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Eggs, cucumber, tomato, and crab in a salad.
The crab Louie at Swoony’s.

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You Won’t Miss the Pasta at Swoony’s

It’s is a worthy follow-up to Cafe Spaghetti that looks to retro American dining

When Sal Lamboglia’s Cafe Spaghetti opened in the summer of 2022, it was a breath of fresh air in far northwestern Carroll Gardens, a modern Italian American restaurant that boldly modernized the idiom, with updated dishes and a breezy back garden like a sunny square in Sorrento.

Its follow-up opened in November around the corner, at 215 Columbia Street, near Union Street. Going by the intentionally silly name of Swoony’s, it is in nearly every way the opposite of its predecessor — but every bit as good, and to my way of thinking, even better.

A long bar with bartender, a customer at a table on the left.
The antique barroom is in front.
A room with china cabinets up near the ceiling.
The dining room is like grandma’s parlor.

The three-story house was built in 1931, and the interior seems mired in that era. There’s a bar in front that might have once been crowded with longshoremen, hanging lampshades in the Tiffany style, stamped tin walls and ceilings, and mahogany glass cabinets that wrap around the dining room filled with vintage platters, pitchers, pickle plates, and gravy boats used in the dinner service.

Swoony’s qualifies as a bistro, with food that also has a pleasing old-fashioned quality. Pointedly, there is no pasta and very little Italian food of any kind — the heart of Cafe Spaghetti’s menu. One don’t-miss dish that illustrates the approach is crab Louie ($18), a salad of lump crabmeat with sliced vegetables invented in either San Francisco or Seattle before 1914; this starter definitely has a West Coast feel. The salad arrives deconstructed, and concealed underneath is a mayo-drenched cabbage slaw that should be vigorously mixed in with other elements. Every bite is a pleasure.

Other appetizers include lamb meatballs with rosemary yogurt that’s just so-so, and a tuna tartare that I didn’t try — both are standard on contemporary bistro menus. Then there are a couple of salads — one an iceberg wedge with bacon and blue cheese dressing — and some sides intended to accompany the main course, including one of steakhouse spinach with a thick mantle of cream and cheese that I’d highly recommend — in fact, it makes a nice budget-friendly appetizer ($11).

Another starter we tried is one of only two dishes that stray into Italian territory — clams casino ($18). Six to a plate, these are lush with bacon, bell peppers, and bread crumbs, though my friend groused that the bivalves should have been separated from their shells for easier eating. The only Italian entree is a skin-on fish filet in a Manhattan chowder sauce ($29), which is a nifty idea because it adds littlenecks to what is already a delicious dorade in a light tomato sauce.

Three dishes as described seen from overhead.
Lamb meatballs, crab Louie, and steakhouse spinach.
Six stuffed clams with breadcrumbs.
Clams casino at Swoony’s.
A sink on fish fillet sits on top of a red sauce with shell on clams.
Fish fillet in Manhattan chowder sauce.
Two slabs of meat, greenish sauce.
Short rib in green peppercorn sauce.

At this point, we were fidgeting because our dinner so far had been carb-free — one of my least favorite features of modern restaurants. This was at least partly remedied by the best dish of the evening. We could have ordered a burger, or a hanger steak with “cowboy butter” (the idea alarmed us), but instead went for the short rib au poivre ($34). The two slabs of rib meat were wonderfully flavorful and fibrous, and the green peppercorn sauce was French bistro cooking of the highest order. It came with perfect McDonald’s-style fries, only much better. Blessed carbs, plus grease!

The real carb payoff came among the three desserts: vanilla soft serve, a chocolate mousse served in a martini glass, and – irresistibly – French toast with maple syrup. A single slice, dark brown and heavily cinnamoned, is accompanied by a server with a bottle of syrup shaped like a maple leaf — who pours, and pours, and pours. Don’t stop him. You are making up for all the calories you may have missed during the meal. It will make you wish all bistro meals ended with breakfast.

A bottle of syrup is poured over a slice of french toast.
French toast for dessert?
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