Applewood’s menu of great food is marred by kids, din

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In September, the homey restaurant Applewood opened on a tree-lined street in Park Slope. The pop of this mom-and-pop operation is chef David Shea; mom is Laura Shea, who operates the front of the house.

The Sheas offer urbanites a country-style fantasy complete with a toddler and pink-cheeked baby that, judging from the packed room on a recent Friday evening, is hard for Brooklynites to resist.

The fantasy begins with the long, high-ceilinged room. Wood abounds — there’s the dark-stained wooden floor, tables and Colonial-style chairs. There’s plenty of brick, too, and on chilly evenings a working fireplace adds soul-warming comfort.

The Sheas are disciples of the “slow food” movement, which means they purchase their organic provisions from small, local farms, the meat is hormone and antibiotic free, the fish is wild, not farmed, and even the cocktail menu is big on herbal infusions and freshly squeezed juices. In this rustic, carefully contrived setting, you’d expect a meal long on good intentions and short on finesse, but that isn’t so.

David Shea is the former executive chef of Spruce and Twelve 12 in Chicago. In 2002, Shea was named one of “Ten Cooks with Heat” in Forbes Magazine. The dishes that emerge from his kitchen capitalize on the pairing of a few excellent ingredients, much of it slow-cooked to produce big flavors.

A waiter walks through the room carrying a basket depositing crusty country bread at each table. With the bread comes a long, covered dish that holds a puff of whipped butter, a garlicky puree of carrots and another of rutabaga (with an aroma too close to baby food).

One constant is the appetizer — or “small plate” — of braised pork belly. It’s served as a generous square of meat for one diner that’s brittle on the outside, and with all of its fat rendered, succulently moist within. A tiny dab of pesto served with the pork is less appealing than a simple swirl of red wine glaze that adds a tart note to the sweetish meat.

Another “small plate” that we sampled, which worked just as well as the braised pork belly, was the trio of smoky lardons of bacon that amplified the woodsy notes of wild mushrooms and sweet cloves of garlic. Shea serves the mushrooms over polenta made creamy with tart mascarpone cheese, that’s like a decadently lush, grainy pudding.

A simple salad of organic lettuces with toasted hazelnuts and sweet, chewy dried cherries is brightened by properly tart, well-salted sherry vinaigrette.

Bacon works its magic again with an entree of roasted “poussin” (young chicken). The hen’s mild-flavored flesh gets a hit of salt and smoke from the pieces of crusty applewood bacon. Swiss chard, a green that, when cooked, tastes like spinach, absorbs the chicken’s well-seasoned juices.

A filet of sauteed wild striped bass was a bit bland, even with its partners of sweet, roasted cipolline onions (hyacinth bulbs that look and taste like small, flat onions), the knot of delicate crawfish salad that crowned the fish and unthickened, garlic-laced shellfish broth.

If you love what you’re served and look forward to polishing off the remains of your meal at lunch the next day, then eat lightly. Applewood’s portions are on the small side, especially by Brooklyn restaurant standards, so it’s doubtful you’ll be returning home with doggy bags.

What you may leave with is a headache. When the room is full, the din in that wood-friendly space can be jarring. Something soft — maybe some pillows — are needed to absorb the sound.

Pastry chef Michael Hyman offers one of the best desserts I’ve enjoyed in a long time. His apple tart with ice cream features a ring of buttery, roasted apple slices that sit on a crisp round of pastry that leaves a lingering taste of fresh, sweet butter on the tongue. The scoop of juniper berry ice cream adds a pleasingly peppery, herbal note to the dish. It’s superb.

Not quite up to par is a large mug filled with chocolate malted pudding. The dessert is somewhere between a thick, cold soup and a loose pudding. It’s dull after a few bites, and the overly dry madeleines should never have made their way out of the kitchen.

In a family-centered neighborhood like Park Slope, dining with children early in the evening is unavoidable. But by 10 pm, they should be asleep in their cribs, not schlepped around the dining room by their mother. Even with an infant as adorable and well behaved as the Sheas’, when I’m eating well, I only want the company of adults and the pleasure of good food.

Applewood (501 11th St. between Seventh and Eighth avenues in Park Slope) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $18-$24. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday and brunch on Sundays, from 10 am to 3 pm. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 768-2044.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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