It wasn’t so long ago that stepping out on Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene was a bad idea. Charlotta Janssen and Denis Costaz, however, saw past the avenue’s rough edges and, this past September, opened Chez Lola. The pair also owns Chez Oskar on DeKalb Avenue — the area’s now-staid Main Street — yet they have fully embraced their new home on the neighborhood’s latest frontier.
Janssen’s carefully crafted setting has a languid 1920s-style glamour; a patron could spend an evening letting his eyes wander slowly from one area of the eatery to another, from the shelves behind the mahogany bar lined with tea-colored Japanese patterns to the clever wine rack made from the coils of an old box spring. In the back, and just right for the warm weather, is a gorgeous, tree-shaded terrace, its floor patterned in green and cream marble diamonds. A mix of antiques is casually displayed along one wall. The garden would make an unforgettable setting for an informal wedding.
For the menu, the duo has tapped into the considerable talents of Octavio Simancas who has also served as executive chef at Chez Oskar. Unlike the mostly French menu there, however, Chez Lola offers traditional bistro standards as well as dishes with a global influence. The fare is lighter than French classics, with a liberal use of fresh herbs and olive oil standing in for butter.
Each evening, Simancas offers special homemade ravioli that can be shared as an appetizer. Recently, the paper-thin pasta squares were filled with moist, savory braised lamb shank and splashed with a woodsy mushroom broth. Large, meaty slices of Portobello mushrooms crowned the pasta, and a shower of chopped parsley lent its clean taste to the dish.
A big bowl of steamed manila clams could easily serve two. The assemblage of sweet, tender mollusks was bathed in a bracing, curry-laced broth of white wine, lemon juice and garlic. No one at my table could resist dipping slices of crusty bread into the lush soup. There wasn’t a drop left when the waitress cleared away the dish.
Another winning starter featured the sunny tastes of Spain. Simancas cut the richness of grilled fresh tuna “escabeche” with tart, lemony slices of caramelized green and red peppers.
Entrees zigzag all over the globe, stopping in Morocco for lamb tagine and France for a chicken breast Provencal. There are also visits to Spain, New Zealand and the United States.
A good old American sirloin steak was given a French twist with a crust of black pepper. The meat was ordered medium rare and arrived perfectly seared, full of deep mineral flavor and cooked to a rosy tenderness with big shiitake mushroom caps making a soft foil to the dense beef.
And the frites! They’re thin, full of potato flavor and salty enough to warrant the glass of Bordeaux I ordered. (The wine list is well priced with a few esoteric choices in the mix, though it could use more offerings by the glass.)
A thick slice of salmon steak was as bold and satisfying as the sirloin. The fish was moist with its ring of fat seared to a crisp crust. It sat over a hash of Yukon gold potatoes tossed in a pleasing dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and parsley.
It’s a pleasure to read a dessert menu without the holy trinity — cheesecake, molten chocolate cake and tiramisu — that appear in too many of the borough’s eateries. But, alas, this list promises more than it delivers.
Who could pass on a “white chocolate lavender bread pudding”? Not me. It started with a promising spoonful of silky creme anglaise lightly perfumed with the herb. Too bad the pudding lacked the custardy moistness that makes the dessert so delectable. “Libby Hellman’s crunchy meringue pie” tasted like something you’d find on a Passover Seder table: not crunchy, rather dry and with a strong, nutty taste. But a tart was dubbed “the best chocolate dessert I’ve ever had” by the pastry chef at my table. I concurred. The cocoa crust was thin, buttery and brittle, and the silky filling possessed an intriguing bittersweet edge.
Myrtle Avenue might no longer be “Murder Avenue,” but it still has some grit around the edges. With newcomers like Chez Lola, however, I foresee a promising future.
Chez Lola (387 Myrtle Ave., between Clermont and Vanderbilt avenues) accepts American Express and cash only. Entrees: $9.50-$20. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available on weekends from 11 am to 5:30 pm. Subway: C and G to Clinton/Washington Ave., B,M,Q,R to DeKalb Ave. For information, call (718) 858-1484 or visit www.bistrolola.com.