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The Fire This Time

Reborn on Rivington Street, the new Deanna's is a slightly illicit gem that features simple food, a grand piano, and a plush speakeasy aura.

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If the name Deanna's (107 Rivington Street; 420-2258) rings a bell -- an alarm bell, even -- it's probably because you're thinking of a restaurant by the same name which was, a few years ago, destroyed by fire. The flame-grilled demise of that East Village restaurant has not deterred its eponymous owner, Deanna Kirk, from starting all over again on the Lower East Side. Now her new place -- which opened last month -- is catching fire in an entirely metaphorical way.

Deanna's is located in an old twenties Yiddish theater that was subsequently transformed into a meatpacking plant. These days, the atmosphere recalls a high-class dive in the Prohibition era. Pull aside the curtain that encloses the entrance to the restaurant, and you are surprised by a large and luxurious space: There is a salon area by the front window with a scattering of armchairs and sofas; wood paneling; brown leatherette banquettes; candlelit tables with crisp white tablecloths; and a Steinway piano on which a lady crooner -- Ms. Deanna herself -- leans for support as she sings timeless ballads to the accompaniment of a pianist and a trumpet player. The speakeasy atmosphere is completed by the fact that Deanna's has no liquor license -- it may soon -- and a faintly illicit aura attaches to the bottles of hooch that customers have brought in to drink.

Deanna cheerfully volunteers that she has learned a lot from the bumpy ride of her first (smaller and more chaotic) restaurant venture. All I can say is that the new setup bears all the signs of having been carefully thought out. The number of tables has been kept down, which gives everybody elbow room and that sense of luxury essential for a supper-club atmosphere, and, more important, the menu has also been pared down to a limited but potent selection of simple American and Mediterranean dishes: There isn't much to choose from here, but whatever you select will be well cooked and satisfying and, as likely as not, very garlicky.

This establishment's attention to detail is straightaway evident in the freshly grilled pita-bread-and-olive-oil pre-appetizer: The bread is warm and crisp, and the oil is carefully flavored with red pepper, rosemary, and garlic slices. The steamed mussels ($4.50 for the appetizer portion, $8 as an entrée) are crawling with cloves of garlic and delicious: The mollusks' flesh is firm, and the white-wine broth is pungent and suitably restrained. The crispy shrimp comes with black-bean hummus ($7.50) and goes down nicely, and the tomato-and-basil bruschetta ($5.50) has properly grilled croutons and sweet, freshly chopped tomatoes that avoid overliquidity.

Since these three dishes (along with mixed baby greens, $4) are the only starters -- as I said, Deanna likes to keep things simple -- it's on to the main courses and yet more garlic. The burger (with fontina or American cheese, $8.50) is an excellent, nongreasy, appropriately charred inch of beef that is served with a thicket of watercress and French fries of extreme munchability riddled with, yep, fried garlic fragments. Roast chicken (with garlicky mashed potatoes and green beans, $13.50) is juicy and rosemary-scented; grilled vegetables ($10.95) consist of green onion, wonderfully sugary red pepper, yellow squash, sweet onions, eggplant, green beans, and spinach and are smoky and fresh of flavor. And finally -- and here's the litmus test for this kind of cooking -- there are steak-frites (with garlic fries and green beans, $17). As regards the frites, see "French fries" above; as regards the steak, see under tender, smothered in mushrooms, and cooked to a T.

For all of its sultry speakeasy charm, Deanna's has an inclusive, familial atmosphere: There are babies and oldsters here; the musicians are goofily amiable; and the proprietor, whose mother sometimes plays the piano, wanders around making everybody feel at home.

Deanna's is open from 6 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Sunday. Cash only.


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