Lounge Act

When it comes to keeping downtown's dining scene hip, it takes a village.

 Mollie Fontaine is the latest addition to Karen Carrier's portfolio of restaurants, which include The Beauty Shop, Do, and Automatic Slim's Tonga Club. These eateries are all known for their fun, funky, and imaginative décor as well as lively well-prepared food featuring unusual and sometimes outrageous flavor combinations. Carrier has a knack for hitting upon just the right vibe, and this latest effort is no exception.

Mollie Fontaine is housed in the Victorian mansion that had been Cielo restaurant. I have fond memories of Cielo (our wedding dinner took place there), but felt from recent visits it was time for something new. The restaurant always had some hip lounge areas, and now it's wall-to-wall lounge, with retro couches and chairs (some upholstered in hot pink, others in gold), funky painted coffee/side tables, and plenty of striking artwork and fixtures. The colorful finishes on the walls have been freshened up, a downstairs bar added to the original one on the second floor, and the piano moved downstairs (DiAnn Price still plays three nights a week).

This place offers an unconventional dining experience, in that you are eating from small plates on a coffee table or side table. So don't expect to be tucking your knees under a white-clothed dinner table for the usual appetizer-entrée-dessert lineup. The appetizers range from house-marinated olives to steamed mussels to crispy duck rice paper rolls. We dined there twice, managing to try 18 of the 26 small plates on the menu, plus four of the five desserts.

A few dishes proved to be underwhelming. The warm ricotta was bland and forgettable, the tempura long beans marred by the greasy pronto-pup coating, the Greek salad fresh but unremarkably seasoned, and the avocado tempura needing more than the accompanying grape tomatoes with hot-pepper relish to give it personality.

More successful among vegetarian offerings were the wok watercress with its interesting and subtle lemon and sesame flavors, and the twice-baked potato, a flavorful white-cheddar-infused variation on that ubiquitous bar snack, potato skins.

We enjoyed all three sandwiches on the menu. The fish club on toasted brioche combined a snapper filet with avocado, sweet marmalade, and the usual BLT trio (although the bacon was so scant we had to open the sandwich to make sure it was there). The souvlaki was sublime, a slice of rare grilled lamb embellished with mint, tahini, tomato, watercress, and French fries rolled up in a warmed thick pita. The Fontaine sliders consisted of two small fragrantly grilled burgers with pickles, tomatoes, arugula, white cheddar, and various condiments on Krystal-burger-size buns, fresh and delicious.

The rest of the dishes were more in line with the culinary tempo one expects from Karen Carrier and company. Calamari was tender and thickly dusted with an intriguing smoked paprika, giving it loads of flavor. Grilled radicchio wrapped with Serrano ham with balsamic syrup boldly combined the charred, bitter flavor of the radicchio with the salt of the ham, a surprisingly effective harmony. The crispy duck rice paper rolls consisted of fresh mint, pickled plum, and other robust ingredients in a chewy but paper-thin wrap: a delicious and refreshing combination. A generous bowlful of tenderly steamed mussels were served in a red-curry-and-coconut-milk sauce that was luscious and full of spunky flavor.

Mollie Fontaine's delectable take on macaroni and cheese consisted of orchiette (little ears) in a thick fontina/Gruyere sauce spiked with bacon. It was a favorite at our table, as was the Fontaine fish fry. This consisted of oysters, domino-size fish pieces, and shellfish chicken-fried and served with French fries in a Chinese-takeout container, with malt vinegar and a peppy tartar sauce on the side.

The chicken dumplings were crisp-fried triangular disks filled with minced chicken and intense flavors of peanuts, salt, and hot peppers. Reminiscent of classic Spanish tapas were the garlic shrimp, with its complex sherry sauce and crusty bread slices for dipping, and the Serrano ham, which consisted of thin slices of this salty Spanish cured ham topped with pieces of arugula, Asian pear, raw fennel, and olives.

Two desserts — the chocolate crème brûlée and banana cream pie — stood out from the crowd. Also excellent was the fresh-baked blackberry cobbler, piping hot and served with homemade vanilla ice cream. The toasted brioche chocolate sandwich, literally melted chocolate between two slices of brioche, wasn't that compelling.

Since the focus is on cocktails, the wine list at Mollie Fontaine is short and sweet. Most of the 15 bottles are priced below $40 and all of them available by the glass. Specialty cocktails include mojitos and sugar-rimmed martinis.

The service is well matched to this type of dining, the wait staff prompt with food and drink and attentive to checking the progress of both. The servers we had were enthusiastic about the menu in a way that was contagious and added to the experience. They made good recommendations, and knew the menu well. One note: You have to ask for bread and water, as they are not brought automatically.

Mollie Fontaine Lounge succeeds on many levels, particularly in the way it adds new life to the mansion at 679 Adams. The place looks fabulously retro and quirky, while retaining much of Cielo's unique visual charm. Sharing little plates of food on coffee tables is just right for this place. Many of the dishes we had were first rate, and in keeping with the lively menu Carrier is known for. I'm thinking of the steamed mussels, grilled radicchio, the paprika-dusted calamari, the sliders, the souvlaki, the duck rolls and the chocolate crème brûlée. Others were ho-hum and rather bland, including the warm ricotta, the tempura long beans, and the avocado tempura. The winners far outweigh the losers, though. Carrier's ability to create a great vibe with good food to match shines through once again at this funky, upbeat lounge. M

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