1/03/2013 02:00:00 PM

First Bites: Saul Bolton Does Italian at Red Gravy

Chef Saul Bolton has developed followings at his Brooklyn restaurants Saul and The Vanderbilt, and he just added another eatery to his mini-empire. Red Gravy, now open in Brooklyn Heights, is his first go at a solely Italian joint. And it dresses the part - with exposed brick walls, dark beams lining the whitewashed ceiling, dim lighting and plenty of candles, the inside of this Brooklyn Heights eatery exudes the charm of a classic Italian trattoria.

Even so, it's not your traditional Brooklyn red-sauce joint. The portions and style of service at Red Gravy skews more modern. Instead of heaping, family-style servings, the antipasti they offer is in line with the current small plates trend. You can and should share the tiny portions, but there won’t be any leftovers.

The restaurant's tender meatballs came nestled in creamy polenta and topped with their namesake, red gravy. The winter capanata went nicely with that dish, the array of lightly pickled cardoons, artichoke, currants, and pine nuts helping cut the fat of the rich meatballs. Instead of fresh mozzarella, they offer smoked, and the pickles are a seasonal selection they do in house. Also offered, and not to be overlooked, is there crudo antipasti, which on our visit turned out to be fresh tuna brightened with blood orange that got a pleasing crunch from a spattering of crushed almonds.

Bolton showed that he knows wine with his solid list at his Prospect Heights eatery The Vanderbilt, and the vino selection here shines with carefully curated bottles like the Barone Ricosoli Chianti and Channing Daughters Tocai Friulano. They also offer craft cocktails like the Ruby Falls with prosecco, hibiscus, and cranberry bitters, or the Big Sky, which melds Italian Aperol with Mexican mezcal and tequila, then tops it off with blood orange.

The primi section of the menu is dedicated to pasta, and Bolton likes his high on the al dente side. The firm ravioli came stuffed with mushrooms and smoked bone marrow, and the orecchiette contained lamb sausage. They also offer reginetti with rabbit, and bucatini with sardines, fennel, pine nuts and currants (the last two representing a common ingredient combo here).

Daily specials are offered, naturally. We could have ordered Saturday’s grilled aged ribeye for two, or, if we went on a Wednesday, we could get classic pasta and meatballs. We stuck to the regular selection and went for branzino, which they serve in two delicate filets atop a bed of melted onions and kale.

Finally, dessert brings homemade sorbets and affogato. Booze hounds can enjoy they a house-made amaro that gets concocted just a few blocks away by the head bartender at Bolton’s first restaurant, Saul.

Of course, if you want to get into the true Brooklyn Italian vibe, the best day to go is Sunday, where, as the restaurant gets off its feet, you can find Bolton busy in the kitchen making Sunday gravy. While Bolton wants to showcase his skills at this cuisine, his main goal of opening the restaurant in Brooklyn Heights was to bring something new to the neighborhood. Based on the reaction of locals sitting next to us on each side, he has already been successful.

The Details: 151 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, New York; 718-855-0051; redgravynyc.com


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