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REVERSE THE CURSE

Chez Henry bravely takes on ill-fated Heights location

for The Brooklyn Paper
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When I heard that Chez Henry had opened at 60 Henry St., I couldn’t help but recall the jinxed restaurants that had come before. I’d dined at that Brooklyn Heights address about a year earlier when the place was Balzar, a bistro of sorts with a difficult-to-define menu and dishes that ranged from dismal to outright travesties.

Before Balzar, there was Isobel, a delightful French restaurant with the terrific chef, Tony Raggiri, manning the kitchen. That, too, lasted only a few months.

Preceding Isobel was tapas bar, Tinto which enjoyed a brief popularity that faded quickly.

So when I found out that Chez Henry had opened in December, I feared the worst.

The owner of the latest venture at this location is Sifeddine "Sif" Asfor, who bought the cafe from Balzar’s Nando Ghorchian. Before taking over the reins here, Asfor worked in the tony kitchens of the Plaza Hotel’s CPS1 and TriBeCa’s Bouley.

Asfor has given the place what Balzar was missing: an identity. In its previous incarnations, the two-level room was too large, making whoever dined upstairs feel isolated. Asfor leveled the floors, curtaining off one portion of the large space and using that area as Cafe Henry, a casual cafe serving pastries, sandwiches and salads. He has painted the main dining room a deep coral that sparkles in the afternoon and topped the wooden floors with comfortably spaced tables, set with heavy silverware, pretty wine glasses and linen cloths.

He matches the setting with a classic French bistro menu. Most of Asfor’s cooking is excellent with strong, clean flavors.

His one flaw? He uses too much sauce - beautifully made sauce, yes - but his heavy hand can overwhelm delicate flavors.

The case of too much of a good thing was apparent with an otherwise delicious appetizer of scallops with braised endive. Asfor sears sea scallops until they’re crusty on the outside and pillowy within, then lays them atop buttery, braised endive and a few quickly sauteed cherry tomatoes. While a splash of rich, tangy sauce made from reduced veal stock, a bit of lemon and parsley would have tied the elements together, he poured on too much, overwhelming the dish. Enjoy this starter without the sauce or ask for the sauce served on the side.

I have no complaints with a deep bowl of wild mushroom bisque. The rich soup possessed the aroma of pine and wood - like the forest after a rainstorm. The mushrooms’ flavors were clean and not muddled. And unlike other thick versions of this soup that can be too rich after a couple of spoonfuls, this version had a lighter consistency.

Both entrees were winners. Two trout filets were lightly sauteed then topped with a drizzle of melted, brown butter heavily laced with lemon, briny capers and a few crunchy croutons. If there was ever a perfect summer dish, this is it. Lightly whipped mashed potatoes and a tangle of woodsy shitake, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms complemented the fish.

Heavier, yet just as satisfying, was Asfor’s Moroccan lamb tagine. He stews big chunks of lamb, huge, silky prunes and figs in a tagine (covered, conical clay pot) until the ingredients plump and absorb the coriander, cardamom and cinnamon. French fries accompany the dish, not the traditional couscous. The shoestring fries are crisp and lightly salted, but I missed the dish’s usual partner.

The strong, rich coffee, brewed in a coffee press, pours two great cups. Tea lovers are offered little tisanes, or bags of leaves made especially for the restaurant. Black tea with orange and pear, and green tea, flavored with wild pineapple and papaya, are two soothing blends to try.

You’ll want to try the banana dessert with a special request to the kitchen: go light on the sauce. Asfor wedges rich vanilla ice cream between two delicate coconut tuiles (thin cookies), then tops it with a circle of banana slices and caramelizes the sugar that tops the fruit. The high-end ice cream sandwich needed a squiggle of lush caramel sauce, not the puddle it came with, to gild the flavors of this dessert.

Too much of a good thing marred the chocolate lover’s warm little cake, too. Like the banana finale, it needed only a dollop of whipped cream - not the collar of it that ringed the dessert - and a tablespoon or two of espresso sauce as an accompaniment.

Asfor is a fine chef who needs to do only one thing to break the spell of bad luck that has plagued 60 Henry St.: when it comes to sauce, repeat this mantra - less is more, less is more, less is more.

 

Chez Henry (60 Henry St. between Cranberry and Pineapple streets in Brooklyn Heights) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $9-$19. The restaurant serves dinner daily and brunch on weekends from 11 am to 4 pm. Cafe Henry serves breakfast and lunch from 6 am to 4 pm. Pastry: $3.80-$4; sandwiches: $5.95. For more information about the cafes, call (718) 243-2083.

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