Rice opens its newest outpost in Fort Greene

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There are few people who don’t like rice. With that truism in mind, partners Peter Lawrence and David Selig have opened five restaurants that celebrate the starch, with three locations in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn. The newest outpost of their Rice chain opened on Fort Greene’s DeKalb Avenue in November.

They’ve found an ideal corner spot in the center of the lively neighborhood with a great view of Fort Greene Park. The casual, brick-walled room is lit with red, industrial hanging lamps. A counter near the kitchen serves as a take-out station and loitering area for a friendly waitstaff that races from the dining area to the tables outside the cafe along Cumberland Street.

The ambience is laid-back, eating-on-the-cheap, aimed at a young, health-oriented clientele. If I base my comments on the DeKalb outpost, where I dined recently, than I have to assume that clients in their twenties can’t resist this place.

I have to guess, too, that it’s the gentle pricing and convivial atmosphere that draws people there.

It can’t be the food.

In fact, the highlight of my dinner was a bracing glass of sake over ice given a sharp tang from fresh ginger.

If the focus of the cuisine were "casseroles of the Midwest," than I could understand nearly flavorless food. But it’s baffling to me that a menu (essentially the same in all locations) that concentrates on Thai, Malaysian, Indian and Mexican cuisines - countries not associated with bland flavors - should yield inexplicably flat tastes.

One appetizer of red "piquillos" peppers, filled with a mix of moist black rice studded with bits of calamari and shrimp, looked lovely surrounded by a pool of pale green avocado sauce. Visually, the dish was a 10. However, the spicing and briny taste of the seafood was subtle to the point of nonexistent.

Most of the dishes are served casually in a bowl with the main ingredients - a curry, for instance - beside the rice. Chopsticks are the utensils of choice, which are fine for lifting mouthfuls of rice but not so great with the red peppers, pieces of which slipped from the sticks and splattered back onto the plate, leaving my white T-shirt looking like a bad Jackson Pollack canvas.

A deep, glass bowl was filled with cold corn chowder and topped with a couple sprigs of dill. It could have been elegant in its simplicity, but those herb sprigs appeared forlorn. As far as the taste went, there wasn’t any.

The two bright notes in an otherwise lackluster meal were a salmon salad and the only dessert that didn’t include rice, a trio of ice cream sandwiches.

The salad included moist pieces of the fish, pungently scented with tea smoke. Mixed greens drizzled with just enough well-seasoned ginger hoisin vinaigrette balanced the richness of fish, but a dollop of grilled scallion mayonnaise had not an iota of the onion’s sharpness.

Good gelato formed the foundation for three diminutive ice cream sandwiches made with crisp, house-baked cookies. Neither the salad nor the finale are destination dishes, but compared to the "Indian Chicken Curry," they’re masterpieces.

The under-seasoned curry is described on the menu as "luxurious" and "creamy." Well, one person’s "luxurious" and "creamy" is another’s glop. Slices of banana and a spoonful of yogurt only enhanced the mush factor. A choice of one of four simple "rices" or one of six "special rices" (rice mixed with another ingredient) came with every order. The basmati rice infused with cilantro, parsley and spinach was nicely herbaceous on its own.

To brighten the plates, several bottles of spicy sauces and chili-infused oils are brought to the table. It’s a necessary touch when the cooks don’t do the work in the kitchen.

"What do you think of that?" I asked my husband, who was forking up "Thai black rice with edamame peas [Japanese soybeans]." (I don’t expect rice and peas to rock my world, but I tried this mix and found it hopelessly dull.)

"I like it," he said. "It tastes healthy."

Everything at Rice tastes healthy. I wish more of it tasted good.

Rice (166 DeKalb Ave. at Cumberland Street in Fort Greene) accepts cash only. Entrees: $4-$14. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available from 10 am to 4 pm on weekends. For more information, call (718) 858-2700.

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