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IDENTITY CRISIS

for The Brooklyn Paper
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I stood near the bar at Casper Jones Cafe Lounge in Park Slope for several minutes watching a waiter watch me. After a minute of staring into each other’s eyes, I asked if he would seat us. (The room was half full, so I didn’t foresee a problem.)

"Counter service only," he answered.

What I walked into was an elegant lounge that functions as a coffee bar but is actually a cafe in flux. In fact, even the source of the lounge’s name is up for debate.

Ask one owner where it came from and they’ll tell you something about a friendly ghost. Ask another, and you’ll be told of a fabled man who had no worries.

But enough about that, the lounge opened in January as a casual place to hang out with friends over snack and coffee.

Most evenings a DJ spins world music or a trio plays live jazz. In mid July the eatery’s liquor license was granted, and with the booze, patrons began requesting food that resembled real dinners. Muguette Siem A Sjoe, with partner Joe Amellio, added specials to the salad and panini menu, and upgraded the furnishings with the intention of making the room "feel like an extended part of your apartment."

The decor caused my confusion. The room - with its nubby beige chaises, scattering of tables, curved wood panels and ’50s-style lighting - didn’t register as a counter service coffee bar.

The menu is still heavy on salads and sandwiches, but that is about to change. The cafe’s chef, Said Azzam, who works in a tiny space at the end of the bar laughingly referred to as a kitchen, was an executive chef at Juniper and Spartina in Tribeca and a sous chef at Henry’s End in Brooklyn Heights. Azzam has more to offer diners than snacks.

Once seated, we were able to peruse the blackboard that serves as the specials’ menu. The evening’s appetizer - an avocado soup with watermelon and balsamic vinegar - sounded too peculiar to pass up. The soup may be one of the prettiest first courses served this summer. A small, pink mound of the watermelon sat in the center of the pale green avocado base surrounded by a dribble of earth-colored vinegar. Served cold, it had the velvety quality of heavy cream.

Azzam’s dish is a tightrope walk. One watermelon cube too many; one "oops" of the vinegar bottle, would spell disaster.

But he succeeds.

The sweetness of the watermelon adds a clean sparkle to the rich, nutty soup, and the balsamic vinegar, fuller in taste and deeper in color than other vinegars, intensified the flavor of both fruits.

Intense flavors reign again in a shrimp and salmon sandwich. Azzam poaches the fish in a stock flavored with fennel seeds, thyme and tarragon until just tender, then binds the ingredients with a lush garlic aioli. A thick, crisp slice of bacon adds a salty contrast, and the eggy brioche roll holds the ingredients without falling to pieces. The dish is like a prince in a parka - a sophisticated meal masquerading as a sandwich.

Even the salads he serves with sandwiches are carefully constructed. Instead of the listless mounds of overdressed mesclun that appear beside so many sandwiches, Azzam mixes peppery watercress with a handful of alfalfa sprouts then tosses the greens with a well-balanced lemon vinaigrette.

On the side of his portobello panini (as good a panini as you’ll find in the Slope but pedestrian compared to the other sandwich), he served a mix of herbs and greens in a mustardy dressing that added tart contrast to the sandwich.

Azzam’s one entree for the evening was a humorous spin on a blue plate special. His veal and beef pate is somewhere between a moist, dense meatloaf and a pate. He layers two thick slices of the portobello mushroom-studded meat with Yukon gold potatoes lightly mashed with pungent pesto. A ring of tangy, slightly sweet tomato compote made from red peppers and ripe, summer tomatoes circles the plate. You’d have to look hard to find a better meatloaf and mashed potatoes on anyone’s menu.

The only desserts currently offered are a plain brownie, or the brownie warmed and served with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I passed. Azzam promises to add more interesting pastries soon.

Casper Jones Cafe Lounge experienced an identity crisis but it’s finding itself. Right now it’s an attractive place where you can get a good - yet limited - meal, or order a drink and read your book. By September, it promises to be an excellent cafe with a waitstaff who greet you at the door then graciously lead you to your table.

 

Casper Jones Cafe Lounge (440 Bergen St. between Fifth and Flatbush avenues in Park Slope) accepts cash only. Entrees: $5-$12. For information, call (718) 399-8741.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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