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STRIKES OUT

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In July 2002, I reviewed Isobel, a restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. I raved about Isobel’s cheerful ambiance and elegant space. I loved the waitstaff, and the clean, clear flavors of Tony Raggiri’s French dishes wowed me. Raggiri had an affinity for seafood, turning out a sea bass with morels that I still think about. I had high hopes for Isobel, but like Tinto (the restaurant it replaced at 66 Henry St.), Isobel was short-lived.

Balzar, the third optimist to fill the location, opened last summer. From the outside, Balzar resembles Soho’s Balthazar, a French brasserie. The comparison ends there.

Balzar’s owner, Nando Ghorchian, who also owns Caffe Buon Gusto on Montague Street, hasn’t tinkered much with his predecessor’s decor. The heavy wooden tables, pewter chandeliers and rustic tiled floor are still in place. He’s added a few settees covered in leopard print in the bar and lounge area where a tapas menu is served, and he’s kept the leather seats in the dining room but painted some of the walls pale green.

While the look of the room hasn’t been altered dramatically, the food has undergone a sea change. Balzar’s chef, Miguel Leon, describes the cuisine as "a little Mediterranean, a little Italian, a little French," which sums up the problem: The menu is too diverse.

In the bar and lounge area, a small selection of tapas and raw seafood is served. The dinner menu features onion soup, crab cakes, grilled calamari, oysters Rockefeller and eggplant parmigiana - and that’s just the appetizers. Some dishes, like a light eggplant rollatini, are handled beautifully; and some are not, with overcooking marring more than one dish.

The bread-and-pastry chef, Nataly Herrera, bakes a chewy, salty, rosemary-scented focaccia, served warm, that starts the meal off with a bang. If only some of the dishes were cooked with such care.

I’d prefer chewing on my sneaker to grinding on the grilled squid, although the spicy anchovy mayonnaise served with the calamari made a deliciously fishy and salty spread for the focaccia.

An eggplant rollatini filled with fresh ricotta and mushrooms was just right - the eggplant was pleasantly smoky from the grill, the filling fluffy, and the tomato sauce chunky and redolent of garlic and sweet tomatoes.

Pasta that sounded simple and appealing was pedestrian. Pappardelle with mixed mushrooms and pecorino cheese was topped with ordinary button mushrooms, and the cheese was sprinkled too thinly. A hearty spoonful of cheese would have elevated the dish from bland to better.

I wish the entrees made me forget the meal’s beginning, but two dishes we tried were ruined by overcooking. The filet mignon, ordered medium rare, arrived gray in the center - a heartbreaking end to a good piece of meat. Fresh, creamy, truffled mashed potatoes and a few string beans and julienned carrots were crisp, but bit players couldn’t rescue this flop.

Neither could tender mussels and sweet clams rescue an elaborate bouillabaisse stocked with enough seafood to open an aquarium. It would be difficult to find a better-looking entree than the pink-and-white bouillabaisse with its black mussel shells and wedges of crisp, toasted French bread. In a deep bowl sat big chunks of tuna and salmon, loads of mussels, shrimp and clams, half a lobster tail and the meat of a lobster claw, all sitting in a rich, garlicky, saffron-scented broth.

After a bite of the overcooked tuna, the dry salmon, and the tough lobster claw meat, I was too dejected to do more than pick at the perfect mussels and fresh clams.

The meal ended on a positive note with a pear and chocolate tart. The tart’s filling was bittersweet, somewhere between pudding and fudge; and its crust was crisp and buttery. Thin, mint syrup was splashed across the plate adding a refreshing note to the dessert.

Equally good was a zabaglione gelato, served in a martini glass, with the complex, raisin-like taste of Marsala wine.

At the moment, Balzar lacks confidence. The decor, while pleasant, lacks visual interest, and the kitchen’s output needs fine-tuning. On an evening when this large restaurant seated maybe 20 diners, there was no reason for dishes to be served overcooked.

Once Balzar sharpens its focus, it could become a pleasant place in Brooklyn Heights to enjoy a meal.

 

Balzar Restaurant & Bar (60 Henry St. between Cranberry and Orange streets in Brooklyn Heights) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $8.95-$18. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Sunday brunch is served from 10 am to 3 pm. For reservations call (718) 243-2010.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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