There are few social situations more awkward than the failed dinner party. The novelist at the table blathers on about his latest opus, to the adoration of the editorial assistant seated at his left and the eye-rolling of everyone else; the beef tenderloin is tough; someone repeatedly leaves to “take a call.” So why would I voluntarily subject myself (and my boyfriend) to such potential unpleasantness, with complete strangers, no less? Because this is brownstone Brooklyn, and getting to eat dinner in a restaurant that isn’t really a restaurant, in a dinner party simulacrum, is somehow more alluring than showing up at the Haute Barnyard place around the corner and inquiring about a table for two.
By day, the tiny Fort Greene gourmet shop L’Epicerie is like something out of the precious French film Amélie: produce in baskets, artisanal cheese, a few pieces of meat in a butcher case, some prepared foods and a chalkboard list of sandwiches, which are assembled in the miniscule kitchen behind the counter.
By night, it’s practically a scene. On Saturday evenings, the shop turns into a $40 per head, BYOB, family-style restaurant offering a casually sophisticated take on the dinner party—with no dishes to clean up afterward! Thirty-something Danielle Glanvill, who owns L’Epicerie with her husband, Jean-Battiste Caillet (whose family used to own the alternately loved and loathed Fort Greene bistro À Table), did all the work: she prepped, cooked, served, refilled water glasses, cleared and, in between courses, washed dishes. Perhaps most spectacular of all, she managed to look completely adorable the entire time (I coveted her vintage orange dress), and didn’t even seem to break a sweat.
Ms. Glanvill’s cooking is downright delicious. Her husband goes to the Greenmarket at Fort Greene Park every Saturday to choose the food she’ll be cooking. We called ahead to find out the menu so we’d know what type of wine to buy at Thirst, the little wine shop down the street that, like L’Epicerie, is owned by a husband-and-wife team. (Oh, it’s all just so … so. We chose a $15 Spanish red.) The radishes Ms. Glanvill set out, with sea salt and butter, to munch on before the meal started in earnest were wonderfully crunchy and tangy; our scallop risotto was punctuated by green peas and soft, sweet onions; our perfectly medium-rare hangar steak was accompanied by a tasty medley of garlicky fresh vegetables. The final course was a selection of three cheeses—goat, brie and Chimay—served with walnuts and figs, eaten either on baguette or Ms. Glanvill’s homemade croutons.
It was a dream, except … the whole dinner party concept doesn’t quite work if the other people at the table are strangers not given to socializing. The optimal situation, clearly, would be to book the entire place, or at least come with more friends to buffer against potentially cold dining companions. (Ms. Glanvill will also happily reserve other nights of the week for private parties, and she will collaborate on a menu as well.) The night we went, there were only six of us (Saturday night dinners usually seat up to 12, but the restaurant can hold up to 24 with special notice): my boyfriend and I, plus a party of four. We had anticipated forced, but potentially stimulating, conversation. Perhaps we would run into our new acquaintances later at the Greenmarket! Alas, our dining companions barely acknowledged us; they were already chomping away at the radishes, and engaging in an animated yet clearly private conversation, when we sat down. We perched at the edge of the table, glancing at them every so often, as the meal progressed.
L’Epicierie, 270 Vanderbilt Ave., Brooklyn, 718-636-1200.