When I insist that New York City is the best place in the world to eat, some of my sophisticated pals are shocked. Not Paris? No. Not for me. Paris never comes close to the variety of our grand bouffe. I’ve always loved how New York City embraces all the world’s cuisines, from Croatian to Sri Lankan to Mongolian. I’ve not been to Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights. It’s enough to know it’s there.
Amazingly, Paris, after pooh-poohing anything American for so long, has taken to heart hot dogs, burgers and food trucks as well as neo-Brooklyn-style cuisine. Chicago-born Daniel Rose is the poster boy at the impossible-to-reserve Spring. (I can only imagine the recession has the people so depressed and demoralized that they want to feed on our energy.)
When I first noticed some new, scattered devotion to French-influenced menus here in Manhattan, I thought it a fluke. But this retro flare-up has exploded into a certified trend, surprising and, then, definitely worth pursuing. Why are young hot-shot chefs and restaurateurs looking backward? Most of the grand temples of haute snub that ruled ’60s dining are gone. Le Pavillon. Le Caravelle. Cafe Chauveron. Only La Grenouille survives from those innocent ancienne days.
Moreover, we are still rich in established Gallic masters: Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Daniel Boulud and his empire, the near-French David Bouley and Terrance Brennan at French-inflected Picholine. But that’s not what’s up with this flurry of more modest newbies. They weren’t necessarily born French, and they don’t feel bound by Escoffier, much less Paul Bocuse, as they riff on lobster thermidor or lighten the blanquette de veau. A few words of French can suffice. Take, for example, Cherry, a sexy underground venture by Jonathan Morr of Bondst and Eugene Morimoto. With a Korean chef and sake sommelier, the house is Asian but with a few Frenchifications. Foie-gras short-rib gyoza. Yuzu beurre noisette. Crispy almond shrimp that tastes as if slathered in marzipan. I can’t wait to go back.
Is this play on France just a reach for something new? Regional Italian has had its decades. Nuovo Scandinavian is not for everyone. And aren’t there muchos gringos cooking Mexican and Thai? A resurgence of Chinese heat populates the side streets. Perhaps now that the city seems to be emerging from recession doldrums, this is the right time for “French with a twist”?
Alert foodies on the prowl got their first taste of what was to coalesce into a French revival a year ago at Calliope, on the corner of Second Avenue and Fourth Street. “French but fun,” the married owners called it. Daringly, the two cooks risked cured pig’s head and tongue and a personal version of torchon de foie gras—glorious charcuterie on a small tailored menu. The pastas by wife Ginevra Iverson made the theme more Northern European, chef-owner Eric Korsh suggested. Add in stuffed cabbage and chicken-thigh farci, and baba au rhum. “I want it to feel like someone’s grandmother’s in the south of France,” Korsh said. The drumroll of “Le Marseillaise” could not yet be heard.
Then this spring, new restaurants, mostly small and modestly fitted out, announced Frenchish intentions: Montmartre. Le Philosophe. Little Prince. Cantine Parisienne. The season’s splashiest arrival was Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini’s brasserie-cum-bakery, not just a big deal but a noisy one, drawing eclectic crowds to its sweeping space. After those instant raves at Locanda Verde and the Dutch, Carmellini told me he needed to exercise the Frenchness he channeled at Café Boulud. But it was…just French. Modest. Restrained. The rotisserie chicken for two was a steal at $44 compared with the $79 bird with foie gras and black truffle wrapped in brioche at NoMad. The place was French, but maybe it was not French enough? I’ll be back, of course, because I can’t imagine Carmellini will settle for ho-hum.
For me, the little-bit-French approach has been disappointing. Tiny Le Philosophe, with its wall of French philosophers, winks at tradition. It racked up some positive reviews, but I found the reimagined blanquette de veau wasn’t better than the classic, and I hated the barely cooked carrots. Really modest French wines were a pleasant surprise, as was an island of crème fraîche floating in luscious chilled pea soup with Espelette croutons. But a few mangy snails in a garlicky chickpea stew was a pitiful stand-in for classic escargots in garlic butter. I was hungry for duck à l’orange—a whole roasted duck in a sweet-and-sour gastrique, with candied orange. Not this rare, perfectly cooked magret with a couple of fresh segments of citrus. Am I being a pill, wanting it either more French or less French?
Former Má Pêche chef Tien Ho’s vision of French-American at Montmartre was so lame, owner Gabriel Stulman commanded a redo. I went early and didn’t have the appetite to try again, even after the New York Times‘ Pete Wells gave it two stars for a sincere effort. Instead I took friends to Little Prince, just 38 seats crowded together on a quiet stretch of Prince Street in SoHo. I’d heard great praise from pals whose mouths I trust. And the French-onion-soup burger (pictured below) already has its own buzz. The night we tasted the raucously over-baconed frisée salad, the rare duck breast was beautifully cooked, but it wasn’t close kin to old-fashioned duck à l’orange. Was I the only one seeking a taste of yesterday?
Still hopeful, I rushed to Casimir & Co, seed of a popular French bistro on the Lower East Side, the week it opened at 1022A Lexington Avenue. The steak tartare mixed table-side was pretty good. But maybe I jumped the gun. There weren’t enough servers, and ours had a way of disappearing. Everything took forever. I was so annoyed by the end of the evening that the excellent tarte tatin, with its slightly burned caramelized taste, did not soothe my shattered spirit.
After this French-accented reverie, I circled back to my favorites—French houses with imported chefs—for the original. Benoit has had ups and downs since Alain Ducasse moved into what had been the last address of La Côte Basque and redesigned. It’s been riding high under chef Philippe Bertineau. I’d take his $48 chicken for two anytime or the skate with lemony smashed potatoes and the tarte tatin for two.
But if a friend were nostalgic for French country cooking and I could choose only one place, I’d send him to La Mangeoire. Since the legendary master Christian Dulouvrier took charge of the closet-size kitchen, the foie-gras terrine has blushed pink and perfect. With one satiny bite, I can imagine I am in France. No one’s cassoulet I’ve tasted in New York City is better than his. When that wintry casserole rotates off the menu, I order the crusty roasted chicken for two with Bibb lettuce salad and sensational crisp fries (pictured above). I put the chicken on top of the greens with a tablespoon of the buttery sauce to wilt them, celebrating how lucky we gourmands are to see the rebirth of a rather ordinary French bistro after 35 years on Second Avenue.
I’ll be back again at Calliope, of course. I’ll check in to Lafayette because I have faith in the chef. I might surrender to brunch for a foie-gras egg McMuffin at Little Prince. I’ll restore my taste buds every few months at La Mangeoire. And I’ll follow my neophiliac lifestyle wherever it takes me. That’s my job.
New York’s French Invasion
355 W 16th St
84 E 4th St
55 Bond St
199 Prince St
40 Kenmare St
380 Lafayette St
Casimir & Co
103 Ave B
1022A Lexington Ave
60 W 55th St
1008 2nd Ave