March 11, 2005

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Happily

Applewood's culinary delights need make no apologies, not even to snooty Manhattanites.

Aria Sloss

True love is nice. A well-paying job is always a boon. Movies, plays, opera, museums—well, a little culture can be good for the soul. But there are days during the winter—weeks, even—where the only the thing that succeeds in wrestling the cold-weather demons to the floor is food. I've never been a fan of the term "comfort food," which seems to suggest there is a host of angry, aggressive dishes out there eager to rattle your nerves, but I know the way an icy day of slush and grey sky calls out for something satisfying. Enter Applewood.

Carl Bialik

There is something very good happening at Applewood, and it begins the moment you walk in the door. Previously a bar/lounge, the airy room has been transformed into the kind of inviting farmhouse-type space that feels as though you have been welcomed into the home of someone with impeccable yet approachable taste. The predominate colors are cream and forest green; the furniture and table settings are simple without ever veering towards the austere. A fire—tended to at various times during the night, in turn, by the manager/maitre d', the bus boy, and the bartender—blazes to the right of the first cluster of tables. The bar nestles in the back corner of the restaurant, an interesting configuration that transforms it from the usual pressure-filled environ of anxious diners clustering by the door, waiting to see if and when they will be seated, into a relaxing space with the feel of a drawing room, as though those sitting and sipping contentedly at their cocktails just happened to be passing through when—Oh, what's that? A little dinner? Well, alright.

There is no doubt in my mind that their sips are contented ones, for the cocktail list reads like a prologue to Applewood's pleasing treatise on carefully-prepared seasonal delights. Though tempted by both the blood-orange-thyme martini (Ketel One, muddled blood oranges, thyme) as well as the Brooklyn apple (Le Compte Calvados, apple juice, sparkling wine, fresh lime juice, sugar rim, shot of outer borough pride), I opted for the rosemary lemon drop, a refreshing blend of Absolut, Cointreau, rosemary syrup, and fresh lemon juice. It was the perfect mix of sweet and sour, and though normally served straight up, was brought per request on the rocks, with the unexpected pleasure of a well-sugared rim. My friend had a glass of 2002 Dopff&Irion Pinot Blanc, from Alsace, a wine we were both unfamiliar with but pleasantly surprised by, its crisp, clean taste making it a pleasing aperitif. If we had felt so inclined, we could have chosen one of three wines featured on Applewood's list produced from organically-grown grapes, an inclusion that hints at a commitment to sustainable agriculture that goes beyond the obvious.

Before I delve further into Applewood's panoply of delights, I must address the fuss that has been made over its locale. Adam Platt did a little riff in his New York review comparing aspects of the Manhattan warhorse Le Bernadin to Applewood, which happens to be located on 11th street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Platt's was a city mouse/country mouse kind of dichotomy: While praising Applewood's food, Platt managed to leave the impression that, well, yes, but this isn't Manhattan standards we're talking here. Reading a New York Times review of the Park Slope upstart, Tempo, a few months back ("A decade ago, maybe even five years ago, Tempo would have been awash in buzz, heralded as a relatively rare example of Manhattan-style sophistication and Manhattan-caliber aspirations on Brooklyn's spotty restaurant landscape"), I was irked to sense the beginning of a rather troublesome trend: New York food writers are Manhattan snobs. Why suggest that Brooklyn restaurants come with a whole different set of (inferior) standards? Aren't the chefs in both boroughs—the ones that care—paying the same prices for quality ingredients? Aren't they just as passionate and equally insane for making the touchy business of food their life? Isn't a good meal a good meal, regardless of the zip code in which it's prepared and consumed? It's time to take Brooklyn restaurants seriously, once and for all. The people at Applewood deserve your undivided attention.

