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BLUE CRUSH

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Never heard of the Bluestone Bar & Grill?

Here’s the reason: The restaurant is in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, a largely residential and maritime neighborhood in the early stages of a culinary upgrade. Located on Columbia Street at the corner of Kane Street, the only sign marking the restaurant’s presence is a small, neon "Bluestone" in a corner window.

Vanessa Whalen, Bluestone’s owner, an English ex-pat who settled in San Francisco before she drove cross-country, stopped in Brooklyn for lunch and never left. She opened Bluestone’s doors in September. Whalen relies on good word of mouth, not advertising, to draw customers into her congenial place.

"Get the kinks out first," she says.

Few kinks remain in her comfortable spot, a neighborhood hangout that appears to be populated with old friends and local foodies. (Helen, of Union Street’s Helen’s Fabulous Cheesecake, sat nearby eating fish and chips.)

The front room is low-key with a long bar manned by Stephen Church who shakes a delectably frothy apple or raspberry Cosmo, forgiving lighting and Whalen’s vintage 1960 Lambretta motorcycle parked near the kitchen.

Curvy, high-backed blue banquettes that resemble waves border the dining room, and the music (Santana’s "Black Magic Woman" for one) is kept at a volume that makes conversation possible. Around the entrance are blue-tinted paving stones, a relic of the area’s sidewalks and the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.

The hearty menu of American fare is nothing fancy, but satisfying enough to make finding this out-of-the-way place worth the effort.

All the usual suspects - chili, Buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks and burgers - that you’d expect on a bar menu are in place, side-by-side with salads, sandwiches and simple yet well-made entrees.

Having had one-too-many lousy Caesar salads, I ordered the "Classic Caesar," bracing myself for the worst.

I love a good surprise.

Bluestone’s Caesar is the real thing - the romaine chilled and crisp, the dressing creamy and nicely coating the greens, the cheese freshly grated, plenty of anchovies, and the croutons straight out of the skillet - not the box.

Another appetizer, the grilled shrimp rolled in English bacon had that "what’s the point?" quality. The salty bacon completely overpowering the shrimp; the side of greens buried in dressing.

But, why quibble about a few flaws when Bluestone’s entrees are so pleasing? Take the rotisserie chicken. Like the Caesar, it’s one of those dishes that promise so much and usually deliver so little.

This roasted bird is flawless.

Crisp-skinned, well-seasoned, moist and with plenty of flavor inside, Whalen scores big points for using top-grade, free-range poultry and for standing vigil over the meat, pulling it off its poker the moment the skin turns golden.

Whalen takes as much care with the generous sides. Mashed potatoes are chunky and marbled with garnet thanks to beets that add only their color; thick slices of yellow and green zucchini were charred on a grill until soft. If you’re down, order this dish with a glass of wine and you’ll feel like everything is right with the world.

Three thin, grilled lamb chops, rich with flavor, were rare and topped with melting slices of thyme-enhanced sweet butter. They’re served with hand-cut, crusty fries, the grilled zucchini, and, like the chicken, were as proper a meal as one could wish for.

The dessert roundup is small but contains two must-haves: Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie and chocolate bread pudding. For anyone who hasn’t tried Steve’s Key Lime Pie, made in Red Hook, it’s the archetype for all Key lime pies. The graham cracker crust is thin and brittle and the filling is sharply citrus with an herbal note.

As for the bread pudding - somewhere between a warm chocolate pudding and a dense souffle - this bittersweet confection puts most chocolate cakes to shame. Served atop a puddle of creme anglaise, the dessert alone is worth a trip to Bluestone.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly dated, I liked Bluestone’s "vibe." It feels like an artist hangout without the attitude: I don’t think anyone would notice if you wore a brown sweater instead of a tight black T-shirt. It’s not a place I’d venture to for an important celebratory meal, but I’d be happy to honor the smaller moments of life there and taste that chicken once again.

 

Bluestone Bar & Grill (117 Columbia St. at Kane Street in the Columbia Street Waterfront District) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. Entrees: $9-$16. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, from 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday. For further information, call (718) 403-7450.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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