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People cite a variety of reasons for not frequenting a cafe. If they peek in a window and only one or two tables are occupied, they’ll walk away. Kitschy decor can be a turn-off; and modern furnishings are sometimes viewed as cold and unwelcoming.

However, the most confounding reason for rejection is: "The menu is small."

Push for an explanation and you’ll hear, "Well, I walked by the place and it looked nice, but there were only a few entrees so I didn’t go in." Foolish, indeed. A small menu usually means that hidden behind those swinging doors lurks a wise chef who’s confident that their well-honed list of dishes will emerge from their kitchen as good as they can be.

Such is the case of Mark Shenk, the chef and owner of Red Cafe on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Shenk’s menu offers five entrees. The rest of the dinner selections include three salads, four small plates, a few open-faced sandwiches and a couple of burgers.

Four red wines (there’s an excellent Montepulciano) and three whites, very reasonably priced at $18-$24 per bottle, make up the wine list. That’s enough food and drink to keep a two-man kitchen busy.

Before opening Red Cafe in August, Shenk served as the chef and owner of Astray Cafe, an eatery he operated for 16 years in Manhattan until losing his lease last year. He came to Park Slope with the intention of opening a comfortable bistro where guests are recognized, coddled and fed very well from a menu of "American bistro" dishes. That vision is fully realized with this delightful cafe.

Sitting in Red Cafe’s 20-seat, garnet-colored dining room is a singular experience. Those deep-red walls have a cocooning effect - like having someone wrap a velvet shawl around your shoulders. Once the breadbasket arrives, it becomes apparent that you’re in for a fine meal. The warm Italian rolls have a thin, chewy crust and a soft, yeasty center. Spread with butter, they’re simply delectable.

To begin the meal, I recommend the chicory salad (if only to see what a properly made salad should look and taste like). It’s a large dish of the curly, slightly bitter greens that’s more than adequate for two people as an appetizer. Shenk tosses the crisp leaves with a warm, shallot dressing made sharp with mustard. Thick cubes of bacon add a welcome saltiness to the dish; French bread, cut into large croutons then sauteed with oil and garlic until chewy, add further contrast to the greens; a warm poached egg oozes its richness over all. You find great salads like Shenk’s all over Europe, but it’s rare to find one this well made here.

Among the innovative small plates is one voluptuous dish - the risotto cake with chicken liver sauce, white wine and pancetta. The risotto cake is everything risotto should be - the rice tender, yet firm and creamy. The livers are supple, and the creamy sauce is as light as zabaglione. White wine in the sauce balances the dish with a bit of acidity and the small amount of pancetta lends a smoky saltiness. Order it for the novelty of the dish, then sit back and let it dazzle your senses.

Shenk makes pasta that is near the top of my list of great pastas, including the noodle dishes I enjoyed in Italy. Sounds like hyperbole, you say?

Order it and see if I’m exaggerating.

He refers to his dish as beef ragu, and it is an authentic Italian stew. The meat is cooked slowly over a low flame like a pot roast with a bit of tomato, onion, carrots and celery until it nearly falls apart and the vegetables become sweet. The ragu sits atop thick ribbons of velvety, fresh pappardelle, and then the meat and pasta is sprinkled with grated orange rind. The orange freshens and lightens the taste of the dish.

I found the salmon fillet with its horseradish crust a little heavy yet still enjoyable. A large piece of the rich fish is crowned with aioli (a French garlic mayonnaise) mixed with horseradish and baked. The salmon is rare and it’s crisp, brown-edged topping adds textural interest. Around the salmon are tiny, French green lentils - firm to the bite yet tender - in a deep, red wine sauce. It’s an ideal cold-weather dish.

Desserts, like the main meal, are bistro favorites so well made they seem renewed. While eating Shenk’s coffee caramel custard, I imagined him tinkering in the kitchen, tasting and rejecting one custard after another until he reached this alchemy of sweet and bitter. With the first spoonful, the sweetness of the caramel is assertive; the second spoonful is tempered with an edge of bitter coffee. A fluff of unsweetened whipped cream and a sprinkle of shaved bitter chocolate add to the pleasure.

Creme brulee is treated to a handful of fresh raspberries. A three-berry pie is right off grandma’s windowsill, and pecan pie with vanilla ice cream is crisp and sweet but not too much so. (It may not be bistro fare exactly but it’s homey and appropriate with the menu.) Bread pudding will be added shortly.

Two years ago, finding a great bistro dinner in Park Slope wasn’t possible. Now the neighborhood sports traditional French bistros that look as if they were lifted out of Paris via helicopter and transplanted to Fifth Avenue. One can have a good meal in a creative bistro that mixes-and-matches ingredients with abandon.

Few, though, have that intangible something that makes Red Cafe such a delicious original.


Red Cafe (78 Fifth Ave. between St. Mark’s Place and Warren Street in Park Slope) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Entrees: $14-$19. The cafe serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. For reservations, call (718) 789-1100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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