|Applewood. Photograph by Patrik Rytikangas.|
Applewood, which opened a few months ago on a genteel, tree-lined street in Park Slope, feels, at first, like a caricature of a certain kind of newly fashionable, wholesome Brooklyn restaurant. There is the name, carefully chosen to evoke a sense of natural goodness and well-being. There are the cheerful mom-and-pop proprietors, the Sheas, who live nearby and slave in their restaurant around the clock (he’s the chef, she works the front of the room). The Sheas are devotees of the Slow Food movement, which means all the produce they serve is grown on self-sustaining farms outside the city, all the fish is wild, and all the meat is hormone- and antibiotic-free. The walls of their restaurant are colored pale yellow, and the tables are made of sturdy maple. There is a crackling fireplace in the middle of the room, and the bathrooms are decorated with sprigs of lavender. Applewood even has its own adorable in-house baby, the Sheas’ 10-week-old daughter, Tatum, who is hoisted from table to table by her mother, in a sling.
Not that I have anything against babies, or Brooklyn, or crackling fireplaces. But as a jaded Manhattan diner, I’ve been conditioned to expect a certain kind of simple, aggressively nourishing dining experience when these factors are involved. But then Applewood is a new kind of Brooklyn mom-and-pop joint. Among the small-plate appetizers, there might be fresh Maine lobster, poached in butter one night (tossed on a mash of polenta and mascarpone) and served cold, on a nest of fennel and mint, the next. A thick, wobbly helping of braised pork belly comes and goes from the menu (it’s served with caramelized apples and a light cider vinaigrette), replaced by soft, spongy veal cheeks, say, or a pair of crunchy sweetbreads stacked on a bed of lentils in a chanterelles-and-brown-butter vinaigrette. Then there’s the lobster broth, a refined, delicately creamy soup, which our table of grizzled Manhattanites took turns appraising one evening, like fussy judges at a county fair. “Is it my imagination,” my wife said after taking a sip, “or have I had this before at Le Bernardin?”
Applewood isn’t Le Bernardin, of course. It isn’t even necessarily Brooklyn’s version of Le Bernardin, but you get the idea. Refined ingredients like sturgeon often appear on the menu (doused in a mushroom-and-veal-stock reduction the night I ordered it, and flavored with truffles), and only one of the entrées costs under $20. Most of these dishes are constructed in a similar, straightforward way. Ingredients are piled on top of each other and shuffled around, according to what turns up in the markets that day. The first time I encountered the excellent braised short ribs (cooked with a coating of caul fat), they were served alone, with Brussels sprouts and celeriac purée. The next time, they were sandwiched between a layer of sliced lamb and roasted salsify (I liked them best alone). Wintry dishes like venison are shuffled together with parsnips and a strangely sugary garlic purée, and the duck breast is roasted, sliced, and served with butternut squash and collard greens in a smoky bacon sauce.
In accordance with what I’ve described as the “Tiny Room Effect,” the impact of all this ambitious food tends to be magnified in the restaurant’s casual, homey setting. If you’ve trekked out from Manhattan, or even if you happen to live around the corner in Park Slope, it’s an unexpected pleasure to walk into such a modest room and stick your nose in a crunchy-topped cauliflower gratin, say, or an expertly prepared fillet of pink Tasmanian sea trout. The cod is good, too (it’s served with sunchokes and finished with a white-anchovy-and-black-olive vinaigrette), but my favorite fish dish is the striped bass, which Shea sautés, then sinks in a faintly curried chowder of carrots and fresh mussels. In the dessert department, Applewood reverts to its small-restaurant form. Most things, like the rich, properly creamy buttermilk panna cotta, are good in a perfunctory way. The soothing grapefruit brûlée is a little more imaginative, but best of all, there’s a nice selection of artisanal cheeses, which you can nibble, in the new Brooklyn fashion, with a $9 glass of Oremus Tokaji.
As at Applewood, the room at Ono also lends itself to certain snobby preconceptions. Ono is the newest dining venue to grace the meatpacking district (it’s located in the new, arid-looking Hotel Gansevoort), the latest mega Japanese food palace to open in town, and yet another production by that flamboyant restaurant showman Jeffrey Chodorow. The multi-level dining space boasts softly floating paper lanterns, a glass-bottomed sushi bar, and semi-private dining nooks decorated with wall-size paintings of yakuza body tattoos. A perky, knowledgeable “sake sommelier” is on hand to help diners navigate the list of absurdly named sakes, and if you need an old-fashioned wine sommelier, there’s one of those, too. The specialty of the house is robata, a fancy name for skewers of meat cooked over an open flame. And if you want a dish that encapsulates the absurd spirit of the modern-day New York Japanese restaurant, order the edamame soup, a viscous, swamp-colored substance poured, with great ceremony, over cubes of tofu carved into the letters o-n-o.
The edamame soup doesn’t taste like much, but some of the other experimental food at Ono is actually pretty good. I liked the spicy crab grilled pizza (with radish sprouts and red miso) better than the one layered with waxy plastic sheets of Kobe-beef carpaccio, and if you’re an oyster freak, order a round of the ingenious Kumamoto-oyster-and-quail-egg shooters ($8) for the table, then slobber them all down yourself. A luxurious parfait made with uni, a smooth foie gras mousse, and plum-wine gelée is one of the best foie gras dishes I’ve tasted recently, and most of the sushi is professionally done, especially the big “battleship style” pieces wrapped with cucumber (try the one stuffed with salmon roe, truffle oil, and a single fried quail egg). If you order just one robata, make it the one with duck and litchi, but if your kimono-clad waiter tries to peddle any of the big-plate entrée items (ponderous, overfatty flaps of pork belly, Flintstones-size tuna steaks smeared with a toothpaste-thick wasabi béarnaise sauce), bow your head the way they do in Japan, and politely decline.