In this cramped culinary era, a time when the de facto waiting room for a hot restaurant is often the empty restaurant next door, the smart people running Olmsted — where the bar, as it is at most restaurants, is filled with diners, not drinkers — have something a bit more comfortable and convenient in store: They send early arrivals to the backyard garden.
Walk through the restaurant and you'll find yourself in a true backyard. Six outdoor benches are arranged in a large U shape around the perimeter, the type of seating plan that tasting menu spots construct around an open kitchen. ("The cooks are the entertainment!") Here, the benches are situated in a tiny urban farm. Patrons sit on fabric cushions, sipping orange wine and noshing on fried pickled fiddlehead ferns or puffy crawfish chips, watching fireflies glow a bioluminescent yellow. At Olmsted, the garden is theater. The raised beds around the benches are covered with a carpet of greenery so thick and soft it's a wonder folks don't try to slip the staff a $50, take off their shoes, and lie down amid the vegetation, a pastoral analogue to tipsilly wading through pool at The Four Seasons.
There are no tables out here; the garden is for snacks, cocktails, dessert, and sweating. It is 80 degrees on a summer night. A soft breeze blows through, and Japanese hand fans are scattered about for additional relief. A quail walks to and fro in a coop at the back of the yard. They're kept for their eggs. "We don't slaughter them," a waiter reassures me, unprompted. I want to respond that I'd be okay with it if they did.
The garden, the wine, the great-tasting intellectualism — it's outdoor epicurean bliss.
In heat like this, it's tempting to invert the usual order of things and kick off an evening's festivities with something cool, something sweet, so I order dessert. A server ferries over a small ceramic bowl filled with white fluff adorned with flowers. Half of each spoonful is delicate, ethereal, honeyed, aromatized with lavender. This is whipped cream. The other half is cold, dense, and sour. This is frozen yogurt. The dish, as well-balanced as any of the more savory starters, is a monochromatic study in temperature and texture: It's nearly impossible to tell which of the two ingredients you're eating until it's actually in your mouth. It recalls Heston Blumenthal's iconic Hot Tea Cold Tea, a preparation where the two distinct beverage sit in a single glass with no barrier. Rarely in cuisine have cognitive dissonance and color been used in concert to such brilliant effect.
The garden, the wine, the great-tasting intellectualism — it's the type of outdoor epicurean bliss you might expect to encounter at one of the country's most expensive culinary establishments. And yet at Olmsted, a modest storefront restaurant in Brooklyn's well-heeled Prospect Heights, most dishes are under $20. Credit due to Greg Baxtrom, a chef who's spent time working at venues where $800 meals for two are not uncommon — Stone Barns, Atera, Alinea, Per Se — for giving New York one of its most paradoxically ambitious yet most approachable restaurants. After just three months in business, Olmsted easily joins the ranks of Estela and Wildair as one of the city's best and most creative small-plates places.
Olmsted's watermelon sushi, for example, is the type of nigiri Masa Takayama wished he were serving at his $598-a-head temple to raw fish. Baxtrom takes thin slices of Long Island fluke and paper-thin rounds of confit lemon, wraps both around pinky-sized sticks of the crimson melon, and finishes it all with fleur de sel. The sugars from the fruit, when mixed with the tart citrus and the high-end salt, electrify in the mouth; it's like a high end Sour Patch Kid.
One of the secrets to that watermelon sushi is a thin layer of herb oil, infused with clippings from the restaurant's garden. Ian Rothman, Baxtrom's partner in the 50-seat endeavor, oversees the backyard farm, and if the food here wasn't so good you'd roll your eyes at his bio. Rothman was the horticulturist at Atera, where (as Olmsted's website explains), he "oversaw the restaurant's subterranean garden and living wall." All those who reckoned that a more pared-down spot like Olmsted might be deprived of its own living wall (let's stop using that phrase): Fret not. Rothman has constructed a mosaic of green stuff that spans the length of the interior portion of the restaurant.
The garden is in use during service, too: I watch a chef go out back to snip off some greens, perhaps a bit of lovage for the chawanmushi. The kitchen fries it up with spring garlic shoots and arranges the mixture atop of the delicate dish. With just a tap of your spoon they crackle and crunch like autumn leaves. Now take a bite: Summer truffles impart a whisper of woodsy funk, the garlic shocks the tongue with bitterness, and the soft, savory custard resets your palate with just a touch of sweetness. It's a $16 appetizer, but it wouldn't be out of place in a multi-hundred-dollar kaiseki menu.
It's almost too good to be true. Isn't it?
"An affordable neighborhood restaurant is what we want," Baxtrom wrote to me via email. And while Olmsted's pricing scheme accords with that statement, the caliber of food he's serving makes things just a bit more complicated. Your typical neighborhood spot doesn't command two hour waits on a Friday. The more accurate way to consider Olmsted might be as a destination local restaurant. It's a venue that fills a need in the immediate community — Prospect Heights has plenty of casual weeknight spots, but no real history of haute cuisine — and yet it also ends up attracting a city-wide crowd — likely to be national, once word gets out.
A destination local restaurant presents a dilemma, as adulation and accolades (not to mention suddenly impossible-to-get-tables) tend to change a place. A prime example was the December 2007 issue of Bon Appetit: the powers that were decided to give the cover to the meatball sliders served at the Little Owl, an affordable West Village haunt that was already pretty packed every night. It was a seminal moment for small restaurants, many of whom had been living in the shadow of the Buddakan-style big box behemoths that arose in the late aughts, and a presager of the post-recession return to more intimate dining.
