolkporn needs. Refer to the photo above. Then order it.
  6. Food here is seriously authentic which is great as long as you’re prepared. So don’t think those chips on the side of your plate are potato chips. They’re not. They’re prawn chips and yes, they taste like prawns. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
  7. You’ll find sambal which is basically a spicy, ketchup-like dipping sauce all over the menu. You don’t need to know much other than that you want it on everything.
  8. Selamat Pagi is exciting because the food is unexpected. You walk into a space that’s relaxing and where everyone’s at ease, but once you take your first bite of sambal spiced deliciousness you’ll wake right up and realize okay, Bali is waaaay more than a trip to a beach.