Although it has been open barely a month, Avenue Bistro (520 Columbus Avenue, at 85th Street; 579-3194) already has the feeling of a familiar and confidently comfortable neighborhood spot. Instead of attempting to establish a slice of Virtual France in the middle of Manhattan, co-owner Scott Campbell -- the chef behind the inventive cuisine of Vince & Eddie's -- has created a modern, welcoming room that feels more Upper West Side than it does Ersatz Left Bank.
From the simplicity of the room, you would never guess that this site was once the home of Joe's Fish Shack, a restaurant with a kitschy beach-shack motif that suggested a theme-park café for aging Jimmy Buffett fans. A patchwork of gilt mirrors and clerestory windows lends an openness to the space. Shooting off from the main dining area is a convenient set of dining nooks that are well suited to sequester either havoc-wreaking children or privacy-seeking celebrities, most likely those from the classical-music world, who know Campbell well from his catering work for many New York Philharmonic events. The rapport no doubt explains why the background music is almost always classical. "Nothing against Ella Fitzgerald," Campbell observes, "or even the Gipsy Kings, but it seems that too many restaurants pick exactly the same Retro Jazz or Euro Pop because they think that's what a New York bistro is supposed to have."
Not that Campbell throws all tradition to the winds. Like any self-respecting bistro maven, he offers steak-frites, served with a shallot-rich wine sauce. The rest of the menu is French in feel with some modern American twists. From the petite plates (or appetizers), I was seduced by a salad of peeled and seeded beefsteak tomatoes, now coming into their summer peak. It is graced with crunchy, whole breakfast radishes (thinner and not so sharp as regular radishes) and dressed with a vinaigrette infused with an oil of fine herbs and juice from the tomatoes. Lumps of crumbly Roquefort give power to this light starter. Campbell's fried calamari -- a dish that I thought offered little room for interpretation -- surprised me: The bite-size pieces of squid were tender, not chewy, dusted with flour and flash-fried to produce an unexpectedly light crust. Instead of offering the standard marinara or aïoli, Campbell sets forth an Asian-inspired dipping sauce of coriander, lemongrass, jalapeños, sugar, and lime juice.
For the "intermediare" plates (more food than an appetizer but less than a full-blown entrée), Campbell again departs from the classic canon, skipping steak tartare in favor of a tuna tartare with spinach and a ponzu dressing. In the same spirit of invention, his grilled foie gras with rhubarb-strawberry compote is sweet, richly gamy, and piquant all at once, an ultra-upgraded version of the old bistro standby of liver, vinegar, and onions.
The grande plates (entrées) include a number of hearty dishes. The house-smoked loin of pork is prepared on a Li'l Chief smoker (the kind you see at football tailgate parties). The cold smoking gives the meat an ineffable wood-fired succulence, an effect enhanced by the accompanying salty jus. A breast of chicken is cooked on the bone (to keep it moist) and served alongside a boned-out leg stuffed with goat cheese, walnuts, and bacon, an irresistible, deeply flavored combination.
Tom Cutler's desserts, like the rest of the food, are American-inspired with French culinary finesse. His cobbler of seasonal berries would hold its own at any midwestern church picnic, and the Vermont walnut tartlet comes with maple ice cream that's as rich, buttery, and sweet as a Parisian crème brûlée.
Open 8 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, till 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Appetizers, about $8; mid-size items, about $12; entrées, about $16. There is a full bar with a reasonably priced and well-chosen wine list. A.E., M.C., V.