The Grocery and Ravioli
Corn soup and Bass
Duck and Gingerbread Pudding
The Grocery - 288 Smith St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
Vegetable fritter over tofu salad (amuse) paired with Blanc de Blancs, Charles de Fere Reserve, Brut NV, France; Goat cheese ravioli with red beet borscht, pine nuts, fried shallots and gold beets paired with Sancerre, ‘Les Boucaults’ Domaine Pastou ’04, Loire; Octopus, tomatoes, olivers, purslane, oregano vinaigrette paired with Alvarinho, Auratus ’04, Portugal; some of Manny’s House smoked trout, white cornmeal blini, chive sour cream, quick pickled cucumbers; some of the French Fry salad, hen of the woods mushrooms, parsley, capers, lemon juice, olive oil (complimentary); Barbecue duck dumplings in corn soup with sweet corn and pepper relish paired with Cabernet France, Chinon Baudry ’04, Loire; Foie gras terrine, red onion and peach chutney, hazelnut brioche paired with Late Harvest Petit Manseng, Jurançon Uroulat Charles Hours ’03, France; Striped bass, pea flan, sugar snaps, basil paired with Mourvedre, Reserve Chateau Roulet ’04, Cotes de Provence; Slow-rendered duck breast, quinoa crepe, market carrots, beet greens, black currant red wine sauce paired with Cabernet Sauvignon Freestone ’01, Napa; lemon-lime, guava and mango sorbets (dessert amuse) paired with two kinds of rosé wines; Gingerbread steamed pudding, pan-seared pineapple, sour cream paired with Graham’s Twenty-Year Old Tawny Port; some of Manny’s Chocolate Fig cake, coconut, passion fruit sorbet
I was calling the Grocery around eight to get a reservation. “Hold on just a sec,” said the kind voice answering on the other line. “Let me take a look at what we have for you.” I waited as he flipped through the book. Then he started calling out, “Red snapper go go. Go on the red snapper. Let’s get the string beans.” Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t talking to the host but the chef in the midst of dinner service.
That was my introduction to Carroll Gardens’s Grocery, and it was a very appropriate one. While at many restaurants, the star chefs aren’t even in the kitchens most of the time, Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter are not only cooking but they’re hosts and waiters too. They’re closely involved with every meal, which gives their small 30-seat restaurant the feel of a friend’s living room. If your friend were a highly respected chef committed to using fresh, seasonal ingredients and smart, innovative approaches to New American food at every turn that is.
Dario, Manny and I had decided to visit the Grocery to celebrate my last week of work. As I was about to leave New York, it was also the last time in a while I’d get to see these good friends. But I insisted that we keep the mood light and the topics away from such thorny fare as our indefinite futures, the thousands of hours we’d dedicated to mundane tasks, and the sorry states of some of our love lives. Instead, we could concentrate on the appealing and reasonably priced menu and the pleasures of good wines.
Just as we’d done at Daniel, Manny and I were attracted to too many options to pick, so we talked Dario into getting the tasting menu with wine pairings. “I guess this is the night to do things up,” he assented. Sharon Pachter came by to explain how it worked and to ask about our preferences or dislikes. Dario said he didn’t want any seafood, and I specifically requested their special of duck dumplings in corn soup. It just sounded too good to omit. “We can definitely do that,” the chef said, smiling. “So it’ll be five courses and then a choice of dessert. You’ll get a half-pour of wine with each course. If you’d like, we can write up a menu and have you approve it and we can just go ahead and surprise you.” We all declared our desire to be surprised.
And consistently surprised we were, from start to end. First came an amuse of a vegetable fritter over a finely chopped tofu salad with more than a half-pour of champagne. It was a light, pleasant start firmly asserting the Grocery’s mission of American food through a thoughtful gourmet lens. This only became more apparent as our proper courses started to emerge.
