Whatever its stated neighborhood ambitions, it was inevitable that Sailor would become a beacon for restaurant tourists and Resy card-punchers; the lure of a returning champion is simply too irresistible. Here, she is April Bloomfield, whose name is synonymous with the rich, snouty eating of the 2010s. (Her specialty at the Breslin was a whole trotter, still novel.) Or at least it was until it became synonymous with the blind eye turned toward male misconduct in the pre–Me Too era. Her reckoning is by now well known. After a couple years cooking quietly out of the city, Bloomfield is back, not as the lodestar of a constellation of restaurants but as the clogs on the ground of one would-be local joint in Fort Greene, where her partner in the project, the well-known restaurateur Gabriel Stulman, lives.
If Sailor is an attempt to evade the spotlight, good luck. Bloomfield is too compelling a chef to go unnoticed. She doesn’t look like the cook she used to be, her hair now cut high and navally tight, but her food has the burly finesse it always did. In her first cookbook — the one where she wears a whole pig draped over her shoulders like a mink stole — she called her style “anal rustic.” I won’t attempt to improve upon that.
The menu leans toward modesty: “house red” (a thoroughly decent Grenache blend the night I visited; $9), roasted nuts, a slab of toast with a minty salsa verde. There is an homage to the chef Judy Rodgers — a re-creation of the most famous hors d’oeuvre at her San Francisco landmark, Zuni Café: two little anchovies served with cold half-moons of celery, a few tiny olives, and a couple tiles of Parmesan. You could roll your eyes — I did — until you try it. It’s an appetizer distilled to a perfect bite, a Caesar salad flensed to its barest essentials. Not one of these snacks, mind you, costs more than ten bucks.
But then the chef creeps in. Others could pile mussels on a long baton of toast, as Bloomfield does, but they would likely not think to stack the three-tiered heat of jalapeño, paprika, and cinnamon, or to add the cool, green astringency of fennel in the aïoli underneath, so compelling that every scrap on our table wound up tobogganing through it.
Bloomfield specializes in this kind of quiet surprise. Sailor rewards unusual choices, whether that is going further afield to try her crisp-fried sweetbreads — tender and a little musky in a lemon-caper sauce: pancreatic piccata — or moving further infield and doing something that critics generally advise against: ordering the chicken.
The chef has apparently been worrying about her roasted-chicken recipe for years. The R&D has paid off. Her half-bird comes in a candy-colored cocotte, its skin impressively bronzed, with a few boulderish, parm-crusted potatoes. Many chefs can achieve as much. But not many can get the level of flavor Bloomfield does, the perfumed, slightly dusty savor of herbs (dried and fresh, it turns out) penetrating deep into the meat. Its closest competitor for entrée supremacy is a less photogenic, but possibly even more delicious, smoked pork shoulder, brown as shoe leather and tender as suede, in a winy, olive-studded pan sauce alongside a sweet roasted hunk of fennel. “There’s a to-do about fennel here,” our waiter confided.
Bloomfield’s antipathy for theatrics can, on rare occasions, be a hindrance. One of her entrées is listed as “roasted cod in a soup.” What soup? I’ve now had it twice, and I’m not sure. It is rust orange and tastes of long-simmering and smoke, but on neither visit could I, nor anyone in my company, identify it. It wanted more anal, less rustic. Its vagueness was hard to square with a chef so particular about her ingredients that she once memorably wrote, “I’m quick to have a fannywobble if the parsnips are spongy.”
It’s also at odds with the specificity of the space. Sailor’s size is demurringly modest, seating only 20 souls in its main room and another 18 in the bar area. Despite “renovating the shit out of it,” as Stulman told me one evening while he glad-handed his way around the restaurant, much of the dining room’s space is given over to a hulking, beautiful, and admirably impractical wine case and marble-topped service station, where desserts wait under glass cloches.
As designed by Stulman and Alfredo Paredes, Ralph Lauren’s go-to, Sailor has the feel of a Polo Bar for the rest of us, oak-paneled but ship-snug, its thematic flourishes thankfully subtle: Stulman’s striped marinière shirt, lighthouse art, a tucked-away air-conditioning pipe wrapped in rigging rope. A month into its journey, Sailor’s food lands, the service hums, and even the prices seem glaringly reasonable. (Bloomfield’s chicken is $38, which these days qualifies as a bargain.) It may well be for neighbors, but on a recent evening that group included multi-award-nominated actors mooning over a window table and the cookbook author Melissa Clark, who sailed directly into the kitchen and parked at the pass. With the nearby C train disgorging Manhattanites and prices everywhere continuing to climb, can it last as a low-key, if nigh-unbookable, jewel box on Fort Greene’s restaurant row?
For the moment, the balance is nearly perfect. Bloomfield is in her element, and Stulman, with his stevedore’s build and newsboy’s cap, works the dining room with solicitous aplomb, making conversation and memorizing order details and spouse names at every table. Then again, there are only eight of them.