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MODERN APPEAL

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Who can explain chemistry? Not the test tube in the laboratory kind, but that "click" that happens when something - shoes, a stranger, a restaurant - feels just right.

I was hearing that "click" big time when I walked into Melt, an American bistro that opened in Park Slope in June. Being a lover of all things modern, I admired the rich chocolate and cream color scheme, the simple white tables and the curvy, dark wood bar.

The chic room is a collaboration between River Architects, a design concern in Cold Spring, New York, and the bar and restaurant consultant Cenk (pronounced "Jenk") Fikri, who serves as Melt’s manager. The interior could grace the pages of any contemporary design shelter magazine, but feels inviting with zero pretension.

In a way, chef Brian Bunger’s menu reflects the setting - or vice versa. His dishes combine retro classics like smoked salmon canapes (fabulous with the Nova atop thin slices of green apple) with subtle, global touches. The food is boldly flavored, unfussy and satisfying. You could call it fusion, but it’s more evolved than that: his dishes are a natural joining of diverse ingredients with well-honed technique. That’s modern American cooking now.

Bunger has fun with appetizers. He puts a spin on the classic Italian prosciutto and melon, by pairing the ham with cubes of sweet watermelon and drizzling both with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling the top with goat cheese. It’s a delightful, sweet and salty, oily and crisp combination that makes the fruit taste fresher and the meat richer.

Not as creative, yet equally good, were two plump, garlicky, pan-seared shrimp given a jolt of heat with a dab of jalapeno-cucumber relish.

I could have gobbled up the entire plate of grilled whole baby octopus, as much for their smoky char as the little pile of mixed greens dressed with tart sherry vinaigrette that kept the mollusks on the plate.

Bunger has come up with a great collaboration: roasted quail with foie gras (a special appetizer). The nutty quality of the lean bird makes a great foil for the unctuous liver.

While the entrees aren’t as experimental as the starters, they’re hardly boring. I doubt there’s moister meat or an entree served with such well-matched partners as the short ribs: two fall-off-the bone servings are placed atop chipotle pepper-laced mashed potatoes that carried a real punch of heat; a mound of buttery, velvety braised cabbage joined the duo.

Grilled North Atlantic salmon was enlivened with a coriander-ginger glaze and coupled with whipped potatoes made spicy with the Japanese root wasabi. Tiny squares of roasted carrots and potatoes were added more for decoration than flavor.

Not that Bunger is anti-vegetable. With a plate that stars a different seasonal variety each evening and always includes garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach, as well as a pot pie with slow-braised root vegetables and white beans - non-meat eaters will feel right at home.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two carb-loaded highlights of my meal. After you’ve ordered, a waitress walks around with a basket and deposits some of the best focaccia, sourdough slices and chewy olive bread.

If you’re a "pommes frites" freak (who isn’t?), order a side with garlicky herb aioli (French mayonnaise). They’re like the golden age of McDonald’s fries - and I mean that in the most flattering way. Years ago, a trip to the Golden Arches meant a serving of the thinnest, crispest fries imaginable. Melt’s are just as addictive.

So is the quartet of creme brulees. Even if your New Year’s resolution is to never again eat this dessert, you should try Bunger’s mini-cup foursome anyway. His vanilla is like pure, fresh cream; the peanut butter tastes of newly ground nuts; the rich chocolate possesses a hint of hazelnut; and the espresso is like a dream cup of java: rich, strong and aromatic.

On Tuesday evenings, Bunger or another chef in residence for the evening, serves a $20 prix fixe, five-course tasting menu of other cuisines - Mediterranean one week; Asian the next. On Thursdays, five different wines are added to the dinner for $30. (Reservations for the tasting dinners and wine evenings are strongly recommended.)

I’m planning on going back to Melt soon for a plate of their sublime fries and a glass of the Mark West Pinot Noir (California, 2003), a smoky delight.

Then I’ll order dinner.

Melt (440 Bergen St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Park Slope) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $14-$23. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available on weekends, from 11 am to 4 pm. For reservations, call (718) 230-5925.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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