Perhaps the time has come to reveal something: I work as a waitress. I have for years. My friend who accompanied me to Applewood waits tables as well. I expose us both as such because what I am about to admit may appear a bit puzzling initially: We ordered only small plates. We always do. This is not about being female (though I know male readers are shaking their heads knowingly, recalling various girlfriends who picked at their salads while stealthily pilfering French fries, the men in question pretending in their befuddlement to notice nothing at the time), nor is it about having a small appetite. I can hold my own with any guy; I've eaten 35 dumplings in one sitting to prove it. The argument for making a meal of an assortment of appetizers is two-fold: First, it allows you to sample an array of the chef's dishes and thus, capabilities. Second, the small plates are invariably better and more interesting and exciting than the entrées. An entrée will be meat or fish, shoulder of this or loin of that (Applewood, amusingly, features three loins of different beasts on its large-plate menu), a starch, a vegetable, and some sort of reduction, jus, or broth. It just doesn't get that mind-blowingly unique. Small plates, on the other hand, vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. They can be tiny, exquisite bouquets of greens, lovely soups, savory tarts, cheeses, fragile pyramids of sea creatures. They are not the warm-up; they are the spectacle itself. Oh, and they cost less (fold No. 3). Here is where I give thanks for what, at times, is my rather thankless vocation. I see what goes on in the kitchen. I see what people devour and demand more of, and what is left in dejected heaps on the plate.

While waiting for our poached lobster and butternut squash soup (another part of the fun of ordering all small plates is that you get to choose the order in which they appear, as though designing a tasting menu of your very own), we were served slices of warm, multi-grain baguette, accompanied by a rectangular ceramic dish with a cover which, when whisked away by the friendly bus boy/runner/fire-tender, revealed a trio of accompaniments for the bread. We polished off the apple-chestnut puree, the French butter, and the fresh ricotta before our first courses hit the table. May I never encounter a dish of olive oil on a dinner table again. The lobster was poached perfectly, leaving it tender and delicately perfumed by the ginger-lemon broth. The polenta accompanying the lobster was not, as it is in so many restaurants, forced into a fat square, but rather allowed to form a loose bed beneath the meat that consequently soaked up broth and the butter from the lobster, making it a pleasingly creamy amalgam of all the dish's flavors. The soup, while described as being accompanied by a nutmeg crème fraiche, was in fact a rich puree incorporating both squash and cream. Perhaps what began as a dollop in the kitchen spread downwards in the bowl before it reached us; regardless, it was very good, though I do like to keep my flavors separated into their own distinct personalities on my plate, if that is how they are meant to be met.

For our second courses, we chose the warm mushroom bread pudding and sautéed squab. The bread pudding arrived in an oversize ramekin, accompanied by a small pitcher of sherry-herb vinaigrette, which, after deliberation, we trickled across the crust of the pudding. Upon spooning into the steaming, custardy layers of bread and mushroom, however, we found that it was delicious as it was. We ignored the vinaigrette for the rest of the meal. The bread pudding was eggy, earthy with the good, rich taste of mushroom, and served piping-hot. Miraculously, it was still relatively light. The squab, on the other hand, was quite rich. For such a meaty bird, the accompanying pate a choux gnocchi—crisp but dense—and swirl of sage brown butter, seemed like overkill. This is the kind of comfort food that nearly tips towards smothering. Yet the plating of the dish was done so elegantly, the portion so delicately selected, that I can almost fault my own tastebuds entirely for the dish not being more of a success. Maybe squab just isn't my thing. My friend seemed unfazed.

For dessert, we skipped the requisite warm chocolate cake (though upon spotting it at a neighboring table, we almost caved) and lighter, fruit-based desserts (poached pears, grapefruit granite), in favor of carrot cake. The cream cheese, in this case, came in the form of ice cream rather than frosting. The folks in the pastry kitchen know what they're doing. Cream-cheese frosting, while pleasing in a nostalgic kind of way, nearly always tastes disturbingly too few steps away from a package of Philadelphia's best. As an ice-cream flavor, cream cheese hits just the right notes of savory and sweet. It is sugary yet tangy. If you have ever had the gelato flavor the Italians call "yoghurt" which is emphatically not the American desecration of ice cream we call frozen yoghurt, you will be reminded of it here. The carrot cake was dense and chewy, the perfect foil.

Throughout the meal, service was friendly if a bit lax at times. Though a chorus of thousands is clearing their throats to answer, "Well, yes, but it's Brooklyn," I refuse to pander to that crowd and provide a list of Manhattan restaurants where the quality of both food and service has been not even a quarter of what it was at Applewood. Though if you email me, I will. I believe in Applewood, in Brooklyn restaurants, in good food, that darn much.

Applewood: 501 11th street at 7th Ave. in Park Slope. 718-768-2044

Related on the Web:

• More reviews of Applewood: Village Voice and Go Brooklyn

• Applewood's official site

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