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TURN UP THE HEAT

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A new cafe has opened in Flatbush giving residents a much-needed break in a neighborhood abundant with salons bearing Z-heavy names like "Cutz ’N Curlz" and "Nailz R Uz," but with limited dining choices.

Rug-B, a Caribbean-inspired cafe, opened in August on Cortelyou Road. Co-owner Paul Simeon, who has created menus for restaurants such as Manhattan’s Negril and Local, and until recently manned the stove at Madiba, a South African restaurant in Fort Greene, designed the cuisine, which he describes as "upscale peasant. A fusion of Caribbean, Thai and continental."

Simeon, with partner Phil Dazis, roams the room, stopping at each table to chat, or on a Saturday evening, join in an impromptu sing-along with the lone musician and his band-in-a-box setup.

Simeon and Dazis made over the former salon space, removing barber chairs and wall-to-wall mirrors. Their transformation has yielded a comfortable, unpretentious cafe. In place of the salon mirrors are sunny, yellow walls that are used as an exhibition space of sorts for the work of local artists. Comfortable tables and chairs seat 40. Large, plant-hung windows in front fill the room with light, and on warm days, the windows open onto small, outdoor tables.

The dishes at Rug-B are evolving.

"We’re still working on things. Still seeing what pleases our neighbors," said Simeon. The neighbors, tired of trips into nearby areas for a decent meal, want a cafe to call their own, and are willing to overlook this promising eatery’s wobbly beginning. While some of the dishes I tried had all the complexity one would expect from this cuisine, others seemed timid. Until the liquor license is established (it’s expected by winter), patrons are happy to down refreshing glasses of mango juice or carry in their own wine.

There are four appetizers offered each evening. Salmon cakes topped with a tangy, dill mayonnaise, although tasty, seemed made of canned salmon and much like the kind of amateurish thing I throw together in my own kitchen.

The other two appetizers I tried suffered from a problem that was consistent throughout the meal: a heavy hand with sugar. Big, beer-battered shrimp, tender with a crisp, almost tempura-like coating, were doused in a candy-sweet mango citrus puree better suited to a dish of vanilla ice cream.

A chili-and-lemongrass dressing on the corn and avocado salad - while a touch too sweet - made for a pleasant topping on fresh greens, crisp corn kernels and slices of ripe avocado. However, crisp Chinese noodles that topped the salad, were one ingredient too many.

There is a compelling entree on the menu. Take the lid off an earthenware bowl and the perfume of coconut milk and lemongrass warms your face. Inside that rustic bowl (its lid is used for shells) is the mixed seafood "run-down," a Thai-like seafood stew, heady with ginger, curry and thyme. The stew’s thin, coconut milk broth, with its layers of spices, holds a generous fillet of buttery, silken salmon. When touched with a fork, the fish fell into moist wedges - each piece having absorbed the flavor of the broth and a sneak-up-on-you heat from the hot Thai curry. The fish sits center stage, surrounded by tender mussels in their shells; big, flavorful shrimp; and chunks of lemon-flavored, cream-colored sweet potatoes. ("The real thing," said Simeon. "Not the yams you find in American supermarke­ts.")

Customers will return for this memorable entree, the cafe’s signature dish. You might think that a cafe with a dish like that "run-down" - such a tour de force of technique and flavor - could pull off a basic Caribbean dish like Jerk chicken. (Jerk chicken being to Caribbean restaurants what a good burger is to the American diner.) You’d be wrong. While moist and tangy, this white-bread version of the dish lacks the fiery, gulp-the-water heat that makes authentic renditions such a painful pleasure.

Non-meat eaters will be happy to note that Rug-B offers two vegetarian roti (a stew flavored with curry and Scotch bonnet peppers served over a deep-fried bread called puri): one with smoked tofu, tomato and baby greens and the other with tofu and bok choy.

There are two desserts offered each evening: a banana bread pudding and an ice cream "trilogy" with guava caramel. I love bread pudding - especially when it’s gently warmed in the oven. Rug-B’s dense, damp rectangle studded with banana seemed promising. Heating the pudding to 1,000 degrees in the microwave was a mistake; serving the pudding with a sticky, sweet, mango caramel sauce was death-by-sugar.

I feared that the trilogy of ice creams would be another odyssey down Too-sweet Lane so I passed on it. More desserts will be added to the menu in the near future: "konkies," an African sweet potato and cornmeal pudding, will be served with vanilla ice cream and caramel-guava sauce.

Rug-B has the makings of a fine cafe. It has a chef that can concoct a dream like that seafood "run-down," and partners who know how to charm their clientele. The future of this cafe will be ensured once Simeon turns up the heat and keeps his spoon out of the sugar bowl.

The neighborhood is counting on it.

Rug-B (1310 Cortelyou Road between Rugby and Argyle roads) accepts Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Entrees: $8-$15. For reservations, call (718) 284-0024.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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