On Smith Street, where moderately priced
bistros are the norm, Chestnut, which opened in November, stands
out as an original.
The brainchild of co-owners Peter Miscikoski and Susan Daily is unlike some of its neighbors that try to replicate French bistros right down to the zinc mirrors and steak frites, or elfin villages with dining areas marked Meat Loaf Lane.
Named for the warmly hued wood used for the cafe’s floor and bar, Chestnut is a simple yet elegant space that makes the perfect backdrop for chef David Wurth’s rustic menu.
Wurth has previously worked at Savoy, in Manhattan, a restaurant that has become a clearing-house for Brooklyn culinary talent. His cooking brings a palette of bold flavors to the table. Bacon, red wine and cabbage make a presence in his dishes. He has great affection for rich meat like duck breast and rib-eye steak, and anyone who can do what he does with liver - he has two varieties on the menu, a chunky chicken liver appetizer with apples that’s spread on toast and a delectably piquant calf’s liver entree - deserves the kind of following he’s already brought to Chestnut.
A dinner begins with an innovative starter that sets the tone for the meal. On a round, silver tray, is a small dish of house-made, not too spicy, not too sweet sliced pickles, that, in their unassuming way, may be the finest amuse bouche to hit Brooklyn tables. With the pickles come a large chunk of chewy, country bread and a saucer of soft butter flecked with chives and fennel seeds, then drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
As amusing and delicious as you’ll find the bread and pickles, the appetizer of smoked scallops and fingerling potatoes in a hot mustard sauce will make you forget them quickly. I’ve never eaten a smoked scallop. Smoked salmon, of course; oysters, yes; and mussels, too, but smoked scallops were something new.
Wurth uses dry sea scallops, not the kind found in supermarkets and some fish markets that are injected with water and are too moist to form a proper crust. His are large and smoked over black tea until they have the rusty, smoky patina of a raku-fired pot. The exterior of the scallop becomes crisp and takes on a deep, dusky flavor, while the interior stays sweet and as creamy as a marshmallow. A light sauce made spicy with dry mustard, complements the scallops and is delicious enough to eat on its own. The fingerling potatoes make a quiet partner that, when bitten into after a bite of scallop, throw the flavor of the shellfish into high relief.
Less dazzling then the scallops, yet equally enjoyable, was a soul-warming soup right out of a Bruegel painting. The combination of meaty stock, crisp nuggets of salty-sweet bacon, tender chunks of butternut squash and mild flavored kale, is peasant food gussied up with a dollop of ancho chile-laced butter.
On the list of specials was pan-seared calf’s liver.
I know, I know, but order it with an open mind.
Wurth’s rendition bears no resemblance to the leathery, odiferous versions served in diners or at childhood tables. The impeccably fresh liver is purchased from an organic farm in Vermont. Searing the liver quickly gives it a crisp crust and a mousse-like center. Sauteed apples and caramelized onions add sweetness, strips of smoky bacon lend saltiness, and a sauce of reduced veal stock and a touch of mustard is luxuriously buttery.
Nothing is better with liver than mashed potatoes, and the chunky mound gilding the plate were enriched with the earthy aroma of parsnips.
You’re probably wondering why a dish that so many people instinctively pass on garners such praise. When done properly, as it is at Chestnut, liver - yes, liver - is inspiring.
I’ve had sea bass a hundred different ways, but never with an olive tapenade. Wurth sprinkles the filet with sea salt and pan fries until the skin is brittle. With a smear of tapenade made from South American Alfonso olives that are oily and not too sharp, the fish tastes even fresher and sweeter; the olive paste more pungent and salty. Adding slices of unripe, fried plantains to the plate didn’t work - they were almost flavorless and didn’t contribute much visually.
The two pastas offered during my visit were good examples of Wurth’s fondness for humble ingredients: spaghetti with Gorgonzola cheese, cabbage and celery, and rutabaga ravioli with peppers and Serrano ham.
Wurth functions as the restaurant’s pastry chef, as well, which is why the desserts reflect the same simple yet special quality reflected in the entrees: fig jam is paired with Maytag blue cheese. Homemade ice cream changes nightly. One evening’s offering was caramel ice cream served with caramel sauce; but there’s also a chocolate cake; a plate of macaroons, chocolate, dried fruit and nuts; and a delectable apple cobbler with a crown of crisp, cake-like topping and a hefty dollop of tart Zabaglione custard that did a little two-step with the winy apples.
Coffee and tea are served in individual French presses - (two-cup glass cylinders with a screen on top that is pushed to the bottom once the grounds or tealeaves have steeped). I’m not sure the presses create a better cup of coffee or tea, but they make an attractive presentation.
On a freezing January night when icy rain swirled down Smith Street and cut through heavy parkas, Chestnut, just two months old, had all 16 tables full and turning over.
That’s what happens when there’s an original in the kitchen.
Chestnut (271 Smith St. between DeGraw and Sackett streets in Carroll Gardens) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Entrees: $8-$19. Chestnut serves dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 243-0049.