Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wine On a Whim and Carefree Caribbean: A Day of the Unexpected

Don't you love those days when the sun is beaming, after a bout of miserable weather, and it somehow provides the divine inspiration for the perfectly unplanned day where everything falls into place? That was my Saturday this past weekend in bustling Brooklyn. The people of the city emerged with a rhythm in their step, myself included. My rhythm took me on a leisurely stroll to the weekend farmer's market at Grand Army Plaza at the summit of Prospect Park. After a sampling of scrumptious homemade jams (get in on some plum butter, if you haven't already), my walk back brought me straight through the doors of my local Brooklyn Wine Exchange for their weekly Saturday tasting. Today varied from the norm, with an extended hour, no sign-up required, and no formal class setting. Instead it was a casual, free-form tasting of selections from their rotating collection of $12 and under bottles, which are always displayed on a wide table in the center of the shop. The perfect parallel to my free-form day. Joined by my lady and a friend, we sampled 4 whites and 4 reds - some new to me, some not. While I was not impressed enough with any of these to take home (I did buy a red and a white from the $12 and under table that will be a surprise when we open them), my friend scooped up 2 whites and a red, banking on the fabulous deal they always have in store: Buy 3 of any wine that is sampled that day and get 15% off the purchase.  Unbeknown to us, this would come in handy very soon.

The tasting got our tummies rumblin' and as the sun set, our circadian rhythm told us it was time to feed them. Per the glowing recommendation of a fellow wine class frequenter, we had our stomachs set on Kaz An Nou, a French-Caribbean joint in Prospect Heights. We had popped in the previous Saturday (their small quarters and our limited time frame did not align) and knew those rich aromas would make us follow our noses back. Turns out today was the day, and better yet, we discovered it was BYOB, with no corkage fee might I add! Well how convenient that we were packin' three fresh bottles. With our wine in tow, we walked into the dimly lit warmth of an inviting yet modest rectangular room. With a row of freestanding tables to the right and an open kitchen at the rear, we found our spot at the pillowed banquet lining the left wall. After our white wine was poured, ordering was in order. From the tempting selection, we ordered three appetizers, three entrees, and two desserts. If that sounds like a lot, rest assured it was not. The portions were - how do I put it? - delicate. Leaving a tad hungry wasn't the only surprise in store. Here's how it went.
Nicoise Salad
Stuffed Chayote
Apricot Tart
Our server, while supremely genial, seemed a bit off on her recommendations. We all wound up preferring the dishes she did not suggest, while the ones she did fell a bit flat. Her recommendation of the appetizer Nicoise Au Nou was the least interesting to taste though it sounded great on paper: a salad of smoked white fish, sweet potatoes, egg, okra and an olive tapenade. The saltiness of the fish and olives was too pronounced, having nothing to counter balance it. Well, wasn't that the job of the sweet potato, you ask? Why, yes, I say, if the sweet potato had actually made an appearance! Unfortunately, this ingredient was left out (not sure why), a detriment to the dish's balance as a whole. This misstep was masked by the other two starters, which were well executed: a crab-stuffed chayote pepper blanketed with a cheesy, breadcrumb crust, and a tart layered with apricots, caramelized onions, and foie gras (though the flavor of the foie gras was barely present, overpowered by the pleasant sweetness of the other two ingredients).
After a clean sweep of all of the above in less than 4.5 minutes, we were more than ready for our entrees: a tomato-based vegetable ratatouille with a side of sliced plantains, a duck leg confit with mango jerk sauce, and her recommendation of their supposed signature dish of shrimp and dumplings in a surprisingly spicy broth. This last little-known fact caught my guests off-guard, as they both are sensitive to the burn of spice and it was not mentioned on the menu. So I, with the highest tolerance of the group (which is not to say much), had that dish to myself, finishing it only because it was a meager portion (a motif here), and I had not yet been satiated. Despite the overwhelming spice, this dish was the most underwhelming, with not much else to it. The ratatouille, which forewarned a spicy pineapple sauce, was ironically, not spicy at all, and certainly much more pleasurable to all our palates. Akin to its aforementioned saucy friend, it too was a small portion, accompanied by tiny round disks that were crispier-than-preferred plantains. Not bad by any stretch, but nothing to write home about either. The winner, which happened to be an after-thought of an order, was that wondrously flavored duck leg. With fall off the bone shreds of meat preserved by an outer layer that was just crisp enough, I devoured my share of this baby first. The mango sauce provided that perfect caramelization but was not offensively sweet, complemented by the jerk spice. I could not resist, and my only qualm was that there was not more on the plate to put in my mouth. My manner-awareness was the only thing that kept me from reaching across the table with my fork and stabbing Ale's portion before she could put up a fight. (I had to be polite and share. Overrated in times like these.)

Ratatouille
Shrimp & Dumplings

Duck Leg


Berry Tart
Coconut Flan
Because not one of us was near the full mark, we ordered two desserts, hoping that would placate the palate. Sweet (almost) salvation arrived to our table in the form of a mixed berry tart and a coconut flan. Both pleasingly saccharine in their own ways: the simplicity of a warm berry reduction supported by a crust crumble, and the comforting consistency of a custard, leavened by fresh coconut. And while dessert is usually the topper-offer that I usually have to make room for, this night it was merely the delicious transition to the next thing I wanted in my belly. And good thing, as it was an early supper and the rest of the glorious Saturday night was ahead of us. While it didn't always hit the mark as we had expected, I have the sense that Kaz An Nou will make its way into another evening meal of ours. Inventive ingredient combinations make for an enticing menu that continues to revolve around the chef's whimsy. And while whimsy can be chancy,  it's a chance I'm always willing to take for food, especially on a whimsical day.