So many cafes open on Fifth Avenue in Park
Slope, that when a new one comes along, it’s sometimes met with
an under-whelming, "Isn’t that nice."
The new Stone Park Cafe, however, deserves a hearty welcome.
The restaurant opened in September, directly across from the Third Street playground where the Old Stone House historical museum stands. The eatery is owned by two Joshes - Grinker, who cooked at The River Cafe, and affable front-of-the-house man Foster, who managed Tribeca Grill for nine years. They make a dynamic team.
The long cafe seems to draw indoors the natural elements that surround it. It’s divided into a large front room ringed with windows, and smaller back room that offers an expansive view of the street and the trees beyond.
There’s a bar as you enter, where diners can sip wine from the cafe’s extensive and well-priced list. Black-and-white prints of fish, by Manhattan artist Steve Thurston, hang on the khaki-colored walls, and the tables are covered in cream-hued cloths topped with cocoa-colored paper. Bell-shaped glass lamps hang from the ceiling and bark-like sconces on the walls cast a warm glow.
The environment is informal but more elegant than other bistros on the block - an apt backdrop for Grinker’s sensual yet restrained cooking.
His menu focuses on a few fine seasonal ingredients that amplify one another. The flavors are clear and true, and the textures are pleasingly complex.
His alchemy begins with an appetizer of house-smoked black cod in a veal ragout. The smoking lends a saltiness that elevates its mild flavor; the veal sauce, with bits of tender meat, is slightly sweet and plays off the salty, silky fillet. Sweetbreads - crispy, mild tasting and fluffy - sit nearby.
Something wonderful happens when you taste Grinker’s grilled octopus with a bit of bread salad that’s soaked up cracked pepper vinaigrette. The marinade of extra virgin olive oil, thyme and rosemary in which the fish were bathed before being put on the grill, adds a fragrant, herbal note to the dish, while the pepper and vinegar brighten the quiet squid.
And, yes, a salad can be as "awesome" as Foster claimed. How "awesome"? It’s worth exploring the question. The frisee is topped with a poached egg, that when cut, drizzles its creamy yolk over the greens. Little squares of salty, smoked bacon and potatoes fried in the bacon’s fat are tossed around the plate. It’s a carbonara without the pasta, so eat it and feel virtuous for your restraint.
The overly dense and under-seasoned bluefish cakes disappointed, but two sides - a spunky celery root slaw and a corn relish with the crunch of fresh kernels - made up for the lapse.
The seafood stock that dampens saffron-scented risotto was heart-pounding, but then, so were plump pan-seared sea scallops, tiny, sweet Manila clams and a few pieces of mild chorizo sausage that added spiciness to the entree without overpowering it.
Braised rabbit was so tender and moist it could be eaten with a spoon. Not a bad idea, as the utensil would help lift each grain of stock-soaked couscous, licorice-flavored slivers of fennel and sea-scented picholine olives to your lips.
Both desserts were worth the calories. The chocolate brioche pudding is as rich as it sounds, and the tiny scoop of rum raisin ice cream that melts beside it will remind you of the days when a dish of Louis Sherry would leave guests spellbound. A disk of buttermilk panna cotta sits in a pool of tart tangerine mint sauce that did for our overloaded palates what the first jolt of morning coffee does for our energy.
Children are welcome at Stone Park Cafe. They’re even offered their own menu. But my advice is to leave them with the nanny. They’ll be an annoying distraction from a meal you’ll want to consume slowly.
Stone Park Cafe (324 Fifth Ave. at Third Street in Park Slope) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $16-$24. Open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. Brunch is available all day Sunday. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 369-0082.