Applewood opened before today's farm-to-table approach hit its stride in New York and 'sustainable' became an overused part of the culinary lexicon. But owners David and Laura Shea have been married to this approach since they opened the restaurant on a quiet Park Slope block in 2004. In July 2012, the Sheas moved to a farm in East Chatham, New York. The restaurant is still theirs, only now it's in the hands of Tess Tomlinson and Chef Sam Sherman, who share the Shea's vision and have been with the restaurant for years.
"We really focus on cultivating and maintaining our relationships with the farms," Sherman says, "and we do our best to showcase the incredible meat and produce that they raise and grow." The showcase begins during bread service. Housemade white and wheat breads are mediocre, but the accompanying spreads are a fine opening act. White bean and rosemary, whipped butter, and beet cream cheese are soft as silk, just as delicate, and impossible not to not finish despite the generous portion.
While thinking about other ways beets and cream cheese could headline a dish, New Hampshire Pork Testa Pappardelle ($12) showed up. I hadn't read past "testa pappardelle" when pondering the menu, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it served in mustard jus—a rich, spicy, and effective way to break down the wall of testa's gelatinous richness. Wilted mustard greens and a heavy dose of garlic made a fine balance between porcine flavor and earthy spice. Instead of being ribboned throughout the dish though, pappardelle noodles were folded and tucked under the other ingredients as an afterthought. It left my fork wanting to twist more and shout less.
Splitting an entrée into two sharing portions is rare in kitchens these days. It creates twice the work for the chef, the server, and the dishwasher, but Applewood isn't concerned, and being served a half-portion of the Great Lakes Walleye Pike ($24) is wholly gratifying.
Cold Great Lakes water has given the fish a gracious fat content that keeps it warm during harsh winters and assures a particular succulence during a quick visit to the skillet. In the realm of textural contrast, Sherman turns the other cheek and pairs the pike with a disc of polenta. Both are seared and each takes on a crisp shell that gives way to the pleasant densities of fish and cornmeal, expertly cooked. Fried kale provides a dose of crunch and texture while salsa verde, with its clean heat, and a glowing splash of chili oil glistening in orbit around the plate, cut through the dish's various guises of fat.
If you have dinner at Applewood on a Friday and need a place for Saturday brunch, just go back. Sherman's mindful approach on weekend afternoons is a refreshing break from the tired trio of Hollandaise, Benedict, and Hash. Among the pickings are duck liver pâté, seafood stew, venison, and a Chatham Pollock Omelet ($15) that could be easily made into dinner if the eggs stayed in their carton. With them though, along with potatoes and carrots, comes a well-seasoned scramble Sherman finishes with a creamy buttermilk vinaigrette. Pollock's flesh matches the consistency of the loose, delicate scramble. It was one of the few times I've been excited to eat eggs without hot sauce.
Order fluffy Sour Milk Pancakes ($9) with a side of Housemade Sausage ($5). The latter is made with a mix of pork shoulder, back, and belly, a blend of spices, and bread crumbs. It's hung for a few days and then seared until the casing turns black in spots and juices fight to break through. In a way, the char tastes like the restaurant smells: smoky from a crackling fire that warms the room along with Applewood's honest food and gracious service. Pictures of farm animals and the occasional shelf of old cookbooks drive home rustic, country charm, and if you removed the tables the room would make a cozy loft apartment. But if you did so there'd be nowhere to enjoy Sam Sherman's food, and that would not be a good thing.
About the Author: Craig Cavallo is a writer with an addiction to New York City's food and drink. Learn more about his problem at digestny.com.
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