This was a first: The waitress who poured our wine was carrying a baby swaddled in a blue cotton shawl around her waist. As she uncorked the bottle, the sleeping child dangled over the table. A loud pop, and our glasses were briskly filled with lightly chilled Sancerre. The baby didn’t stir. Leonard Cohen played low in the background; logs burned in the red brick fireplace beneath a whimsical oil painting of turkeys pecking in a barnyard.
Don’t be fooled by these folksy details. Applewood, which opened two months ago in a townhouse in a far-flung section of Park Slope, serves highly sophisticated food.
“I feel the way you do when you’re in Paris and someone drags you out to a remote banlieu-and lo and behold, a marvelous meal!” said one of my friends. He was eating lobster with fennel-mint salad and chipotle vinaigrette. “It’s the softest, most buttery lobster I’ve tasted. Anywhere else, it would cost $60. This is like being in the 10th arrondissment.”
Applewood is owned by chef David Shea and his wife, Laura-parents of the sleeping baby and a 4-year-old girl. The couple moved two years ago to Brooklyn from Chicago, where Mr. Shea had cooked at Spruce and Twelve 12. He calls his food “contemporary creative American,” but don’t let that put you off. You won’t find artfully piled-up juxtapositions of unidentifiable ingredients here. His cooking is clear, straightforward and deceptively simple. Produce comes from local farms; meat, poultry and fish are free of hormones and antibiotics. Take, for example, the parsnip soup. No secrets-just a smooth, silky blend of puréed roasted parsnips with a little cream and dots of mint oil to cut the richness. When you taste it, you wonder what on earth the chef could have done to elicit such miraculous flavor.
Creamy bay scallops are briefly tossed in a marinade of tequila with a hint of chili and citrus; a dash of chipotle vinaigrette and a generous toss of flat leaf parsley brings it all together.
Another night, we got scallops with a rich oxtail sauce and a plate of very fresh grilled sardines served with brown butter. A crisp disk of sweetbreads, soft in the center, was topped with slivers of roast salsify for texture and served with a delicate walnut-sage pesto.
“The food here doesn’t match the bare-top tables,” said my companion. Indeed, the rare sautéed squab, sprinkled with herbs and sea salt and served with potato cake and tiny roasted chanterelles, or the perfectly roasted duck with collard greens, bacon, apple and star anise, are the sort of dishes you imagine having at twice the price in a fancy restaurant where the linens are by Frette, the silver by Christofle and the wine list comes in a thick, leather-bound volume.
Instead of businessmen on expense accounts, some of the customers at Applewood looked like ex-hippies who’d discovered a Better Way through home improvement. The restaurant is in a recently gentrifying section of Park Slope between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Bring a book if you’re taking the subway from Manhattan, and (as one of my friends suggested) leave a paper trail on your way from the station. On the nights we visited, the clientele had the slightly haggard appearance of new homeowners who’d just put a hefty down payment on a million-dollar Brooklyn brownstone and were now renovating-and trying to cover the kids’ college fees, too.
Dismiss these worries (if you have them) with a bottle of Sonoma Pinot Noir from the short but affordable wine list and a plate of twice-cooked braised beef short ribs that literally melt into their red wine sauce, or a bracing dish of roast monkfish with braised red cabbage, roasted Jerusalem artichokes and a saffron-lobster sauce laced with brandy and Pernod. Skate comes with baby fennel poached in olive oil with garlic and thyme, a sweet purée of cipollini onions and a nutty, rich brown butter vinaigrette made with sherry vinegar, truffle oil and tiny chanterelles: raie au beurre noire taken to new heights.
I used to know a small boy who would only tolerate white things on his plate. He would’ve like the sautéed halibut, a daring all-white composition of cauliflower flan, leeks and smoked potato black pepper sauce, topped with fried salsify for texture. This delicate dish is one of the chef’s greatest triumphs.
Desserts are equally imaginative and well thought-out. On the light side, there’s a refreshing mix of brûléed chunks of pink grapefruit served with an icy granite made from grapefruit juice and pomegranates. The fallen chocolate soufflé cake is good, but not a patch on the remarkable dark chocolate tart scented with orange and thyme. There’s also a crêpe filled with chunks of caramelized apples and served with homemade pumpkin-pie ice cream-so much nicer than pumpkin pie.
At a table next to us, a mother with her son and his girlfriend were finishing dessert and discussing colleges. “Believe or not, Harvard wasn’t even on his list!” the graying, frizzy-haired mother said, addressing her son. She put down her knife and fork. “Did you like your dessert the best? I like mine the best.”
“I like mine the best,” replied the young man.
Laura Shea’s baby wasn’t always asleep in her papoose when I visited Applewood. Sometimes she’d watch, wide-eyed, all the goings-on at her parents’ restaurant. I never saw the baby cry, but should she ever, Laura could take a tip that a friend of mine learned when she took her baby to a restaurant in Little Italy. When the baby started bawling halfway through lunch, a waiter arrived with a tray bearing a glass of brandy and a cork. “Dip the cork in the brandy and then in the baby’s mouth,” he said. “That will make her sleep. The gentleman over there sent it to you with his compliments.”
She looked over at the table in the back. It was John Gotti.
501 11TH STREET (PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN) 718-768-2044
noise level: Fine
wine list: Affordable
credit cards: All major
price range: Main courses, $17-$23
lunch: Monday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m. dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
sunday brunch: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
* good** very good*** excellent**** outstanding no star poor