This restaurant is closed!
140 Smith St (Dean & Berge)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (718) 935-9844
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday 5:30- 11 p.m.
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Saul Bolton
Cuisine: New American
Area: Boerum Hill
Entree Price: $25-30
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard Discover
Saul has moved to a larger space at the Brooklyn Museum.
A few weeks ago I was on a media panel with Florence Fabricant, held at the French Culinary Institute. As you all probably know, she’s a regular columnist for the New York Times’ Dining Section where she’s been working for the past several decades. She’s a cool customer to say the least. She’s sort of the Anna Wintour of the food world: statuesque and icy, with a thick bob of silver hair and a somewhat stoic air of accomplishment. Quite frankly, she’s entitled to it. She’s the gold standard in food reporting, and I was (and still am) slightly intimidated by her—the sort of intimidation that’s part star struck admiration (some people get star struck by George Clooney, for me it’s Florence Fabricant), with some degree of insecurity mixed in.
But there we were sitting side by side on the same panel on food media, and what else to do? We talked about restaurants. I mentioned I had just moved to Brooklyn’s Smith Street and her eyes lit up. (Oh, good, I thought. Maybe she likes me! I had been transformed into a teenager.) “There’s so much happening there lately,” she said, with a genuine note of excitement and interest. “There’s a new wine bar called Black Mountain that’s very good. And I know everyone always talks about The Grocery, and it’s okay, but nothing to rave about,” she added, quite frankly. “You must try Saul. It’s fantastic.” What else could I do, but obey. I wanted to ask her if she’d join me for dinner one night, but I was not that brave. My friend Jamie was kind enough to make the trip and have dinner with me, though.
I’m not sure how much you know about Saul, but the restaurant has been around for almost ten years now (it preceded the Grocery by a few months) and it earned a Michelin star in 2008. The chef and owner, Saul Bolton, has spent many years cooking in some pretty serious kitchens in Boston (with chefs Gordon Hamersley and Jody Adams) and New York (at Bouley and Le Bernardin) and he was ready for a place of his own. He was living in Brooklyn with his wife, and they decided to open a place close to home. They bought a building on Smith Street and installed Saul, a contemporary American restaurant, in its storefront. The vibe at Saul is lively and warm. It feels like a “nice” restaurant, one you’d take your parents or a loved one to on a special occasion, with its white linen tablecloths and soft lighting and fine, attentive and professional service. There’s also a good little wine list with a few half bottles to choose from if you want to start with white and then move on to red. While the restaurant is clearly special, it also has an air of a simple neighborhood eatery, with its exposed brick walls, polished floors, and slim wooden blinds lining the façade’s strip of square windows. A long mahogany bar runs the length of the far wall and is equipped with tall bar chairs beckoning for drop-in dining. While the menu doesn’t have a burger on it, the room feels like it should.
But this food is far more serious than the pedestrian realm of meat patties. Bolton’s approach to cooking tracks many other chefs of his ilk and caliber. He cooks according to the seasons and as such is currently showcasing peas, asparagus and morels. While his menu is called contemporary American, it’s gutsier than that. His palate reaches often to the Mediterranean and stretches over to India or North Africa, too. There’s a good deal of confidence and personality in this food, which goes a long way to ensure there will be no weakness or shortage of seasoning or flavor here.
While he offers a chef’s tasting menu paired with wine, Jamie and I opted to go a la carte and sort of make our own tasting. We started with the rouget ($18)—rubbed with paprika and seared and settled on top of pureed eggplant caponata that was lemony and creamy and tasted as though it might be served at a Middle Eastern restaurant with triangles of warm pita bread. The scallop ceviche ($17) was also terrific: glossy cubes of pearl-colored shellfish bathed in blood orange juice bobbing with diced avocado and pungent pickled red onion. Unlike some ceviches that can be too acidic, this one struck the right balance, bringing in just enough sweetness to soften the flavors.
But our next plate didn’t wow me. A clutch of roasted asparagus are topped with a sunny-side up duck egg and a small salad of arugula in anchovy vinaigrette, with Anson Mills farro on the side ($17). I love anything with an egg on top, which is why I was so surprised to find this egg, with brown edges and a bright orange yolk, to be completely tasteless. The yolk didn’t run; it was overcooked. While the anchovy vinaigrette sounded promising, it was bland, and the farro added little to the flavor or sense to the concept of the dish. Why? I mean I like farro, but it wasn’t integrated into the plate and it wasn’t particularly interesting. The dish needed to be seasoned and in my mind, was desperate for a little bacon. But, in truth, aren’t we all? However this was the only weak link in an otherwise flawless evening.
My favorite dish of the night was the sweetbreads ($29). It was after one bite that I felt truly sorry for not having visited Saul earlier. He sears lobes of sweetbreads—ours were huge—the size of baked potatoes—with a good crisp on the outside and firm but creamy on the inside, and serves them over a curried Indian red lentil stew that’s almost like a dal. He adds roasted fingerling potatoes rubbed with salt and cumin on top and some pickled cauliflower. The effect of all those flavors—the warmth of the cumin, cinnamon and cloves, and the sharp pungency of the pickling—is enough to make you dizzy, but good dizzy: like falling in love dizzy, not too much tequila dizzy.
While the salmon ($29) was far less dramatic a dish than the sweetbreads, it too is a swooner. And it goes a long way to show off a “less is more” approach that is quite impressive. A simply but exquisitely seared pink filet is showered with sweet plump peas, and buttery earthy morels, with a slice of crostini topped with Parmesan that added a terrific note of crunch and saltiness to the plate. Jamie and I lingered over the two dishes, finishing our wine and the tail ends of about five different conversations that had been started and interrupted by some other thought.
For dessert, we had a Baked Alaska which we couldn’t resist. It’s an old-timer for sure, but when done right it’s hard not to love it. His is made with a firm dark chocolate cookie foundation, topped with scoops of vanilla and coffee ice cream and a crown of fluted flames of bruléed meringue. Craig had joined us for dessert and the three of us finished off the Alaska with a few glasses of Moscato and watched the room empty and the cool light of Smith Street filter through the blinds. We were the last table to leave. It was the sort of meal that you really don’t want to end: relaxing, fun, and remarkably good.
I was thinking of sending Florence a note thanking her for her suggestion and telling her how much I enjoyed Saul. But now it’s been a few weeks and I’m not sure. Maybe it’s too late. Who knows. You know, it’s funny how sometimes in life, no matter where you are, what age you are, or what degree of success you’ve achieved on your own, there are still people who make you quake in your shoes. Florence is one of them, but then I am the same way around Ruth Reichl. I’ve met her a number of times and I am so in awe of her writing and her achievements, that I can barely string a set of words together. Plus, I never think she remembers me, so I go through this long re-introduction every time we see each other. Last time we ran into each other at a food event, I went into a long explain of who I was but this time she stopped me. “Andrea, I know who you are.” I was shocked. “Oh, great. Well it’s so nice to see you again, Ruth” I said. And then I was tongue tied. Pathetic, I know.
What’s funny is that in a few weeks, I’m actually going to be on a television show on PBS that Gourmet produces called Diary of Foodie. But it doesn’t matter. I’m still a nervous mess around her. She’s always be Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet, author of Tender at The Bone (and on and on), former (and in my opinion, best) restaurant reviewer of the New York Times, and Florence will always be THE Florence Fabricant of the New York Times, and I’ll still be Andrea, nervous and star struck. But at least I’ll have Saul.
Review By: Andrea Strong