Braeburn's Funny Farm
The far end of the dining room is dominated by a wall-size painting only half-finished, as if the artist had been called away to dinner and never returned. It shows a New England farm with a white saltbox house, a white barn, and a small flock of off-white sheep inside a white picket fence. In one corner, a spindly grove of cedars has been done in the high style of the Italian Renaissance, while in the foreground stands a smeary willow that might have been limned by Francis Bacon. The painting's sheep, scaled way too small, seem copied from a 19th-century seed catalog.
As I was eating my last meal at Braeburn, it struck me that the defects in the painting reflect the defects in the restaurant.
Located at the bucolic corner of Greenwich and Perry streets, Braeburn seems to espouse the farmstead principles pioneered by places like Applewood and Blue Hill. (Some of the produce served at Braeburn is said to come from chef Brian Bistrong's family farm.) The restaurant's look is self-consciously rustic, beginning with the birch stems lined up in the windows, making it feel as if you're gazing through a stand of trees. Squint and you might not notice the decrepit parking garage across the street. Even though the name comes from a variety of apple native to New Zealand and not New York, be assured that at Braeburn, you can have apples with every course.
Served warm, the "smoked local brook trout" ($10) arrives accompanied by apple purée flavored with horseradish, and the lightly breaded skate ($24) fans out on a bed of Swiss chard awash in a Fuji apple jus. A shotglass of apple syrup adorns an excellent dessert of freshly fried doughnut holes rolled in granulated sugar. And you can wash everything down with a selection of hard apple ciders, which form a novel and desirable beverage choice next to the usual beers and wines. The French cider from Normandy (Duché de Longueville, $7) is a little too sweet, with an underlying taste that recalls chemical fertilizers, while the cider from New Hampshire's Farnum Hill ($7) is more like dry champagne.
So, here we have a farmstead-themed restaurant with locavore overtones. It's a simple enough formula, and you'd expect big, aggressive plates of plainish food from farmers'-market sources. But that's often not the case at Braeburn. The lessons of cooking school have been vigorously applied, complete with delicate servings, fussy platings, and incongruous ingredients that seem to fly out of nowhere. And why, given the farmstead theme, does the menu emphasize unsustainable ocean fish?
Don't get me wrong. There's much to like about Braeburn. The fist-sized and strangely boneless "all-natural rib eye" ($32) is as fine a hunk of beef as I've had in a month of Sundays, though the word "natural" in this context is meaningless. While the roasted "Pennsylvania chicken" is splendid in its chanterelle stew, its origin in the Keystone State is no guarantee that the chicken was humanely raised or organically fed. The single pork chop ($26) is juicy and savory, though the menu's description—"rack of pork"—suggests more than the dish can deliver. It sits at a jaunty angle on a slurry of bacon and savoy cabbage, with a puck of potato-prune gratin on the side, accompaniments that are too sweet by a country mile. So is the citrusy fluid that soaks the otherwise good appetizer of peekytoe crab mounted on a gravel of ripe avocado. (Why do chefs like peekytoe crab so much? Because they like to say "peekytoe.")
From there, the menu gets lost in the cornfield, like the wandering, frightened adults in Children of the Corn. The minced-shrimp crust on the "line-caught" cod—you could catch the cod with a Popeil Pocket Fisherman and it still wouldn't be sustainable—languishes in a bonito broth with bok choy. Clearly, we've been teleported to a local farm in Japan. The Bibb lettuce salad, garnished with pumpkin seeds, is unsatisfyingly austere and barely dressed, a mistake no farmwife would make. Fresh as a sea breeze, the sea scallop appetizer didn't really need to be cut in half, partially crusted with panko, and served with braised endive and walnut purée. Like the dishes on Top Chef, many of Bistrong's compositions suffer from the "one ingredient too many" syndrome.
And, like the unfinished painting, the restaurant launches itself on a farmstead theme that it can't quite deliver on. The shrunken sheep looking quizzically out of the painting seem to bleat: "Why no lamb on the menu?"
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