Cavernous loft spaces or intimate bistros, all too many restaurants today seem ready for franchising, and too few are marked with the originality of an owner’s personality— spots where a single can be served with the same style as a couple or a group, where a book or magazine at a table is not a signal for the waitstaff to disappear, where a few artsy types are scattered around for variety and spice. Fort Greene’s Chez Oskar is such a place in the making. I’d had my eye on it since its original incarnation as the extremely short-lived Chesapeake, but the Oyster Bar look never fit the neighborhood and the place died aborning— only to metamorphose. A muted puddle of light outside and a hand-lettered sign in cursive French script on the double doors are all that signal something going on. The white tile and wood interior has morphed into a comfy den in a style best described as art-student North African. Pratt students canoodle at the bar while dreadlocked families take Junior to dinner at the tables facing the burgundy velvet banquettes. The eclectic mix would seem the handiwork of the eponymous Oskar, but he’s such a subtle host I didn’t meet him. Instead I found the two waitresses who keep the place running smoothly: a smoky-eyed Moroccan and a pert blonde Parisian.
On my first visit, I was taken by the international style of a place that could as easily be found in an alleyway of the 7th, the original Soho, or anywhere artists and students gather. The simple menu accents things French, ranging from a chicory salad to an assiette de charcuterie ($7) that offered a plate of rondels of garlicky, chewy sausage circling a ramekin of unctuous pâté perfect for spreading on the hunks of pain de campagne. The frisée ($7) was not for the faint of heart, topped with a poached egg and laced with chunks of slab bacon, potato, and the surprise of sautéed chicken gizzards. Well dressed with a sharp vinaigrette, it reminded me why the oft-attempted dish is such a classic. A crisp-skinned breast of chicken with a thin, lightly crusted polenta cake and a savory mix of tomatoes and olives ($14) and a truite au bleu served with boiled tomato and potatoes ($15.50) continued the simple-is-best theme. A wonderfully stinky mess of spinach and garlic ($5) was almost sensory overkill.
Candles still flickered on the black wood tables when I returned, but this time growing pains were in evidence. A wall of sound that would have given Phil Spector a headache greeted us from the jazz group that played on heedless of the decibel-multiplying tin ceiling. Dulling it was almost impossible, as the bar was out of our first three wine choices. The food, though, was still special: an order of moules marinières ($7.50) yielded a rich onion-and-garlic-infused broth that demanded not only bread for sopping, but a spoon. A simple green salad ($5.50) was transformed by a sautéed onion balsamic vinaigrette with enough oil to lightly coat the fresh leaves. The canard à l’orange was a pinwheel of slices cooked to tender medium rare and served with roasted potatoes and a mix of carrots and celery chunks scented with thyme. Sure, the quiche Lorraine ($6.50) was only good, the chocolate mousse ($5) not smooth enough, and the crème caramel ($5) a little anemic in the caramelization department. There’s still plenty of satisfaction to be derived from this Fort Greene work in progress.