Stepping into Palo Santo is like stepping into an art installation. The tables and bar counter hold pebbles, coins, corks, chiles, rusty nails and pieces of wood, inlaid in resin like butterflies at a museum. Burlap sacks from Argentina and Bolivia serve as curtains at the century-old wooden door. Mosaics adorn the backsplash in the open kitchen. Outside, the logo is spelled out in swirls of metal, backlit in blue, and curlicues climb up the brownstone’s rail. The craftsmanship, all by Brooklyn artisans, plays as prelude to chef/owner Jacques Gautier’s deft riffs on Latin American cuisine.
Only 29, Gautier was born in Washington, D.C., to a Haitian father with French, Spanish, and Sephardic Jewish heritage and a mother of British, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Mohawk Indian descent. With relatives in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, he was raised to feel like a citizen of the world. “I express this in my food,” he explains. “It’s eclectic, Latin cooking, using fresh market ingredients.” He conceived of Palo Santo as “a boutique version of a comedor popular, a communal dining hall in Latin America.” It takes your taste buds on a tropical tour.
Order the nine-course tasting menu at the kitchen counter (just $45, wine pairings $30 extra) and prepare for inspired, boldly spiced flavor combinations. The menu changes daily, but it might go something like this: ceviche of Peconic Bay scallops with Scotch bonnet-infused coconut water. Pumpkin chowder served in a coconut, topped with shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. Foie gras, rare, with apples, raisins, almonds and saba vinegar. Tuna a la plancha with fennel, wild mushrooms and veal tongue. Venison in a chocolate port sauce with roasted local quince. And for dessert there’s tangy tamarind brûlée or cactus pear granita. (“Due to the violent purple color, people expect it to be very sweet,” confides a waitress, “but it isn’t.”).
The thoughtfully selected all-Latin American wine list features unusual choices like a Uruguayan gewürztraminer-chardonnay-moscato bianco blend and a Baja California Flor de guadalupe zinfandel. Gautier has visited several wineries on his list, and worked at one, in Argentina, for much of 2004.
Although the wines—not to mention the cactus pear, coconut et al—are imported, much of Gautier’s menu is crafted from fresh ingredients from upstate farms and Northeast fisheries. He found Rexcroft Farm—which grows poblano peppers and Mexican herbs like papalo and pepiche—at the Borough Hall Greenmarket, and at Grand Army Plaza he met Nestor Tello, an immigrant from Colombia who now farms in Dutchess County. Nestor is famous for eggs, but Gautier also buys his vegetables and even a few retired laying hens, which, after a few years on the job, have much more flavor than your typical six-week-old roaster. For Gallina en Mole Verde, he stews the old hen and, at the last minute, adds her seldom-seen treasure: a shell-less “embryonic” unlaid egg from within her, a preparation he first saw in Guatemala. “We like to use the whole animal—gizzards, liver, heart,” explains Gautier, noting that everything in that dish came from Tello’s farm, down to the pumpkin seeds and fingerling potatoes. In summer and fall he varies the recipe, using Nestor’s tart green tomatoes.
Gautier came to New York in 1998, first to Sunset Park, commuting to Ariosos, a Mediterranean-style Chelsea restaurant where he apprenticed to an Italian-born chef. In 2000 he moved to Williamsburg and landed a job a few blocks from his apartment at a French-Caribbean eatery called La Brunette.
“It was a new restaurant, and I got to do my own thing,” he recalls. “I never thought I’d find a job in Brooklyn that was up to my standards—it really changed my ideas about Brooklyn, and how nice it was to live and work in the same community.” So when he decided to open up his own restaurant, he knew he wanted to walk to work. After searching from Fort Greene and Williamsburg to Prospect Heights, he purchased the three-story brownstone on Union Street, just up from Fifth Avenue.
The restaurant is a few doors from the Garden of Union, a community garden that serves as the pick-up point for the Park Slope CSA: once a week, prepaid members meet to collect their share of the harvest from Windflower Farm upstate. Gautier joined and, for his work requirement, created a feast on the spot. Iron Chef-style, he didn’t know the ingredients until the farmer drove up, then nimbly concocted a harvest soup of just-picked corn and cucumbers. Everything came from Windflower except the salt.
“No one knew what the farmer was bringing that day,” remembers Judy Janda, co-founder of the CSA and a board member of the garden. “He exhibited a lot of creativity—and it was delicious.”
That culinary creativity is Gautier’s signature. Still, don’t expect this eclectic improviser to always keep track of the details. Take that inspired installation-style interior. The iron-work is by a Williamsburg artist, the rock fountain by a Bushwick sculptor, the tables by a cook-carpenter, the logo by a Fort Greene artist.
But ask him who did what, and he’s a bit befuddled. “It’s hard to say,” he admits. “It’s like a symphony orchestra I directed. The space, furniture, food and wine, I see it as one composition, bringing everything together.”
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and minced
1 oz. ginger, peeled and minced
1⁄4 lb. conch meat, taken from the shell and chopped
Several sprigs parsley, chopped
2 lime leaves or 2 bay leaves
1 t. cumin
1 t. coriander
1⁄4 t. black pepper
2 oz. rum
1 qt. fish or shellfish stock
1⁄2 lb. yucca, peeled and diced
1 can coconut milk
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a small stockpot over medium heat and sauté the shallots, garlic, Scotch bonnet, and ginger for 10 minutes. Add the conch and brown slightly, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the parsley and spices, toss to combine, and deglaze with rum. Add stock, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 hour. Add yucca and simmer until yucca is cooked, about 5 minutes. Add coconut milk and simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Serve with rice.