Safe at Home
New Prospect Cafe 393 Flatbush Ave. (betw. Plaza St. & Sterling Pl.), Brooklyn 718-638-2148
Right now, those of us lucky enough to inhabit the boomingest New York in the long history of booming New Yorks both benefit and suffer from too many terrific restaurants in one place. I won't go into how deranged it all is?that's common knowledge. Common enough, anyhow. Nor will I complain. I like restaurants. I like restaurants that try hard to be New York in notable ways, that pull out all the stops where warranted, that offer eating and environments that simply don't exist in St. Louis or Portland or Houston or any of a dozen other cities with food scenes that nonetheless aren't New York. But it does, this wild surfeit of culinary riches, every so often bring me down. Or more accurately, it wears me out. There are days when I don't want to plan so deliberately my meals away from home. Demoralizing: Either enter my shabby kitchen and throw together yet another of my 10 specialties, to be consumed in front of ESPN SportsCenter's hearth; or doll up and leave the house, strike out, get my hopes up. Pressure. There ought to be alternatives.
Or an alternative, at least. There is one, right up the street from my apartment, on Flatbush Ave. just below Grand Army Plaza in Park Slope. I don't know how long New Prospect Cafe has been around, but I've lived in New York since 1989, for most of that time in Park Slope. And New Prospect has been there with me. An easy place to take for granted, and I do. It's my fail-safe. When I desire nothing fancier than a short walk followed by some food and a glass a wine followed by another short walk (back home), possibly a brief layover at the Korean deli to pick up some ice cream for dessert on a weekend night after the humidity has prematurely descended over Brooklyn life, when that's all I really want, then New Prospect pops instantly to mind.
Now this isn't a very good restaurant we're talking about here. In fact, it's frequently a downright lazy restaurant, cooking subpar food and pushing it on diners who don't have much of a choice, given Park Slope's appalling dearth of anything that even vaguely resembles decent, basic eateries. Unless you amble down to 5th Ave. ("Park Gulch," as my friend Karen has tagged it) to eat at the exceptional al di la (the best restaurant in Brooklyn, if you ask me) or the superb Peruvian Coco Roco, scoring a decent meal in Park Slope is a pain in the ass. Thank Christ, then, for New Prospect, even if the food isn't significantly better than what I can make for myself at home. That's the whole point, right? I don't have to make it myself, but it stacks up about the same. There's an admirable economy in that.
The truth is, although the New Prospect rarely?well, to be honest, never?stokes that gourmandizing flame that flickers in the heart of me, I usually leave happy. The analogy is the Park Slope barbershop where I get my hair cut, not always well, but well enough. Haircut. Food. Each can be horrible. Each can fail. But...it'll grow out. It'll be digested in a few hours. It will be over and done with.
"New Prospect Cafe?Just Good Enough." That ought to be the restaurant's motto. Off I go, usually with a book, though the last time with Sports Illustrated (they're running a weekly golf roundup, and I figured that'd get me through a glass of wine or two). Yes, it's true: I dined alone. Where's the shame?
The New Prospect could only exist in Park Slope. The mildly stimulating, usually quite bad, local art they hang on the walls; the pretty young waitresses, possessed of that sunny void of ambition common in Park Slope residents who don't cross water to get to work; the slightly slapdash decor, smallish tables and unsturdy wood chairs, a snug banquette up by the window, yellow walls; the chalkboard specials scrawled in Crayola tones; the hodgepodge of culinary trends, a little something for everybody, for all races and creeds and kinks, for fags and dykes and black folks and the odd Dominican and frizzy Jewish girls and skatepunks going doughy and bald as their 30s creep up. And even golf-playing whiteboys in tortoise-shell hornrims and polo shirts from the Gap.
I debated whether to start with blackened duck and fontina fajitas with green mole and sour cream, or with grilled wild mushrooms and haricots verts with a mustard Chablis dressing. In the end, it was the combination of "blackened" and "fajitas" in the same menu description that wooed me to the mushrooms, which were really just one large mushroom, a juicy portobello grilled dark like a fungal flank of perplexing meat, then sliced atop a bed of mixed greens. Deeply so-so. I wasn't sure what to do with the dressing, which was applied in decorative dollops. I think I might have been happier had the kitchen gone ahead and swirled it in with the supporting salad. The haricots were good, though, making the dish partially worthwhile, if not especially remarkable. String beans are string beans. Treat them with minimal fuss and they will reward with a satisfying crunch and measured bursts of green pungency.
While waiting for the next course, sipped my bracing '98 seyval blanc from New York's Finger Lakes region (at $15 for a bottle, the best value on a limited wine list that includes all the usual suspects: your Chianti, your Rioja, a couple of medium-wattage, downmarket chardonnays). Lively little wine, a successful Northeastern take on a citrusy sauvignon blanc from California or New Zealand. Curious varietal, by the way, seyval blanc. According to my Oxford Companion to Food, the grape itself is a French hybrid, developed in the 1980s by a guy named Bertille Seyve and his father-in-law, Victor Villard. Designated "Hybrid number 5276" (just in case you're in the market for something to grow on that backyard trellis), seyval blanc does well in cool weather, and is popular in Canada and New England. But get this: because its genetic structure is not purely related to the classic vinifera line, from which all high-end wines are supposed to originate, the European Union has banned it for anything other than plonk. A mutt grape, in other words. A half-breed.
Anyhow, it makes a nice cheap white. Let's move on. My entree was grilled salmon. Dull as dirt. And that's why I chose it. I've eaten at New Prospect a lot. I know better than to bite on "Cheese, Scallion and Cilantro Enchiladas with Green Mole and Rice." Or "Cajun Spiced Shrimp with Chipotle Remoulade." Remoulade? I don't think so. When I make my New Prospect walk, it's grilled free-range chicken or turkey meatloaf (also, regrettably, prepared "Cajun," but the side of garlic mashed potatoes and aioli is pretty good). Polenta. Kebabs and couscous. I switch off the wine-snob side of my brain. Don't worry about it. Choose the least expensive selection, maybe from an offbeat region (say...the Finger Lakes?), and just drink. Wash down my food and perform no swishings or swirlings or anything else that could be construed as oenophilic excess. A healthy exercise every once in a while. Reminds me that wine is a beverage, not some sort of heaven-sent elixir to be mooned over, worshipped, idolized or handled with the sort of delicacy and reverence we normally reserve for weapons-grade plutonium and perfect B-cups.
They always have quality soups and a half-dozen salads on offer at New Prospect, as well. If I hadn't been in a mushroom mood the last time I visited, I definitely would have sampled the roast carrot soup. But not the gazpacho. Gazpacho needs to go away for a while. It's the most unimaginative warm-weather soup a restaurant can offer. I mean, honestly?try pureeing some other vegetables, for a change. Shock the regulars by refusing to kowtow to the cult of cold pulverized tomato broth, to this needlessly acidic Spanish soup that's typically overspiked with cilantro, lousy with garlic, and has achieved a following far from the sophisticated dining precincts in which we are assumed to dwell.
I passed on dessert. Got out for less than $40. Nothing on the menu costs more than about $17, so it's always possible to justify concluding sweets, even if you're operating on the typical Brooklyn freelancer budget. I, however, did not elect to top off my tank with sugar at the restaurant. Instead, I stopped at the bodega on the way home and bought some Ben & Jerry's. Ice cream is a barbarism, under most circumstances, in May. But not this May, in this prematurely wilting spring. The confection came on the heels of a dinner that was, precisely and unambitiously, good enough.