Blue crab remoulade at Cognac Bistro

Photo: JOEL VEAK Friends often ask, "How can you tell if a restaurant is going to be any good?" My answer is, "The only reliable indicator is a rave from a trusted friend." You have to consume online reviews warily, as your average Yelper or TripAdvisor reviewer may also think that Olive Garden totally rocks. Appearances can be deceiving too: great food often lurks in unprepossessing settings, and expensively designed slickies often serve up mediocrity. So I was unfazed to realize that the new Cognac Bistro (455 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617.232.5800) used to be a gas station. The dining room, complete with surviving overhead door, was clearly once the garage. Regardless, it's a cute interior, with a shiny open kitchen adjoining a well-stocked eight-seat bar.

More important, the food is impressive, an unusual combination of French bistro fare and New England seafood. Raw Blue Point oysters ($1 each as an opening special) are impeccable, especially when accompanied by a bracing glass of 2008 Guy Saget Muscadet ($9). The complimentary épi de blé baguette with good butter makes a strong first impression, as do starters like a Gruyère-topped onion soup ($9) with a deep-flavored beef stock. A roasted half chicken ($18) is a good indicator of a bistro chef's chops, and this one is very fine, crisp-skinned and juicy if a trifle over-salted; sides of garlicky pommes purée and haricots verts (for once not underdone) are assets. Baked stuffed Maine lobster ($22) is one of those shore-food classics that folks are clearly happy to see again. It's tender, meaty, stuffed with Maine shrimp, and drolly presented, the beast's cold-eyed stare made comical under a wig of arugula.

The evening's star, though, shows how chef/owner Nelson Cognac, whose Greek-leaning bistro Kouzina in Waban I've long admired, isn't afraid to creatively combine French and local accents. Blue crab remoulade ($14) cleverly replaces the traditional celery root with the fresh flavor of local crab, lightly dressed in mayonnaise and texturally punched up with watercress. The accompanying blue crab fritters are marvelous: crunchy and chewy, greaselessly fried, filled with creamy, melting fontina. Between that, the bread, and a side of sautéed chard and red onion ($5), you'd have a perfect light dinner. In all, Cognac Bistro is the kind of cozy, fairly priced neighborhood place that Brookline has never had enough of. Of course, considering the free parking out front where the gas pumps used to be, you might make the trip from farther away, too.