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St. Ann’s Warehouse is doing more for DUMBO than providing great entertainment. The performance venue is also filling its new neighbor at 5 Front St., the aptly named Five Front restaurant, with celebrities and theatre lovers.

On a recent evening two members of the Kennedy clan sat with friends at a corner table, and actor Diane Wiest flashed a smile as she strolled past my window. While celebrity sightings in Brooklyn are nothing new, finding quiet places in DUMBO to dine on interesting, affordable food is.

Opened in early November, owner Patty Lowry follows the format that has made her other restaurant, Park Slope’s 12th Street Bar & Grill, so popular: employ the talents of 12th Street’s chef, Paul Vicino - who designed Five Front’s creative American cuisine and oversees the kitchen - and serve the elegant yet homey desserts of 12th Street pastry chef Jodi Gordon (recently joined by Tamara Ehlin). Add a warm, well-trained waitstaff, an attractive room and a bar that already has a lively buzz and it’s no wonder Five Front is a hit with the neighborhood.

The two dining areas and the bar make an unpretentious setting for Vicino’s cooking. The decor is early 1980s SoHo with cream-colored stamped tin ceilings, dark, smoky, green walls and earthy, light-colored wood tables and bar. The casual setting is just right for an area divided between artists who want to eat well without going into hock, and those who can afford the renovated loft spaces but want a good meal in a room that doesn’t include a pool table.

Vicino has brought some all-time favorites from his 12th Street repertoire. The Prince Edward Island mussels in a light curry broth have weathered the move; they are just as delicious and heady with curry spices. Ditto for the short rib dumplings - a rich pot roast filling encased in a thin pasta wrapper napped with a concentrated veal demi-glace. His new sea scallops are a successful pairing of the lush with the crisp. The scallops are seared to a crisp crust on the outside and winy inside. The velvety scallops and the brittle strands of fried potatoes that the scallops are served with make an addictive combination.

Vicino’s entrees are hearty and big-flavored yet not heavy. Take his San Vito Di Capo Stew with couscous, inspired by his recent honeymoon in Sicily. The couscous has been cooked in the deepest, richest shellfish stock with a hint of cayenne pepper that leaves a lingering heat in the mouth. Slivers of almonds add textural interest to the grain. Perfectly tender mussels, tiny clams, pink shrimp, big scallops and chunks of monkfish sit atop the couscous. The stew - with its mound of gorgeous pink and white seafood over the golden couscous - is a heart stopper to look at and a sensual delight to eat.

A special boeuf bourguignon played the homely sister to the arresting couscous dish. I can describe the appearance of the dish in one word - beige - but the flavor had plenty of personality. Fork-tender chunks of beef cooked in a red wine sauce were sweetened with slow-cooked onions. Thick ribbons of al dente pappardelle pasta soaked up the winy sauce. I suppose this dish could be called comfort food - it soothes and satisfies the way a well-made stew should - but Vicino’s version is lighter than a traditional stew and cooked with more finesse.

Although the lamb shank was butter soft, its sauce was timidly flavored. The two sides served with the shank, a crisp square of polenta and pleasantly bitter sauteed escarole, made an intriguing threesome with the lamb.

If you crave a good burger, Five Front’s is plump and charbroiled and its accompanying fries are the real thing.

Gordon’s beautifully plated desserts share Vicino’s homespun yet elegant sensibility. Out of the oven comes a puffy, golden square of pumpkin-bread pudding. The dessert has all the aromatic spices that make pumpkin pie so delicious - allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg - in a custardy, richly pumpkin flavored pudding. A scoop of cinnamon ice cream melts over the top of the warm pudding, and a drizzle of maple-laced caramel sauce adds one more luscious element to the dessert.

I loved the chewiness of a pecan cookie-like tart shell softened by a creamy splash of honey-sweetened mascarpone (a creamy Italian cheese). Adding wedges of boozy, brandy-roasted pears to the mix gave the dessert a fruity tang.

Five Front is already the kind of relaxed, hype-free place that older restaurants aspire to. The service is friendly and accommodating, and the rooms never get too noisy. It’s already something special, with or without a Kennedy sighting.


Five Front (5 Front St. at Old Fulton Street) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and Discover. Entrees: $12-$19. For reservations, call (718) 625-5559.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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