July 7, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

In a Park Slope Townhouse: Palo Santo

It’s not guacamole. It’s just very ripe avocado to tuck with red onion into delicate little tortillas.
It’s not guacamole. It’s just very ripe avocado to tuck with red onion into delicate little tortillas.

          I do go to Brooklyn for dinner -- ideally when someone else books and drives. That’s how the six of us -- our band of Ethnic Junkie adventurers -- landed at Palo Santo in Park Slope. “Palo Santo” is a tropical evergreen, its wood known for durability and healing. What would that mean for dinner? I didn’t have a clue. I hadn’t taken time to look up the menu online.

We certainly didn’t expect cornflake-crusted fried chicken, a special weakness of our adventurers.

          It seems we’re here, trolling for a place to park on residential Union Street, because one of our stalwarts had fallen in love with Chef Jacques Gautier’s food while photographing his recent dinner at the James Beard House. Palo Santo. Hispanic? Latino? I would not have predicted a cornflake fried chicken triumph or even the marvelous rare duck with mole poblano.

Chef Gautier bringing the stroller out of the cellar, then back away from the camera.

          In fact, that’s the chef himself, emerging from the cellar with a stroller in front of the narrow townhouse as we arrive. Gaudi-like twists of steel in the railing hint at the exuberance of design inside -- the mosaics of tile, the stutters of wood, the tease of garden out back, the open fire behind the bar, the decoupage of the counter, the cross cuts of wood branches, twigs, coins and pebbles embedded in polyurethane on our tabletop. Gautier has disappeared. Seems it’s chef’s night out. “Obviously, he didn’t recognize you,” says one of my pals.

He invited artist friends in to decorate, and this decoupage tabletop is just one original touch.

          We’re absorbed in spiritual matters. Will we have rosé on a warm night? Or sangria? (There’s no liquor license.) We sip a taste of the pink and immediately order a tall pitcher of unusually ambitious sangria -- half chardonnay, half sauvignon blanc. It’s steeped with fruit: orange with its skin, of course, but also pear, green apple, watermelon, papaya, even kiwi. 

          The single page menu is short and to the point (and changes daily). “Let’s just order one of everything,” someone suggests.

          But I have already studied the list. “We don’t want white bean soup, string bean salad or grilled whole porgy,” I protest. “We don’t need oysters. We can have that stuff anywhere.”  I start to order. “The guacamole, of course.”

          “It’s not guacamole,” says the waitress. “It’s avocado salad.” I order it anyway.

Sit at the decoupaged bar to watch the cook dispatching plates and doing your dinner.

          Soon the table decoupage is hidden by starters. Slices of avocado with red onion and pickled jalapeño to stuff into delicate, coaster-size tortillas. A papaya salad that isn’t at all like the Thai toss we know. But yes, there is papaya there, buried under a lattice of cassava chips and watercress, refreshing and delicious. 

Under the cassava crisps and watercress is the house’s papaya salad.

          The ceviche is simple too: sparklingly fresh chunks of fluke with slivers of red onion, cilantro and the crunch of nuts. Tender ribbons of stewed rabbit are tucked into tacos with more exquisitely ripe avocado, radish and cilantro.

Wouldn’t hurt to order more small tortillas to pile with this simple and delicious fluke ceviche.

          One corn tortilla, thickly spread with quesillo cheese then folded over, is typical of a central Mexican quesadilla -- different from the flour tortilla sandwich we typically see. It’s dark now. The house is filling up, mostly with couples. We’re on our sangria refill as the second wave from the kitchen begins.

Avocado and greens are recurring themes in Gautier’s dishes, reflecting the garden on the roof.

          The cornflake-crusted fried chicken might be reason enough for a detour in our crowd. It’s a dish the chef encountered in Panama and is served with a tumbler of hot honey and a small salad of cubed avocado and sweet potato with kale.

          Peter is raving about the slow-cooked chunk of heritage pork with its guajillo chile savor and roasted potatoes. Peppery threads and jalapeño slivers weave a unique heat to the broth of shellfish picante.

The duck itself is marvelous. Mole poblano and a black bean sope add to the complexity.

          But pan-roasted duck breast is the evening’s triumph: rare and meaty slices in a sauce thickened with mole poblano, alongside a black bean sope. Nuts, chocolate, shredded duck leg and whole-roasted plantains, skin included, are mixed into the sauce. 

My friends seemed to like the slow-cooked Heritage pork with guajillo chile better than I.

          Normally an innards fan, I order two plates of anticuchos, brochettes inspired by those found in Peru and Bolivia. Tonight they’re pork hearts, liver and kidneys painted with homemade chili paste. Most everyone else at our table ignores them and they’re too chewy for me, a treat for our pal Rich who will take home whatever he can’t finish.

Shrimp and mussels picante shimmer with chile paste heat.

          A graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute at 20, Gautier was the youngest chef to ever cook in Beard’s kitchen, before going on to Jean George’s Vong, Azie in San Francisco and Zoë in Soho as a sous-chef. It was only later that he followed his half-Haitian heritage to explore Latino and Central American cooking. He spent several months in South American wine country before settling on his Latino-theme.

I found the skewered pork kidneys, liver and heart too chewy but Rich was in heaven.

          With financial help from his father, he found this narrow row house on residential Union Street.  It had been a ravioli shop and an evangelical church, a precedent for commercial use. Gautier lives with his family upstairs and tends a small garden on the roof with organic compost from the kitchen. The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket is just blocks away.  His new tacqueria, Taco Santo, is a few doors down the street of the rapidly evolving neighborhood. It has a liquor license, so you can stop by for a cocktail on your way to dinner at Palo Santo.

Palo Santo desserts are homey in the best possible way.

          Near 9:30 pm, a man walks in with a tiny baby strapped to his chest in a sling. Rina introduces us to chef Gautier, attached to his two-month-old son. He’s curious to know how we’re doing before he climbs the stairs. Our posse is enthusiastic. The truth is Gautier’s food is mostly very good but I suspect we’re also swept away to discover an unadvertised treasure in this unexpected place. I have to persuade one enthusiast that maybe we don’t really need a fourth pitcher of sangria. 

Forks meet vying for just one more bite of this chocolate bread pudding.

          Our server recites the desserts. And in a few minutes the table is covered again. Gifts from the chef. Orange pecan cake with whipped cream. Tamarind crème brûlée. Chocolate bread pudding. Key lime pie in a ginger cookie crust. All very good. Desserts you might expect from a gifted home baker. I’m intrigued by the unusual texture of the mango sorbet. I call to ask. Simple enough. It’s puréed mango frozen, nothing added.

          You might want to organize your own safari. See what I mean.

652 Union Street, Brooklyn, between 4th and 5th Avenue. 718 636 6311. Dinner Monday to Friday 6 through 10:30 pm. Saturday and Sunday Dinner 5 to 11 pm. Brunch 10 am to 3 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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