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Entering the charming French eatery St. Michel, in Bay Ridge, can cause a moment of sensory overload. The aromas of garlic simmering in butter and meat hitting the grill waft from the kitchen.

"That’s exactly how great food is supposed to smell," I thought, taking a few seconds to breathe it all in.

Then there’s the room itself. With so many restaurants trying for a hip edge, this elegant but casual space with its flickering candlelight and quiet jazz instantly charms with its lack of pretense.

Five years ago, the Carvo family - father Joe is the front-of-the-house-man and son Joseph is the chef - took over the 8-year-old restaurant, which is named for Mont Saint Michel Benedictine abbey in Normandy, France.

Joseph, who formerly cooked at Coco Pazzo in Manhattan, has created a French menu with a few modern touches. He is a superb technician, turning out deeply flavored, silken sauces. Joseph’s food pairing is sensible; he prefers one star player, not an ensemble piece, and he’s not trying to reinvent the wheel with his desserts - they’re simple and simply luscious.

His appetizers are more creative than the entrees.

In one, he fills a buttery pastry shell with caramelized onions and tangy farmer cheese (similar to cottage cheese but drier and firmer in texture) then tops it with salty squares of country bacon. The combination of sweet onions, tangy-creamy cheese and smoky bacon is a joy ride for the mouth. On the side he offers two slices of smoked salmon that add a hit of saltiness to the dish, which I loved.

His duck liver mousse is served as one large triangle over a slice of toasted french bread. It’s as unctuous as the finest foie gras, almost winey, with a hint of fresh black pepper.

While these appetizers are lovely, the warm eggplant mousse, filled with goat cheese and topped with a too-heavy sauce, was a clunker.

The side of salad each first course is served with - a mix of beet leaves and tangy specialty lettuces - was fine, but was undone by too much dressing that needed more lemon or vinegar to offset the rich appetizers.

As soon as our entrees arrived, wonderful things started happening. The first taste of duck breast - ordered rare and served rare - revealed an edge of fat so delicious we sighed. The rosy slices of duck breast are napped with a velvety sauce that has a touch of bitter orange that enhances the meat.

A slice of shell steak reminded me of the red meat I loved as a kid before the flavor was leeched out of it. Joseph rubs the steak with sea salt that adds the perfect amount of seasoning and, after grilling, develops a crust with crunch. One taste of that rich beef could make a vegetarian stray. His luxuriously buttery sauce, strongly flavored with black peppercorns and a bit of brandy, was so delicious that we passed the little pitcher back and forth, unwilling to let a drop go to waste.

To keep the focus on the entrees, Joseph keeps their partners on the quiet side. His mashed potatoes do not have add-ins and the vegetables, a mix of zucchini and mushrooms and onions, are simply sauteed in butter.

For a sweet finale, Joseph fuses one culinary trend - the cupcake - with another - the molten chocolate cake, with his clever warm chocolate cupcake with creamy chocolate center. In truth it’s a molten chocolate cake, and I had tired of this particular dessert, which rarely lives up to the drama of its oozing, hot chocolate center.

This cupcake does.

The outside of the cake is crisp, like the top of a souffle; its center tastes of very good, bitter chocolate. A scoop of house-made vanilla bean ice cream cuts through the richness.

I loved Joseph’s chewy almond tuile cookie shell filled with the same vanilla ice cream and topped with sour cherries that are tossed in a bit of caramel. Sour cherries are such a treat this time of year and the caramel sets off their tartness.

You won’t get off cheap at St. Michel. Appetizers are $7-$9; entrees top out at $28 and desserts are $8 each. Add wine to that and the tab might make you wince. But, it’s cheaper than dining at a similar restaurant in Manhattan, and you’ll leave thinking of the great moments of your meal - not a list of disappointments. That’s always worth a few extra bucks.


St. Michel Restaurant (7518 Third Ave. between 76th Street and Bay Ridge Parkway in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $15-$28. From Oct. 22 to Nov. 20, chef Joseph Carvo will have a special "Around the World in 30 Days" book of six four-course, prix fixe menus ($28.95) featuring the cuisine of France, Spain, Russia, Greece, Italy and Ireland. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 748-4411.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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