Friday, August 12, 2011

NYC Restaurant Review: Palo Santo; South American wines and cuisine in Brooklyn - Food At Your Fingertips

Palo Santo
652 Union St.
Park Slope, Brooklyn

I want to highlight an excellent restaurant hidden away in Park Slope: Palo Santo with South American food and wines: Argentine, Uruguayan, Chilean etc.. Palo Santo is on a residential block of Union St (between 4th and 5th Aves...just down the road from Proteus Gowanus and around the corner from the Brooklyn Lyceum) which is hard to find if you are just walking by.

Some time back I had relatives visiting from California. We originally wanted to eat at Al di La on 5th Ave (another excellent local restaurant) but Al di La fills up fast and we were a mere 10 minutes after opening time and there was already an hour and 20 minute wait. Being hungry and having our then-3 year old with us, that was impossible. So we decided to try a relatively new place on Union we had passed. My wife's coworker's cousin owns it, if I recall the connection, so we had been meaning to try it.

We got there and immediately loved it when we walked in. A quaint (in all the good connotations of the term) brick lined nook, we were immediately charmed by the atmosphere. But atmosphere means nothing to me if the food isn't I reserved judgment until we had tried the food.

My relatives from California know their wines. In fact, one of them MAKES his own wines, and I hear it is very good wine, though I have never tried it. Turns out when they got married, I got them an excellent bottle of wine. I picked it with only vague knowledge of what I was doing, but they have saved it and figure it is now worth hundreds of dollars and they are trying to decide what special occasion to use to drink it on. But bottom line is, they know their wines and so in addition to our food, we ordered a wine flight (a sampling of wines to go with the food ordered) for those who were drinking wine. I did not try the wine, but I can convey to you what they thought. I did not, however, take note of the specific wines, so I can't say what they were. The wine drinkers did, however, steal one of the day's wine lists and took notes on it, they were so intrigued with the wines.

A warning, the wines and food offered at Palo Santo changes from day to day, so what I describe may not be available all the time. And I will add that on Sunday through Thursday there is a price fixed menu for $25 (we ate there on a Saturday and it was about $50 per person and well worth it).

First the wine flight gave a sparkling wine. The wine drinkers were pleased but not blown away by it. It was standard from what I could tell.

Then came the appetizers with two white wines. These seemed the favorites of the wine drinkers. They were particularly impressed with a wine from Uruguay that combined Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay grapes, an unusual and apparently excellent combination. It was this Uruguayan wine that first got the wine drinkers excited about the wine flight.

My appetizer was a trio of soft tacos, each with a differently prepared kind of pork (proving what a bad Jew I am, but come on! PORK!) with an excellent guacamole spread across all three tacos. Let me say this clearly: these three tacos, each with a unique and delicious version of pork, were among the best things I have ever tasted. One pork preparation was almost too salty, but when eaten with the guacamole it was perfect. And as a contrast to the other, less salty, pork preparations, it stood out as the best of the wonderful trio. For a full week I returned to the memory of those tacos and want to go back. This appetizer was the best thing we ate there, so in a sense it was down hill from there, but only slightly. At a later visit the equivalent taco appetizer was wild boar tacos and was equally good, so I suspect the soft taco appetizer is likely always a good bet.

Two red wines came with the main course. One was another interesting Uruguayan wine. What was unique about this Uruguayan red was that it exclusively used a grape called Tannat that is so rarely used that my wine loving, wine making friends had never heard of it. It is, apparently, mainly used as an accent to other red wine grapes. This wine used it exclusively. I think the flavor did not impress the wine drinkers hugely, but they found it very intriguing and again took note of it. Following the excellent Uruguayan white, this unusual and tasty Uruguayan red showed these wine drinkers that Uruguay was a legit wine making nation. I think it was at this point that they chose to snatch the wine list for future reference. The other red was also unusual, but unremarkable. It was a standard Zinfandel from Baja California. There are only two wineries, we were told, in Baja...and there may be a reason for this. The Zinfandel was, the wine drinkers agreed, very raw and full of tannin. They were not impressed...but they did drink it all.

The main courses may not have matched the wonderful taste of the tacos, but they were very good. One person had a pumpkin stew served with an enormous half-squash. She loved the stew but didn't touch the squash. Someone else loved their roast pork (yes...pork seems the best thing at Palo Santo) and yucca. My wife had duck mole. The duck was perfect. Duck can be greasy, but this was perfectly done and extremely tender. The mole was unusual. It was thin and gave barely an accent of flavor. I think the flavor of the mole could have been stronger, because overall the duck was too delicate in taste. But still, it was a good dish. I had a very spicy goat stew. Goat can be horrible or delicious. This was delicious, but a little too heavy handed. It may seem expecting too much to expect goat meat stew to be anything but heavy handed, but I have had a wonderful goat meat dish at a fancy Indian restaurant in California that was stellar and the best lamb you ever had but more so. And Kombit (a Haitian place on Flatbush) had a wonderful goat stew that may not have shown as much skill as the one at Palo Santo, but still was less heavy handed with the flavors. But I did very much enjoy the goat stew and had no real regrets. Would I have preferred the too-subtle but excellent duck? Maybe. I am glad I tasted the duck before trying my goat because the goat would have rendered my taste buds insensitive to the delicate duck.

Finally there was a port to accompany dessert. The person who makes wine didn't like it...his wife did like it and found it had a chocolate tone to it's flavor. Judgment was split on this dessert wine, but not negative as it was for the Baja Zinfandel.

I wasn't in the mood for the chocolate mousse, so didn't order it. I guess that was okay because I still got to try it, but it was perfect. Not excessively light like too many chocolate mousses are these days, nor too heavy like a chocolate pudding. It was, quite simply, perfect. I had the coconut creme brule. I had a coconut flan at Coco Roco (an excellent Peruvian restaurant in Park Slope) which was a standard, good flan with a hint of coconut. This was a reasonable creme Brule FILLED with coconut. I liked it. It wasn't up to the mousse and wouldn't have brought me back to Palo Santo (the tacos alone would do that!) but it was a very pleasant end to the meal.

Comparing restaurants in the area, I think Al di La is a slightly better but slightly more expensive place. It is hard to beat Al di La for sheer satisfaction for the buck, if we are talking semi-upper end restaurants. Blue Ribbon sushi is above this class in both cost and quality. But Palo Santo is about the same satisfaction per buck ratio and deserves to be a Park Slope institution in its own right. Give it a try. You won't be disappointed.

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