The curtains are always drawn at The Grocery, a restaurant that was miles ahead of the curve when Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter opened it on Smith Street in 1999. A dozen small tables fit snugly in the intimate room, and enthusiastic service lends a few watts to the dim lighting.
Kiely and Pachter run the dining room, pouring beers and serving potato croquettes and some velvety parsnip soup laced with nutmeg. The meal only picks up from there.
A Swiss Chard Pancake ($14) came first. It's served with the tangy black concoction of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and chili, which was just enough to soften the pancake's burnt bottom. The skinny scallion renditions you'll find in Chinese restaurants are cheaper, but they're also much greasier, and they're not bulked up with chickpeas, stuffed with heavy handfuls of earthy chard, or made with brown rice batter that soaks up hot oil and turns into a crunchy, brittle shell.
Duck livers were whipped to a delicate pâté for a Duck Pâté ($16) special. Onions were cooked down with balsamic for the occasion. They turned sweet and offset the iron richness that hides in all liver mousses. Two pucks of pink pâté sat on the edges of the plate, too. They were much less rich, more delicately seasoned, and the perfect canvas for the sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt that flecked the plate and eventually cracked between teeth.
At nearby tables, the conversation turned to Ivy Leagues and summer homes in Michigan, and for a moment I thought the F Train had somehow taken me to the Upper East Side. A plate of Beets ($16) came out and brought my attention home. There, tender golden beets line the bottom of a plate piled high and dark with the deep purple of the bull's blood variety. The former fall victim to a mandolin, the latter are cubed by handy knife work, and each is roasted with precision. Fresh goat cheese ravioli are countered by the playful crunch of fried onions and the soft snap of pine nuts.
If I could roast Guinea Hen ($21) as well as Kiely or Pachter, I'd eat the bird at home five nights a week. Yes, it's just meat and potatoes, but it's an execution in simplicity and the most expertly handled game bird I've eaten of late. White wine and butter reduced to a sweet jus, potatoes whipped to a savory, silky mash, and pickled peppers the color of a fireworks display keep the palate awake, chalking the dish up to a grand finale.
Today in 2014, the Grocery has some dated aspects. But the personal touch and sense of pride from the kitchen never gets old. The crowd here likes to be pampered and Kiely and Pachter know how to do so. The curtains could be thrown open to let in the early evening sun, but that would mean letting everyone in on the secret.