Recent events have made me hungry. That
may sound callous, but food is a comfort and as anyone with a
loving mother knows, when prepared with care and served with
tenderness, food can cure almost anything. I won’t go as far
as to say a bowl of soup can mend the heart of a broken city,
but it can help.
What do we crave when the world looks grim? Our needs are basic. We want to be cheered by good company, cared for and well fed. What we don’t want is frivolity and disappointments. In times like these it’s easy to say, "Thanks, but I’ll pass on the cockles with sea urchin foam."
So it was no surprise to me that Bistro St. Marks in Park Slope would have customers waiting patiently outside the restaurant for a table. Chef Johannes Sanzin and sommelier Dominique Drevet, who together owned the now defunct Sanzin in SoHo and 131 Duane in TriBeCa, have taken their very upscale experience - they both worked for David Bouley - and crossed the bridge to Park Slope. Their experience shows.
It seems that only moments pass before your order arrives at the table. (How can so many people be fed so quickly and so well?) The waiters, many of whom are Bouley alumni, are charming and will lovingly tell you, French accents firmly intact, what is in a dish and which wine will best complement your order.
We’re all the better for their experience.
The door opens into a large, bustling room with a well populated bar in the front. There are lots of mirrors, and lighting that makes everyone look attractive; the room bristles with a sexy sort of energy. The decor is chic without being overly self-conscious. And, that’s how I would describe the diners, too. Your mother’s book club would love it, my daughter would think it was awesome and so would the noisy bed-bangers upstairs who keep me awake all night.
How to describe the cuisine? I’d call it innovative French-American. The food is hearty, soul-satisfying and absolutely memorable. It’s exactly what you want to eat right now.
The diminutive wine list (23 bottles but who’s counting) has excellent selections from European and domestic wineries in the $20-$26 range. A sparkling blanc de noirs gruet from New Mexico was delightful with our desserts.
I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous the evening I dined there. But the jalapeno-infused scallop carpaccio intrigued me. It’s a textural wonder and far more delicate tasting then it sounds; the crunchy bits of jalapeno played nicely off the velvety raw scallops giving the dish a little heat.
Don’t pass up the tuna. I know it’s on every menu from here to Westchester County, and the thrill of ordering it is long gone. But, I have to hand it to Sanzin: his seared, thyme-crusted bluefin tuna loin, with its crusty, herbed edge and its complement of fennel, made the dish taste new again.
The skate wing dusted with walnuts and served atop buttery spinach flavored with Roquefort cheese sounds over-the-top. It’s not. The lobster-like flavor of the skate is enhanced by the sharpness of the cheese and the crunch of the walnuts makes this an utterly beguiling dish. If my husband were to bring me home an order of the skate for my birthday, I’d be perfectly happy. After all, it’s the little things in life we have to be grateful for.
Pasta can be an afterthought in some restaurants, and I usually skip it if it’s not the restaurant’s specialty. For me, it’s a comfort food and at this time I really needed to order it. The caramelized Maine sea scallops with house-made pasta and tomato-coriander sauce are not an afterthought. The scallops, crisp on the outside and almost creamy within, had a wine-like flavoring.
The leg of lamb with potato-leek gratin was our only disappointment. The meat was tender but too strongly flavored. The accompanying potato-leek gratin, a small disc of tender potatoes nicely crisp on the outside, was sublime.
Desserts are straightforward bistro fare done extremely well. The creme brulee is nothing more then that; just a straightforward, eggy, impossibly rich offering. It makes you wonder why so many other places can’t get it right. Watermelon granita is refreshing. The volcano-hot molten chocolate souffle has become something of a cliche. Here, it’s rich and bittersweet. And really, who cares if it’s fattening?
To sit across from people you care for in a place that makes you feel special (even when you’re one of many) is to be very lucky. If we didn’t know that before, we know it now. Because now more then ever, being in a restaurant is so much more then what’s served on the plate.
Bistro St. Marks. (76 St. Marks Ave. between Sixth and Flatbush avenues in Park Slope) is open daily for dinner. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 4:30 pm. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are acepted.. For more information, call (718) 857-8600.