Walk down any Paris street in the quartiers populaires and you'll come across small restaurants where the accent is on food and the pleasant decor incidental. The chef cares about taste, not trends, the mood is companionably casual, and regulars abound. The New Prospect Cafe is such a place. Easily missed between the storefronts on Flatbush Avenue, it can barely shoehorn 40 folks into its yellow dining room, and the crowd is resolutely local: multigenerational families out for a bite, girlfriends catching up over a bottle of wine, and singles hunkered down with their newspapers. It's sophisticated enough to proffer a thoughtful wine list yet relaxed enough so that the wait staff calls regulars by their first names.
My first meal was a Sunday dinner at 5:30 p.m. The cafe was empty, just gearing up, so my friend and I grabbed one of the bigger two-tops. Failing to snag one of the lightly chewy drop biscuits in the bread basket before he devoured them all, I ordered an appetizer special of chicken satay ($6.25), memorable for its tartly sweet dipping sauce with diced cucumber, onion, and bell pepper. My friend moved from biscuits to main course: a trencherman's serving of six spice-rubbed, fork-tender grilled rib lamb chops ($15.75) served over a hillock of garlic mashed potatoes colored with grilled yellow squash, green zucchini, and green bell pepper. I did the diet thing and ordered a salad of arugula with alfalfa sprouts and grilled marinated steak ($6.75): three slices of satisfying meat atop the large, tangy leaves.
Scoping out the room on my second visit, I noticed an eerily familiar face, and realized that New York's senator-elect was also from the nabe. Eavesdropping almost took precedence over eating. But between ear-straining distance and rumbling stomachs we soon found ourselves plotting our own domestic policy in regards to the pan-fried shrimp appetizer ($6.25), which arrived cooked to spicy heat and served with a tomato-infused remoulade and the surprise of a handful of Orville Redenbacher's finest that proved perfect for sopping up the drippings. Rather than reprising the satay as I'd hoped, the skewered chicken over udon with spicy peanut sauce ($4.75) varied the old sesame noodle theme with three hunks of grilled chicken. My friend fared better with her grilled wild mushrooms (actually portabellos that remained earthy and chewy while adapting to captivity) and haricots verts ($5), although the so-called creamy vinaigrette overpowered the delicacy of the grilled beans.
The main courses also showed a few glitches. The masochistic burn of the blackened catfish ($12.25) was soothed by a thick slab of rich, dense corn pudding, but the string beans on the side were inedible elders of the tiny ones in the appetizer. These cellulose stalks also turned up next to the three pieces of tender organic free-range chicken served in a delicious tarragon-scented gravy ($12.75) over garlic mashed potatoes. The eggplant and polenta napoleon ($10.25) was a slightly undercooked near-miss in a roasted tomato reduction drizzled with ricotta. Yet in the end, the glitches meant little. An apple crumb tart passing for apple pie was headily autumnal, while a mixed fruit tart somehow managed to make fresh figs, pineapple, raspberries, and strawberries coexist harmoniously on crème pâtissière. The New Prospect Cafe may not be Paris. But it's a comfortable haven, even for politicians in a world in transition.
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