288 Smith St., Brooklyn NY 11231 (near Sackett St..; map); (718) 596-3335; thegroceryrestaurant.com
Cuisine: Seasonal American
Veggie Options: several appetizers, 2 main courses, four-course green plate special Tuesday-Thursday only
Cost: appetizers around $14, mains $24, green plate special menu $35
New York has a dazzling array of good restaurants. But it's especially wonderful to dine well at a neighborhood spot, a place where the ambiance is as warm and friendly as the food is delicious. The Grocery on Smith Street is special for its fresh seasonal cooking and its welcoming atmosphere. Husband-and-wife team Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter (who met while working at Savoy) run a gem of a restaurant without an ounce of pretension. It's a comfortable spot to take a date or celebrate your mother's birthday, and you can even wear jeans. Most importantly, you'll eat well whether you're an omnivore or not.
The menu at the Grocery has a bevy of vegetarian options, and several of the chef's best dishes happen to be meat-free. If you're visiting on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, you can also take advantage of the green plate special: a four course vegetarian menu for $35. Though it's called a "tasting menu", don't expect small, precious plates--it's a generous amount of real, satisfying food. Since not everyone at the table is required to order the tasting menu, we tried out a few other vegetarian options, too, uncovering some fantastic plates.
There are no shortage of beet and goat cheese dishes in this town, but The Grocery's roasted beets ($13, pictured at top) are uncommonly good. Perfectly cooked paper-thin sheets of golden beets ring the plate, echoing the velvety texture of the handmade pasta on top. The ravioli are stuffed with flavorful goat cheese and dressed in nutty brown butter, then showered with jewel-like cubes of roasted red beets, pine nuts, and crunchy fried shallots. If we had to choose a favorite dish, this was it: the interplay of textures and flavors made this common combination taste new.
My friends who live in the neighborhood never visit The Grocery without ordering the fried artichokes ($15), and it's a policy I support. These aren't Roman-style carciofi alla giudia; instead, they're delicately battered crisp quarters, more like tempura. They're luscious and rich inside, greaseless and crunchy outside--perfection. They're nestled on an escarole and radicchio salad, drizzled with roasted garlic lemon aioli. It's a decadent, yet clean-tasting dish, made with attention and care.
Our vegetarian tasting menu started with an intensely asparagusy soup, filled with chunks of sweet asparagus and topped with a rich and crispy risotto cake. I'd skip the soup and order those cakes by the stack if I could...
The chopped salad brings together nutty kasha, fresh peas, mixed lettuces, braised artichoke hearts, roasted cauliflower, grilled ciabatta bread, pickled red onion, roasted yellow beets, and red beets cooked in the style of borscht. Each item retains its flavor, nothing is muddled, but it all comes together in each bite.
When Chef Kiely stopped by our table with the barbecue tofu (kindly split for us to share) he mentioned that it's a dish that he and his wife love to make at home, even though they're not vegetarians. It's satisfying in the way you want home-cooked food to be, but you can tell it's made by a pro. The tofu (sourced from Vermont Soy) has a crispy exterior spiced up with a homemade coffee-molasses barbecue sauce. The interior is particularly creamy and fresh, almost like ricotta. It's served with black-eyed peas and a cabbage-and-carrot slaw dotted with mustard seeds. Nothing fancy, but tasty nonetheless.
The tasting menu includes dessert, and the warm rhubarb crisp is pleasantly tart and spiced, with a delicate, buttery topping and an orb of homemade vanilla ice cream. As we dug our spoons in and let the warm evening wind down on the Grocery's back patio, we felt right at home. (If our home had an excellent pastry chef on staff.)
The Grocery is not a vegetarian restaurant, but it does with panache what we always hope for when writing this column: it offers delicious options for folks who don't eat meat. Each dish we tried was satisfying and balanced, fresh and well-made--it was a feast that didn't have us missing meat for a moment. (Though I hear the duck is to die for.)
Note: If you find yourself at the Grocery on Friday through Monday evening when the green plate special isn't running, don't despair. In addition to the must-order roasted beet and crispy artichoke dishes, they always have a composed vegetable entrée plate. (The chef assured me that it's delicious, and I believe him.) The dining room up front is small, but when the weather's good, the backyard area is better, anyway. The tables out back are first-come-first-serve, so you may want to snag a spot on the early side.
About the author: Maggie Hoffman writes about beer, wine, and vegetarian food for Serious Eats. She also writes about cooking at Pithy and Cleaver.
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