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THEN AND NOW

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When we were first married, my husband and I rented an apartment that was described by a real estate broker as having "charming detail." In the living room and bedroom were ornately carved marble fireplaces, and the claw-foot bathroom tub could have held a Roman orgy. Floor-to-ceiling shuttered windows opened onto Fort Greene Park.

Our realtor failed to mention the less charming details: gangs of cockroaches that appeared only when our parents visited and quirky neighbors like the one who flooded our apartment every time she took a bath and the huge man who left every morning looking like a linebacker crammed into a business suit, but crashed up the stairs in stiletto heels late each evening wafting clouds of L’air du Temps.

In the early 1990s, when we lived in Fort Greene, there were few dining choices. A short walk from our apartment near DeKalb Avenue was Miss Ann’s, a storefront restaurant where you could watch the sweet-natured Miss Ann frying chicken, pulling hot skillets of corn bread from the oven and mixing big bowls of cake batter.

Cino’s, still a part of the area’s dining scene, served good, basic Italian food. If you needed a hamburger, a couple of diners near Pratt would do. There were a few take-out Chinese places that specialized in fried chicken wings, and that was about it.

Tired of our soggy apartment, we moved a few years ago and never looked back. Recently, I started receiving phone calls from the culinary rumor-mill. First a call came in raving about a French place on DeKalb Avenue, one of the area’s largest streets, which was on a definite down-slide when we lived there. Then came word of a wonderful South African place, then another little bistro with the world’s best roasted chicken, and on and on.

But DeKalb Avenue as the newest restaurant row? I’d believe it when I saw it.

And see it I did, one stylish restaurant after another. A former liquor store that had once kept its entire inventory behind bulletproof glass is now a swanky restaurant-lounge. The DeKalb Avenue I remembered, with its crack vials and greasy Chinese take-out now has blocks lined with great-looking restaurants.

Chez Oskar, a French bistro that opened three years ago was one of the first restaurants to begin the area’s culinary turnaround. It has all the bistro accoutrements - the bar, ornate gold mirrors, and weathered emerald walls. A soundtrack of women murmuring French songs plays quietly in the background. The restaurant’s casual elan makes some of the bistros I have visited lately seem like overblown posers.

Chef Octavio Simancas’ menu stays within the classic French bistro framework. He offers all the standards - escargot, foie gras and the ever-present roasted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes. It is not a menu rife with innovation, yet his cooking produces dishes that are fresh and flavorful.

If the chef in a French bistro can’t prepare a credible green salad then it’s time to retire the beret. The citrus salad, made with the freshest arugula leaves, segments of tart grapefruit and small, creamy mounds of goat cheese, arrived at our table dressed in a walnut vinaigrette. The thin slivers of tart green apple tasted sweet against the grapefruit, and the dressing, with its nutty richness, was just acidic enough to give the greens a little zing. Goat cheese lent its creamy texture to the crisp ingredients making for a complex and delicious mouthful.

Mussels are offered two ways - in a broth of white wine, shallots and garlic, or in a creme fraiche and mustard sauce. We ordered the mussels in the creme fraiche and mustard sauce, and they arrived perfectly tender with the mustard lending a sharp tang to the briny shellfish. Both preparations are accompanied by crisp, salty, french fries that tasted of clean oil and fresh potatoes. Dipping those fries into that broth. Heaven.

Entrees continue the march through familiar French territory. A powerfully aromatic grilled sirloin steak appeared at our table rare and smoky from the grill with a savory rim of seared fat. The slightly bitter edge of the steak’s shallot and white wine sauce complemented the richness of the meat. Fries are served with the steak. Be grateful.

Each night Simancas offers a special risotto. We tried a seafood risotto that included shrimp and calamari. "It’s good," we each said, and it was. The risotto had a little chewiness and the shellfish were tender. But, something was lacking. Maybe the broth used for the rice was a little pallid, or maybe the beige-on-beige presentation of the dish looked blah. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t a dish that inspired much enthusiasm.

The same cannot be said of the simple desserts. There are only five choices on the dessert list. A traditional creme brulee, a tarte tatin (an upside-down apple tart), tiramisu, a warm flourless chocolate cake and a pear poached in red wine.

I’m getting tired of flourless chocolate cakes. They’re on too many menus, and they’re either heavy and fudgy or cakey and dry. Not Chez Oskar’s. This hybrid is somewhere between a warm, dark chocolate pudding and an airy souffle. It’s served slightly warm with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream. One bite of this cake and my zest for the ubiquitous dessert was renewed.

Chez Oskar is the perfect bistro to try after a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. You’ll be in a good mood and will have plenty to talk about with your fellow culture maven. That’s fine. The restaurant is quiet enough for a long heart-to-heart. Waitresses will speak to you with soothing French accents, and they don’t seem to care how long you sit. And, if my old neighbor should teeter by on his heels - give him a little wave. You’ll know who he is when you see him.

 

Chez Oskar (211 DeKalb Ave. at Adelphi Street) accepts Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club and American Express. Dinner entrees: $8-$20. Chez Oskar is also open for lunch and brunch. Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays, 11 am-4:30 pm. For reservations, call (718) 852-6250.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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