A destination local restaurant presents a dilemma, as adulation and accolades (not to mention suddenly impossible-to-get-tables) tend to change a place.
In the end, the hordes came and went, and the Little Owl remained true to itself; it's more or less the same charming restaurant now as it was before its spotlight moment in 2006. But not all restaurants weather the attention so unchanged. When another destination neighborhood spot, NoLiTa's walk-in only Torrisi Italian Specialities, started to attract fans thanks to its affordable set menu, it slowly raised its price from $45 to $100, and then beyond. What began as a welcome antidote to fine dining became yet another expensive — albeit excellent — practitioner of the art.
None of this is to deny a good restaurant the chance to capitalize on its fame and evolve over the course of its lifespan. But in an era with so many operators pushing the tasting menu hard, it's heartwarming to see Olmsted take a more populist approach to ambitious gastronomy (Baxtrom tells me he has no plans to ever go prix-fixe only). It's also exciting to have another outer-borough pole holding up the city's high-end dining scene, which has spent the last decade spreading slowly (arguably too slowly) outward from Manhattan.
To put Olmsted's prices in perspective: A bottle of well-balanced orange wine runs $30 (a Manhattan venue could easily charge twice that). And the steak entree is $23 — a dollar more than a pizza at Franny's a few blocks away. That steak, by the way, is flawless: It's a grass-fed bavette that's silky as Japanese Wagyu; it delivers not a dry-age funk but an obscene beefiness. Baxtrom changes up the accompaniments depending on the season; when I dined there, he amped up the bovine factor with a tiny squash filled with a ratatouille that was a bit muskier than usual, thanks to a layer of beef short rib.
Fans of the atavistic appetizer-entree-dessert format might argue that Olmsted's servings are a touch small even by small plate standards. I'll counter that I've never tried anything here that isn't large enough to share. For a proper meal for two, you'll want to order about seven dishes — six shared savory plates, one dessert — plus a bottle of wine.
One thing that should not be shared, however, is the carrot crepe. This is a preparation so fantastic it deserves to be enjoyed in full, on first and subsequent visits, without fear of having a companion steal a precious morsel.
Olmsted's carrot crepe is not what it seems. It looks like a typically fussy salad, atop an orange disc dotted with flower petals. Then you rip through this decorative facade with your fork. Beneath lie soft little neck clams (or sometimes surf clams) and a rich yellow carrot jus infused with the flavor of the sea. Your palate is overwhelmed with butter and brine. Baxtrom has reimagined linguine with clams through the lens of a root vegetable, a French crepe, and the colors of a sunflower. It's stunning.
But as cutting edge as Olmsted is, it wouldn't be a proper 2016 restaurant if it didn't offer an agrodolce cauliflower, the current reigning version of which is gobi manchurian, a sino-subcontinental snack that involves turning the plant into a vegan riff on General Tso's chicken. Baxtrom goes more refined with an analogue called gobi pakoda; the fried romesco choufleur isn't drenched in neon goo, but rather sits adjacent a curried gastrique that's nearly as dark as a demi-glace. A candy-like sweetness hits you first, then a tamarind tang, then a wallop of heat from jalapeño.
Scallops, the throwaway entree of the past 15 years ("Maybe we should sear them?") find a new relevance by being threaded on skewers and grilled over charcoal, with a wicked coating of deeply flavored pasilla chiles. Some of the mollusks are firm and cooked through, others are charred on the outside and enjoyably jiggly within; just when things threaten to get too salty, a mess of creamed corn, cooked in the style of risotto, resets the palate, its sweetness an early foreshadowing of dessert.
Follow those up with the sublime steak or a roulade of guinea hen, at $24 the most expensive large plate, though good enough that I'd happily pay double that. The bird's gamy white meat is rolled around ramp mousse and roasted, sometimes creating the visual effect of a yin and yang when sliced. The sweeter, funkier thigh meat is doused under a swathe of foamy ramp hollandaise; searching for the morsels with a fork evokes a Michelin-starred riff on bobbing for apples. (Baxtrom says all the manipulation allows him to squeak out three instead out two portions out of each hen, helping him keep the price low.) Finish it up, then give up your table (if you like; there's no pressure from the elegant service team) to walk back outside for dessert. The meal ends where it begins, in near perfect bliss.
Cost: Dishes priced at $7-$24. Plan on about three savory dishes per person.
Sample dishes: Crawfish boil crackers, gobi pakora cauliflower, watermelon sushi, carrot crepe, dry-rubbed scallops, grass-fed bavette.
What to drink: Wine; nothing is over $85 and most bottles are under $60. For a fun orange wine (i.e. skin contact white) with enough acid, aroma, and body to last through a diverse meal, consider the L'indigine Sulfureaux from Alsace ($30). Glass selections run from $8 (an Austrian gruner vetliner) to $14 (Chistian Etienne, Champagne).
Bonus tip: Reservations strongly recommended; most times before 10pm can book up a week or two out. Waits for walk-ins the bar can reach 90 minutes or more during prime time, but the garden serves cocktails, snacks, and sweets with a much shorter wait.