Monday, April 17, 2006

Sweet Brooklyn New York City Entry #88 Saul

A friend of mine decreed that I needed some Brooklyn chow, so we braved the F train out to restaurant row on the Smith Street corridor, somewhere between Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, and Cobble Hill. (Jonathan Lethem can point to the subtle divisions, but I am lost).

We chose Saul, one of the earlier outposts along this gentrified stretch, well-loved by Brooklyn Zagateers and known by crusty Manhattanites for the novelty of its Michelin star. Saul's allure makes us the bridge and tunnel crowd.

Judging by Saul, Brooklyn dining reminds me of the best meals I have had in Minneapolis or St. Louis, filled with diner's pleasures. No putdown to be sure, but as has been noted Saul is inventive without being experimental. If you do not expect to be walloped in the gut or in the wallet, you will eat well. Chef Saul Bolton knows what we like, and if we are not confronted, we are indulged.

The first glance tells the tale. Saul is a sleek but modest space. The exposed brick and paper tablecloths say much about what argue is the best dining in the borough (if one doesn't count The River Café or Peter Luger or DiFara). Saul is less art than craft, and the prices (for both food and wine) match. Put another way, the food at Saul doesn't seem to be in dialogue with the current trends across the river; it merely aims to satisfy. The innovations are thoughtful, but don't amount to a philosophy of the plate.

We began with an amuse (or more properly a starter) of the signature carrot-ginger soup with chive creme fraiche. The overriding sensation was a velvet tranquility. The ginger was an undertone. Although it was presented as carrot-ginger, I had to wonder how much ginger was present (on the menu, it is listed as "carrot soup").

My appetizer was duck confit with Anson Mills grits, pickled ramps, and green fava beans. Perhaps the dish suffered slightly from being overly sweet (a problem throughout the dinner - and often evident in restaurants distant from New York, where chefs have learned that the surest way to please diners is to remember, following Mary Poppins, that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down). The sweet pickled ramps and what may have been a honey glaze made for a dish that was easy to eat and perhaps a bit too easy to savor. Most intriguing were the jade green al dente favas. The dish was well-made, but not a challenge.

Saul's candied creativity was on display in my main course, a nightly special: Rabbit loin and rack of rabbit (a very miniaturized rack) with chestnut honey puree, caramelized endive, frisee and green apple, served with a cider reduction. Here was a main course dessert. I particularly admired the clever frisee with apple. The chestnut puree added a distinctive herbal note, but verged on cloying. Admittedly the number of diners who would object to having a three courses of dessert might be tiny indeed.

My dessert was also sweet and good. (My companion ordered the Goat Cheese Panna Cotta, which was not sweet, he attested; that might be a better choice for those who felt a saccharine buzz). My choice was a poached bosc pear in a saffron scented passion fruit cream, and a macadamia nut crunch dulce de leche ice cream. I couldn't taste much promised saffron; the plate was all fruit and nuts. The passion fruit and macadamia nuts echoed the surf on Smith Street.

I enjoyed each sweet mouthful. And yet I felt that chef Bolton pandered to my pleasures. This is a restaurant for eaters, not for chefs, not for critics. Saul does not rely on a theory of the table, merely the practice of an evening's delight. Crossing the river is to travel from art to craft. For Manhattanites the East River is as wide as the Mississippi.

140 Smith Street (at Bergen Street)
Brooklyn (Boerum Hill)

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