“I grew up in that restaurant,” Rachel Allswang remarks, pointing at a framed image of San Francisco’s Le Mistral — one of several professional kitchens once overseen by her mother, chef and Normandy native Catherine Allswang.
Rachel, an interior designer by trade, shares this memory with us under the vaulted, skylighted ceiling she created for Bushwick’s Le Garage (159 Central Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-295-1700), mother and daughter’s first project together. She indicates toward other photographs on the wall, of restaurants in California and France, while setting down a half-portion of mussels and a plate of smoked-fish dip topped with pearls of trout roe. Packed into a tiny glass jar, the dip, which Catherine makes from whole branzino, blooms with a gracefully muted, wood-fired finish when spread over thin, crisp toasts and spritzed with an accompanying lemon wedge. Meanwhile, the mussels are so good you won’t want frites — the bivalves arrive abundantly seasoned with a lush, garlicky sauce, which a cap of grilled bread soaks up nicely.
Catherine, who wears her royal-blue apron with style, once cooked at Chez Panisse, the idyllic Berkeley farm-to-table restaurant founded by Alice Waters. Over the course of her long career, she has merged a Californian ethos based on sustainability and seasonality with the dressed-down elements of Parisian neo-bistros, where attitude meets ambition.
The Allswangs first eyed the location for their restaurant two years ago, when it was still an actual garage. Their renovation required busting down walls, installing floor-to-ceiling windows (and that skylight), and building a kitchen from scratch. They’ve imbued the space with an inviting, industrial-chic aesthetic that straddles Brooklyn and Paris — cocktails bear the names of notable Frenchwomen; a lively bar made from a repurposed bowling alley lane anchors the back of the room; and the playlist favors classic and contemporary soul from the likes of Cymande, Curtis Mayfield, and Sharon Jones. The visceral experience of easing a starter of crisp duck-fat-fried potatoes into velvety béarnaise sauce to the theme song from Super Fly brought me back to a Paris jaunt I’d taken as a recent college grad, when much of my time was spent listening to Mayfield while exploring and eating through the city.
No dish better exemplifies Le Garage’s sensibilities than the daily fish entrée with seasonal vegetables, a thoughtful and straightforward offering guided by market availability. Depending on your visit, Catherine might cut mackerel’s oily essence with kale, fresh apple, and a chunky, gently sweet beet-orange jam or bathe supple, flaky cod in a silky beurre blanc humming with ginger. The latter preparation is in the running for the best thing I’ve eaten in a year — the butter emulsion expertly bolstered the snow-white fish and some roasted root vegetables, and, in a modern twist, the chef placed the fillet on a bed of charred napa cabbage leaves, allowing their bitterness to mellow out amid the outrageously rich sauce.
Soup offerings change frequently, but I hope you’ll get the chance to sample a recent bowl that blended celery root with coconut milk, deepening the vegetable’s nutty flavor and smoothing out its texture. The comfortable warmth of the soup seems to echo the staff’s hospitality, which leans more Seine than East River, a sincerity that recalls France’s best family-owned bistros. Mercifully, though, the $17 price tag for two generously stacked rounds of dense foie gras torchon, served with tender, roasted baby beets and fans of sliced winter radish, is all Brooklyn. A similarly streamlined approach yields leeks vinaigrette sauced in mustardy dressing and set against chopped egg whites and fried capers — the dish easily bests tonier versions served at hotspots like Rebelle and Vaucluse.
Substantial main courses include slabs of milk-braised pork with fork-tender fennel and hanger steak complemented by more of those duck-fat spuds. And Le Garage serves what must be the city’s most affordable chicken-for-two ($36) — the whole, halved bird soars on the plate thanks to earthy parsnip purée, snappy kohlrabi, and an oddly satisfying touch of persimmon. Like all of Catherine’s cooking, it radiates finesse while eschewing fussiness.
Homey sweets include fresh pineapple simply marinated in sugar, lime, and ginger for a light ending. The vibrant tropical fruit also serves as a lovely counterpoint to local cheeses served with homemade quince confiture and to both of the chef’s baked desserts, which arrive with dollops of unsweetened crème fraîche on the side: a bouncy clafoutis loaded with seasonal fruit (pear, on my visit) and a dense chocolate cake — a family recipe — in large, humble wedges.