Charlotta Janssen never planned on being a restaurateur. An artist by trade, she was working in restaurant renovation when her ex-boyfriend involved her in a project that ultimately left her with a restaurant owing a couple of years’ worth of back taxes, a loyal staff and a community that refused to see her fail.
Chez Oskar, the former Fort Greene stalwart, moved to its current location in 2016, after a bitter dispute with its building’s owner. After a massive send-off, Oskar—helmed by its faithful trio: Janssen, chef Octavio Simanca and general manager Angelique Calmet Strakker—inhabited an old wine bar and clothing store at the corner of Malcolm X and Decatur on July 4, 2016.
“We all interpret Oskar in our own way,” she says, beaming at a dancing toddler before conversing with the server in French. While recognizing that the restaurant business is just that—a business—Janssen notes that she fought to keep Oskar alive and moved it to Bed-Stuy because of her love for her coworkers and the staff who relied on her, more so than for profit. “I moved Oskar because I liked what we had between us and didn’t want it to stop over a commodifier’s greed,” referring to her former landlord. She describes her staff and Oskar itself as being survivors.
A dedicated and loyal community of locals in Fort Greene began trickling into Bed-Stuy over time. “They didn’t follow us,” Janssen says, “but they met us here when we arrived.” The restaurant is evolving, however—Oskar is part of Bed-Stuy, but Bed-Stuy is a bigger part of Oskar. The community has been warm and welcoming, and while its Fort Greene regulars are very much a part of the environment, many more of Oskar’s repeat guests are more localized.
Janssen admits that her desire is not chiefly to be a restaurateur but to provide a space for people to be happy and feel free. The predominant color in the interior space—which was designed, painted and built by Janssen herself—is a deep teal blue she calls “Oskar blue,” which she says provides the perfect background, making everyone look just a little happier. The free-flowing jazz music and restaurant design evoke early bebop, the frenetic yet virtuosic freeform music made popular by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Chef Simanca’s food is decidedly French, and Janssen notes that when one enters Oskar, there are certain smells that will always greet them: garlic, caramelized onion, olive oil. The lamb burger (“lamburger”) with goat cheese and the duo of beef (grilled skirt steak and braised short rib with a blackberry-ancho sauce) are excellent. The skirt steak is reminiscent of churrasco-style grilled beef, big and punchy with a salty crust, while the short rib, redolent of red wine and garlic, is comforting and luxuriant, a duo that plays very well together. The burger is simple and well executed, with the creamy tang of the goat cheese balancing the lamb’s mild gaminess.
The beverage program, run by GM Angelique Calmet Strakker, is equally impressive. Unsurprisingly, the wine list is carefully curated, and like the food, designed to provide a range of price points to ensure inclusivity with the neighborhood (Janssen and her team consider price points as markers of social equity). The cocktail list features a few standouts in a strong lineup: The Black Manhattan (Legent bourbon, Averna, walnut liqueur) is a bracing but restrained take on the classic. The Bergamote (brandy, Earl Grey syrup, egg white, topped with sparkling wine) is clean, bright and comforting, each ingredient shining brightly while contributing to the composition.
Janssen’s philosophy is that a successful restaurant is a happy place where people feel free to live out small pieces of their lives in comfort and pleasure. She views Oskar as being very much alive in its own right, with its own identity, infused and informed by everyone who steps through its door.