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SPELLBOUND ON 12TH

Great food and a warm welcome make the 12th Street Bar & Grill feel like home

for The Brooklyn Paper
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A few years ago I was sent on a trip to Paris. Being in the fashion business, my job was to shop in the chicest boutiques. Sounds like a dream trip doesn’t it? Shop till you drop, eat in world-class bistros.

Well, it might have been a dream if I shared more interests with my traveling companion. The boss’ daughter was my date for the trip and her emotional stories of trips to Disney World (told with tears in her eyes) left me speechless.

I was able to escape one evening and dined in a bistro, which in my memory, still glows with a halo of warm light. Delicious aromas wafted about me as the door opened into a charming and unpretentious room. Waiters greeted me like a long, lost friend - and the food! Richly flavored classics, true comfort food that on that evening of hard-won freedom left me feeling coddled and very well fed. I can still remember the taste and smell of every course, and the flavor of that first glass of Bordeaux still lingers.

Park Slope may not be as picturesque as the Left Bank, but right on Eighth Avenue we have a restaurant that rivals the bistro of my memory. With no pretensions, the 12th Street Bar & Grill has been making diners happy for five years.

The room is simple yet elegant, candlelight on the tables make the room feel intimate and the banquettes are comfortable. At its noisiest, when all the tables are full, you can still hear your partner speaking.

Waiters and waitresses greet customers by name, and sometimes, with a hug and kiss.

The evening I was there, a father and his three sons showed up wearing shorts and a T-shirt and didn’t bother with the menu, heavily pierced and tattooed Gen-Xer’s celebrated a birthday and couples brought their parents in from out of town. This eclectic mix of neighborhood folk and their friends have fallen under the 12th Street spell and claimed this gem of a restaurant as their home-away-from-home.

It takes a chef, very secure in his knowledge of technique and seasoning, to be able to create food that satisfies diners on so many levels. Chef Paul Vicino, while not trying to invent the next fusion fad, produces consistently delicious and exciting food. His dishes are as satisfying to see on the plate as they are on the palate. His simple arrangement of mussels topped with nothing more then a sprig of cilantro is classic in its simplicity.

On Monday and Tuesday evenings, 12th Street offers a prix-fixe menu with dishes that vary weekly. A choice of one of three appetizers, three entrees and three desserts for $20 would be a bargain at double the price. We ordered from both the prix-fixe and the standard menus.

There are appetizers of chilled pea soup and a warm zucchini tart on the prix-fixe menu but you would be a fool to pass up the P.E.I. (Prince Edward Island) mussels. Served in a light curried broth, this entree-sized appetizer was the kind of showoff dish that could bring Vicino’s competitors to their knees. The broth had been reduced to a creamy, oceanic pool of pure flavor and the mussels were perfectly tender. We ate it all; sopping up that broth with chewy caraway-studded bread. If the waitress had waited one second longer to take away the bowl, I probably could not have stopped myself from licking it.

Another gutsy first course from the standard menu was the short rib dumplings. Rich, butter-soft meat enclosed in feather-light wrappers and napped with a veal demi-glace reminded me of my mother, the queen of pot roasts - that’s a compliment. A brittle batter gave the stuffed zucchini flowers an exquisite crunch. Filled with pecorino Romano cheese and served over oven-roasted tomatoes they were a delicate delight.

We tried the grilled mahi-mahi, a prix-fixe entree. Vicino coaxed as much flavor from this mild fish as possible and the grilled corn and shiitake mushroom relish served atop the fish gave it good textural contrast. But, next to the steak entree that practically cartwheeled its way to our table, it seemed a little timid.

Meat-and-potatoes people, take note. The steak au poivre on the standard menu will not disappoint. I ordered it rare and it came to the table just this side of sushi. One bite into it and I knew this was the real thing. With a charred edge and a mellow, green peppercorn sauce - this is the steak that leads the herd. The accompanying frites were just salty and crisp enough, and simply sauteed spinach proved to be the perfect counterpoint to all that rich meat.

If you’re ordering prix fixe and steak is what you crave, then order the hanger steak. The man at the table next to me generously passed his plate to his dining companions and received appreciative murmurs of thanks.

By dessert time, we had stuffed ourselves into a stupor. But, prevail we did. If you’re a sweetaholic like myself, you’ll love pastry chef Jodi Gordon’s homey desserts. There are great fruit offerings like a warm peach pie with a chewy oatmeal crust and a baked blueberry coconut crumble.

But, a good chocolate dessert makes me tingle.

The steamed chocolate pudding cake, warm and bittersweet with a crunch of hazelnut toffee and a scoop of hazelnut ice cream rocked my world.

If you’ve ordered from the prix-fixe menu, then be a big spender and splurge on the $39 bottle of Chateauneuf Du Pape, the highest-priced wine on the small wine list. If a single glass is all you need, try the lusty white Bordeaux sold by the glass. It complemented all the big flavors in our meal.

In case you’re wondering why this sophisticated spot is called a "Bar & Grill," here’s your answer. Next door to the restaurant is a bar that serves the same menu as the restaurant, including brunch. If you need a cigarette after your meal and you don’t mind the television on while you’re eating, then welcome to paradise.

 

12th Street Bar & Grill (1123 Eighth Ave. between 11th and 12th streets) is open all week for dinner. Brunch is served on Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm. Starting Sept. 22, brunch will also be served Saturdays from 11 am to 3 pm. Monday and Tuesday prix-fixe dinner: $20. Entrees: $8­$13 for sandwiches; $14­$25 for standard entrees. Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Diner’s Club cards accepted. For more information, call (718) 965-9526.

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