A goat cheese ravioli was the first appetizer. The pasta was good enough to stand on its own but it was all the better paired with red and gold beets, pine nuts and fried shallots. It had just the right proportion of ingredients and textures, each one meaningfully contributing to the dish without dominating it. Next, we all received a different plate. I got the Portuguese octopus smoked with black tea. It also featured slivers of pickled red onion, Kalamata olives, a red onion reduction and an oregano vinaigrette. I loved the boldness of it, fittingly far more potent and pronounced than the ravioli. Then Manny and I switched midway through and I got his smoked trout on cornmeal blini. While far different, with the trout and Russian crepe reminding me of a high-end lox sandwich, I was just as happy with this as the excellent octopus. And while I didn’t get to try Dario’s striking carrot-lime risotto, he later said it was the best thing he had all night.
Also very cool was that in addition to our three different dishes, we were brought a fourth appetizer of a French fry and hen of the woods mushroom salad to sample. It was a generous move, and the seasoning on the salad was terrific. Right then, I felt pretty sure I could eat hen of the woods mushrooms for the rest of my life and never get tired of them.
The third course for all of us was the soup I’d requested. It was an ideal summer dish, with the warm dumplings and chilled corn contrasting beautifully. The addition of the corn and pepper relish gave this distinct preparation a decidedly Southwestern feel, something that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mesa Grill menu. Again, the simple but very considered blend of high-quality ingredients was disarmingly great, and among many qualified contenders, the soup ended up being my favorite dish.
Our final appetizer was a tender terrine of foie gras, well complemented by a red onion and peach chutney and pieces of brioche topped with hazelnuts. It was another standout, but at this point, that was no surprise. An interesting touch for this course was that Sharon brought out a Jurançon dessert wine and a Riesling, describing the features of both and letting us choose which we preferred. Manny and I both went for the slightly sweet former, while Dario chose the latter.
We’d had four courses at this point, which suggested one entrée was still on its way. Instead, we received two, continuing the trend of going above and beyond. (Another indication of this was the ongoing tendency to give very healthy pours of wine.) The striped bass was superb, only improved by the pea flan and the soffrito of fennel, carrots and onions. I loved the duck breast even more, which could’ve stood up against any French restaurant’s version. The most traditional preparation we had, it incorporated a deep red wine sauce and a side of carrots and swisschard. It was a dish that seemed designed for our cabernet, and was yet another highlight among highlights. And while he also loved the very different corn soup, I think the duck ended up as Manny’s favorite course.
Before dessert, we received three scoops of sorbet in a silver tin. Our flavors were lemon-lime, guava and mango, and they were a refreshing cleanser after the duck’s heaviness. We were also given a pour of two rosés to compare and contrast. Then for dessert, I selected the strange-sounding gingerbread pudding with seared pineapple, coins of grapes and sour cream. It was a unique and satisfying departure that I wholly appreciated. Midway through, I switched with Manny again and sample his chocolate fig cake, coconut and passion fruit sorbet. (The staff had apparently also heard him raving about the mango sorbet and he was rewarded with an extra scoop of it with his dessert.) It was also tasty though the cake was a little too dense for my taste. Still, both the creative desserts went very well with my last pairing of Port (here we were offered four choices of dessert wines). The bit of caramel cognac ice cream I stole from Dario was also quite good.
When we were done with our meals, Sharon and Charles came by to talk with us further. They’d heard bits of our reverent discussion of the dinner and asked if we were chefs. “No, just food fans,” I replied. I raved about the meal to them for a minute and even after all the attention they’ve received, they were genuine and gracious about the praise. From the back, Charles brought out the messenger bag I’d checked and I awkwardly tried to hand him a tip. He smiled and shook his head, as if to say there’s no need. This restaurant wasn’t a moneymaking scheme engineered around draining the customer for all he’s worth. The Grocery, from amuse to dessert, from stellar course to stellar course, is truly a labor of love. 10/10
* A Full Belly covers the brouhaha over the Grocery's 28 food rating in Zagat's 2004 guide
* The New York Times' coverage
* Tikun Olam offers its response
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