Little eatery goes big-time

New York's Grocery lives up to the critics' buzz

March 10, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

NEW YORK - It's dusk when I pull onto Smith Street, a bustling thoroughfare in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn that has become so gentrified you can now buy a town home with a marble foyer and a jaw-dropping view of nearby Manhattan for $2.3 million.

I am looking for a restaurant called the Grocery, which has been generating a lot of buzz lately from the food critics. But I don't see it over the gray snowbanks that line both sides of the street. I see Zaytoons Middle Eastern Pizza and Restaurant. I see SKC Laundromat ("Wash and Dry Service. Bring in a.m. Pick up p.m.") I see Sal's Hairstylists.

Then my wife spots a bare storefront window, beyond which white-aproned waiters move like ghostly apparitions. We park and walk through the door, then through a velvet curtain that looks like something a fortuneteller would put up. A smiling woman greets us.

"Welcome to the Grocery," she says. "I'm Sharon Pachter."

On this frigid evening, we've come all the way from Baltimore to sample what many are calling the Little Restaurant That Could, owned by Pachter, 41, and her partner, Charles Kiely, 37.

Despite having just 13 tables and 30 seats, the Grocery was named last fall as one of the top seven restaurants in New York by the prestigious Zagat Survey. (Now in its 25th year, the Zagat Survey, based in New York, solicits opinions of thousands of diners, who rate the food, decor and service of restaurants.) A neighborhood place not much bigger than your living room, the Grocery has no maitre d', no sommelier, unadorned sage-colored walls, white tablecloths with paper on top and a tiny kitchen that would make a couple of elves feel claustrophobic.

It also has wonderful food, good enough to score a whopping 28 - 30 is perfect - from Zagat. (It earned an 18 for decor and 25 for service.) The wait staff, though small, is attentive, and prices are reasonable (an average of $46 a meal), far less than Le Bernardin, Daniel, Peter Luger and other fancy New York restaurants that made the list.

Now, with The New York Times and National Public Radio trumpeting the place, the phone has been ringing off the hook for Pachter and Kiely, who are also the chefs.

"I would say our business has at least doubled, if not more, consistently," says Kiely. "Every night is Saturday night. We're booked at 5:30 and we're still cooking at midnight every day of the week since ... the Zagat book came out."

"We kind of felt we were rolling along at a reasonably good clip," Pachter said of the Grocery, which opened in 1999. "And when [the Zagat Survey] hit, it sort of exploded. For the first couple of weeks, it was like getting hit by a tidal wave.

"We just needed to learn how to respond, how to manage all the calls and how to increase the volume [of business] and all that."

`Seasonal American'

Pachter and Kiely describe the menu as "seasonal American." On this day, it features such items as slow-rendered duck breast ($23), ratatouille-stuffed squid ($12), boneless pork chop ($21) and red snapper ($23).

We begin with a Brooklyn Lager beer for me and a glass of cabernet for my wife. For appetizers, we have foie gras with quince, hazelnuts and compote (normally, I am not a foie gras sort of person, but there is something about New York that makes you daring) and a delicious clam chowder with bacon and potatoes.

Pachter also serves each customer a taste of a sublime turnip soup with shallots and bacon. Then Kiely brings us another wonderful appetizer of red and yellow beets with goat-cheese ravioli, toasted pine nuts and shallots.

At this point, I could die happily, although it occurs to me that I should probably hang on to sample our entrees: red snapper for me, a lamb shank for my wife.

As Kiely disappears back into the kitchen, I think of the hectic, 100-hour workweeks he and Pachter are putting in.

Both set off for the local markets a couple of mornings each week to buy fresh meats, fish and vegetables. Pachter wears a phone clipped to her hip as she cooks, greets customers and takes their coats, and the phone rings incessantly. Kiely is constantly dashing out of the kitchen to serve a dish and say goodbye to diners.

Operating a "hot" restaurant "keeps us running and breathless most times," she says.

Pachter and Kiely, who are partners in life as well as in business, met in the early '90s, when both were cooks at a Manhattan restaurant called Savoy.

They decided they wanted to operate their own neighborhood restaurant and spent years combing Lower Manhattan for a place they could afford to buy.

When they couldn't find one, they began looking in Carroll Gardens, where Pachter had lived years earlier. An ad in the "Business Opportunities" section of the local newspaper led them to a restaurant on Smith Street, which they took over and renamed the Grocery.

When our entrees arrive, the red snapper, served with curried cauliflower, is succulent, and my wife raves about the lamb, which comes with carrots and zucchini.

Drawing a crowd

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