Beacon in a Brooklyn Wasteland

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Convivium Osteria
68 5th Ave.
(betw. Bergen St. & St. Mark's Pl.)
Brooklyn, 718-857-1833

About a month ago, I decided to walk up the road from where I live, up the hill, up toward 7th Ave. in Park Slope, to get a haircut and grab some lunch. I was a fool, such a fool, because while there is a perfectly satisfactory barbershop on 7th Ave., there's absolutely no place to grab lunch. Nor dinner, for that matter. Breakfast? Who knows, I eat that at home.

There are numerous theories as to why this is so. One is that Park Slope proper is a self-impressed, stultifyingly predictable bastion of leftists raised on straw-basket Chianti and oily dumplings and the moldering legend of Adlai Stevenson, on politics that haven't budged a whit since 1975 and won't. Another is that Park Slope proper is lousy with parents who require takeout, devoutly rotten takeout, and have never considered the prospect that decent restaurants can also produce takeout, that the birth of children does not instantly invalidate quality takeout.

And so on. But none of this speculation genuinely concerns me. I prefer to study the culinary wasteland of 7th Ave. with a mixture of bemused bafflement and harsh prophecy. Because the restaurant situation in Park Slope is changing. Slowly, very slowly, but it's changing nonetheless. And 7th Ave., that asphalt tenderloin of gourmet boredom, is being left behind.

Call it the Smith St. effect. Park Slope wonders how Boerum Hill, which it once regarded with disdain, can encourage a minor restaurant revolution while the Slope remains mired in irrevocable dining stasis. Trouble is, Park Slope, despite its reputation, is really one of the most conservative neighborhoods in the entire city. The denizens of 7th Ave. want nothing to change, ever. They combine, dispiritingly, lethargy and recalcitrance. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, goes the classic conservative line. In Park Slope, it was always broke, and fixing it would demand a revolution. And much as these people love to sink into their sofas with Reds on the tube, they're about as revolutionary as Calvin Coolidge.

Which means that 7th Ave., for all practical purposes, is out of the action, food-wise. Leaving the next closest major commercial thoroughfare, 5th Ave., down in what a friend of mine calls "Park Gulch," free to begin ridding itself of its bodega-on-every-corner ethos and start getting some new joints.

What potentially ticks me off is that these new restaurants really don't owe any allegiance to 7th Ave., but 7th Ave. will claim them anyway, allying the Gulch with the burgher precincts up the hill. Spiritually, however, these new eateries are much closer to Smith St. (both streets share a past rich in ratty little convenience shops and lots of brown citizens, in thunderous homeboy signification). If it weren't for the vast and threatening chiaroscuro flats?dead warehouses, chainlink fencing, bodyshops, high weeds?that spread across 4th Ave., then bridge the Gowanus Canal on the way to Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill, this affinity would be more obvious. As it stands, however, the gnarled Aquarian tendrils up the hill wind downhill and wrap themselves around the new arrivals, embracing them in a vile countercultural clinch. The new arrivals aren't going to resist?they need the business. But I can complain. If I want to.

Right now, the best restaurant on 5th Ave. is al di la, the cozy Italian trattoria that debuted quietly a little more than two years back, half a block from Cucina, the former boss of the strip, but a restaurant whose shine has begun to fade. Pretty soon, al di la was packing them in, and deservedly. Chef Anna Klinger's Venetian-inflected food was simple and stunning. Her husband and co-owner, Emiliano Coppa, was an able host. Al di la felt more like an everyday eatery, and thus was Klinger and Coppa's scheme to provide a sub-Cucina option for Slopers (and Gulchers) vindicated. Best of all, al di la was of Brooklyn. Oftentimes, Cucina seemed of Paramus.

Still, by contrast with Smith St., and despite the advent of several other new restaurants along the Gulch's spine (including the ill-conceived and recently revamped Vaux), it was a limited triumph. Until Convivium Osteria opened several weeks ago, also under the helm of a husband/wife team. Now, Gulchers can pretty much forget about 7th Ave. altogether. We can hang at the bottom of the hill, alternating between al di la and Convivium and slip every so often into Los Chorros, a tidy Salvadoran off Bergen St., for a bowl of the best chicken soup in the borough. Convivium, based on the info I was able to pick up during one visit (and, honestly, I should have gone back before writing this review, but the place just seems so promising), is a collaborative effort. The cook is Basque, the wife Portuguese, her lover (okay, the husband) Italian.

This ethnic diversity (as well gustatory commonality) has been worked into the menu, which contains a little bit of everything. You could start with some crostini, or some bacalhau, or a seafood soup involving mussels, clams and shrimp. Or you could do what I did, which was select the carciofi all romana con guanciale, a pair of artichokes prepared Roman style, cooked until soft in olive oil, then sprinkled with some chunks of guanciale, a kind of thick bacon, similar to pancetta. It was unbelievably delicious. It was sop-it-up delicious.

I sopped, while listening to the couple seated at my table (some dining is communal, at large heavy tables that the management says they're planning to sell, as a sideline business) gripe about there being too much salt in the whole snapper and the entree-portion bacalhau. I sipped the nice Spanish red table wine that Convivium had thoughtfully provided, gratis, while waiting for their liquor license to come through (they should have it by the time this sees print, and they plan an ambitious wine program, including a basement cellar, along with a selection of sherries, and Port to accompany certain desserts). I pondered the decor, which involved low lights and a variety of Gothic/peasant/dockside motifs?your thick-chain block-and-tackle, your flickering gunmetal candelabras, rough walls bedecked with an assortment of scavenged farming and kitchen implements, dried dangling peppers and pomegranates, leaded stained glass in moody jewel tones, a rustic autumnal diorama arranged in the front windows. The music trickling from discreet speakers was a compilation of nuevo-flamenco songs. Exceptionally post-Gipsy Kings, deeply limber, supple and enough to make me feel very happy.

Just in time for my platter of smoked fish. Trout. Bluefish. Eels!

"Do you know what you're eating?" the wife asked, after suspiciously noticing that I was taking notes on my Handspring Visor (I claimed it was my "hobby," and she didn't buy it, and thus was I busted). "Oh yeah," I babbled. "It was the eels that got me. I just can't get enough...eels."

She pulls up a chair and tells me about the space's former life. I always thought it was a shoe store for Guatemalan midgets who longed to master the tango. Rumor has it, however, that it was a front for a numbers racket. In any case, it's now Convivium Osteria, and Convivium Osteria is preparing to serve tapas during the afternoon and, when the weather warms up, open its back garden. There is joy in Gulchville. (And take note: for the moment, Convivium is operating on a limited dinnertime schedule?call for details.)

I fold over pieces of smoked trout and impale them on my fork, then usher them toward my mouth. Visions of lazy weekdays eating tapas dance in my head. My objectivity is flying right out the front door. Finally, a worthy restaurant right around the corner from my house, and one that serves all the food I love to eat. I poke at a small pile of fennel and dill heaped in the middle of my plate. For dessert, I down a hunk of grilled pecorino cheese, drenched with honey, and I down it fast, and I wish there were more.

"You can sit for as long as you like," the wife tells me. "There's no rush."

But there is a rush: I can't get back soon enough.

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