Lazy Flesh of the Ray
A bucket bursts with freshly cut sunflowers. Fading barnwood faces a ramshackle cabinet. Stacks of orange and green squashes crowd the fireplace mantel, like a 19th-century still life. In a meticulously framed photo, a hand holds a single white dandelion, taken the moment before a puff of breath or a breeze scatters the seeds. Occupying a Victorian storefront on a serene Park Slope byway, Applewood summons all the corny tropes of agrarian ruralism. "This is so Kinderhook," the nonprofit fundraiser quips. "No, more like Chatham," her attorney and life partner replies, invoking names of picture-book Columbia County towns.
Applewood is a new restaurant that marries ideas about local sourcing of ingredients and sustainable agriculture with modest portions of sturdy farmhouse cooking dressed in stylish modern raiment. Often, it works. One strong point is the daily soups ($6). One night it was rutabagaan ingredient that, in its naked state, tastes like loamy earth. Applewood sends it spinning in a Jackson Pollock direction, trailing colorful basil and saffron oils across the puree's smooth canvas. Another day the soup's focus was orange winter squash, fashionably foamed with a hand foamer, but a shade on the sweet side. Illustrating similar principles on a menu that's been changing week by week since the September opening was an entrée called, in a flurry of punctuation, "end-of-summer vegetable" fricassee (quotation marks theirs, $15), a dun hotchpotch of roots in a roasted-onion sauce. It was the hit of the table.
Some evenings the single vegetarian entrée misfires, though. The grand-sounding "potato-root vegetable-mushroom pave, black peppercorngoat cheese fondue" turns out to be a couple of small off-white squares, a lasagna of potatoes and cream sauce, more like a side than a main course. A pavé is a French paving stone, and the dish was just about as tasty. In fact, rather than focusing on vegetables as a farm-driven place might tend to do, the menu makes a fetish of meat and fish, leading another friend to complain, "Where are the veggies?" The best entrées have consistently been a rib-eye steak sliced thick on a pincushion of mashed potatoes, and a deliriously good lamb loin ($23), fanned on chard and polenta. "Not enough polenta," my critical pal sniffed.
Fish are given similar shrift. Zooming in on the one dish that I thought couldn't succeed, I picked granola-encrusted skate wing ($18). Would I want to dump milk on it? The oaten cereal provided a welcome crunch and little else to the soft, lazy flesh of the ray. A magnificent hunk of wild sturgeon ($19) comes surrounded by chanterelles in a tart butter sauce, while tendrils of braised oxtail drape across an appetizer of scallops, neatly uniting the menu's seafood and meat themes. The best seafood dish is also an appetizer, a brilliant ceviche of finely diced fish spread thinly across the plate and seasoned with herbs, lime juice, and chile oil ($7). Not very farmy, though.
The wine list is mainly French, with some good, reasonably priced bottles at the lower end, and the service couldn't be nicer. When we let it slip that the next day was the attorney's birthday, the gracious waitress floated out of the kitchen carrying a wedge of chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting surmounted by an improbably tall and skinny candle. "Wish we had a place like this upstate," the birthday girl happily declared.
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