I’d been sitting in Olmsted’s backyard for a good ten minutes before I noticed the quails. Or rather, they noticed me, as one of them seemed to give a disapproving warble in response to my ordering choices: grilled fava beans and pretzel sticks. The fowl often stretch their wings in this small but lush area during the day (they retreat to an elevated coop after dark). Now I’d invaded their home and apparently offended their palate in one fell swoop.
At night, the tranquil, fenced-in garden is almost euphorically disorienting under the glow of strung-up bulbs overhead. Herbs and the odd vegetable sprout from a long U-shaped planting bed affixed with small wooden tabletops. Diners sit around it on slotted benches, speaking in hushed tones as they snack on oysters and sip bartender Mike Bohn’s cocktails, which utilize the fresh plants. One that marries tarragon to gin and yuzu makes a tart, fizzy case for this mode of drink-slinging.
Chef and co-owner Greg Baxtrom takes the snacks offered out here in an elemental direction. The favas are grilled in the shell and delivered on a board with citrus salt; squeeze out the beans and season them yourself. (“Just like edamame,” a server whispers earnestly.) Sourced from upstate New York’s Sycamore Farms, where co-owner and farmer Ian Rothman works, the DIY legumes were a hit at our table. So were pretty, sushi-like bundles of snap pea encased in raw fluke and thin slices of lemon — the latter matching well with a glass of dry Hungarian furmint, a fruity and acidic white wine. But for $11, skinny pretzel puffs wrapped in cured lamb ribbons are somewhat skimpy standing up in their dollop of dijonnaise.
As for the judgmental quail, their presence is intended to “showcase the potential closed system,” says Baxtrom, who spent two years as the chef de cuisine of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber’s extraordinary farm-to-table restaurant next to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. He points out that Olmsted’s garden “will never be a game-changer” from a sustainability perspective. But it’s clear that he, Rothman, and their team are having fun with this far-from-bucolic plot of land — and so far, the results are compelling. Radishes have flourished, so Baxtrom transforms the green tops into peppery gazpacho accented with lemon balm and smoked trout roe. The bulbs are pickled and served alongside bread and apples for a fondue involving broiled Harbison, a grassy soft cheese from Vermont. Live crawfish fill a tub out back, ready to be plucked and turned into spicy crackers.
Baxtrom’s résumé is dense with fine-dining destinations, including Chicago’s Alinea and NYC tasting counter Atera, where he met Rothman, who was working as the restaurant’s horticulturalist. Olmsted, named for storied landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (a designer of nearby Prospect Park and many others), hits a sweet spot: It offers a highly detailed experience at fair, sometimes even gentle prices. A guinea hen entrée is like the NoMad’s infamous $89 chicken-for-two without the foie gras fanfare or lavender sodomy. The most expensive item on the brief dinner menu, it packs just as satisfying a punch for $24. Arriving on two separate plates, the roasted breast sits in a puddle of jus, stuffed with a green ramp mousse. On the side, leg meat, confited with morel mushrooms and enveloped in ramp hollandaise, is a riot of richness.
The same goes for several other offerings. Piping-hot chawanmushi, Japan’s glorious egg custard, here prepared with spring onions and summer truffles, is deceptively hearty. Baxtrom’s English pea falafel, meanwhile, comprises a mezze of cardamom labneh, pickles, and minted peas to stuff inside “peata” — bread made from green-pea flour and baked à la minute in the tiny kitchen’s salamander grill. And a carrot “crepe” festooned with sunflower seeds is laid out in a single sheet over butter-sauced littleneck clams.
With a menu in constant flux, Olmsted fares best with the open-minded. A few weeks after my first visit, the trout with shiitake mushrooms I’d enjoyed had been replaced by a winning if narrow fillet of wild Alaskan sockeye salmon topped with poppy seed schmear and crunchy potato strings. Scallops, treated with a smoky dry rub, now get paired with creamed corn, a marked improvement over mellow polenta. Baxtrom’s desserts, meanwhile, are intentionally simple (the frozen yogurt with whipped lavender honey is especially good). “I have no interest in eating pumpernickel cake with olive brine cream,” he says. “I really dislike cheffy desserts.”
659 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn