Brassed Off! – Review

Brassed Off! – Review – restaurant review

Brad Goldfarb

Even if you’re not one of those who feels the need to stay on top of New York’s dining scene, you’d have to be pretty determined to have missed the gradual Frenchification of New York’s restaurant landscape–travel down any single block of Manhattan and it’s difficult not to stumble on some left-bank-style cafe or bistro; not the four-star, silver dome variety, but the kind serving simple, classic French cooking. Whether reviewing the newest openings or dissecting New York’s new “brasserie society,” it’s a subject that’s been endlessly covered by the press. Still, it’s April, and who can resist springtime in Paris? Not us, so herewith our review of the latest Franco-Americans raising the temperature of Manhattan’s restaurant culture. Plus, as an added bonus, guest critics, and real-life Francophones, Sophie Laffont and Natascha Wittgenstein, weigh in with their patented authento-meters. How French are those escargots? Sophie and Natascha set the record straight.

PASTIS

9 Ninth Avenue (at Little West 12th St.); 212-929-4844

As if the phenomenal success of Balthazar was not enough, Keith McNally has brought us Pastis, another chapter in his Paris-on-the-Hudson oeuvre, and his most convincing recreation to date. McNally has said that with this latest venture he had hoped to open a casual restaurant for “everyday people,” with lower prices than his other joints and a no-reservations policy. In many ways he’s achieved that goal, though ironically the restaurant’s immediate success has made it impossible for all but the best connected or the most determined to actually sit down at one of the restaurant’s battered wooden tables. McNally’s right–it’s a pleasure that should be shared by everyone. From the restaurant’s atmospheric, Les Halles-like setting to the flea-market-salvaged interior, it’s hard not to be seduced by the transportive glow of his creation. Leaning back against one of the restaurant’s burgundy-colored banquettes, it’s possible to imagine what Paris’s cafe-and-brasserie scene must have been like earlier in the centur y–on any given night Pastis is filled with the kind of influential mix of actors, writers, and artists that places like La Coupole and Brasserie Lipp were famous for. The food doesn’t hurt, either. As one would expect from the careful detail of the surroundings, Pastis was not created to chart new territories in cooking–rather, the goal here is to present hearty bistro food as beautifully and traditionally as the best brasserie in Paris. So whether you choose better-known items such as onion soup gratinee, leeks vinaigrette, or steak frites with bearnaise sauce, or from less hackneyed (though no less traditional) ones like the rillettes fermiere or the braised beef, you can be certain that what arrives at your table will be simple, fresh, and perfectly prepared. Desserts, too, from the lie flotante to the chocolate mousse, strike a familiar chord, even if they’re items you rarely eat. And unlike the Parisian version, your meal will be marked by friendly service, regardless of the language you speak.

L’ACTUEL

Sophie and Natascha’s most French thing about Pastis: “Breakfast. The breakfast foods aren’t particularly French, but the experience is calm and restful, like sitting in a cafe in Paris.” And their least French thing: “The hamburger.”

145 East 50th St. (betw. Lexington and Third Avenues); 212-583-0001

Bravo to Christophe Lhopitault and Jean-Yves Schillinger for having enough imagination to know that creating an authentic French restaurant this side of the Atlantic does not require nicotine-stained walls, distressed mirrors, or miles of aged claret-colored leather. Instead what they went for was a modern, vaguely Japanesey room. Detractors complain that the design suffers from “first novel syndrome”–too many ideas, too few pages–but it is warm and inviting, not unlike the food served there. Schillinger, who’s in charge of the kitchen, already has at least one successful first work under his belt, and his confidence shows at this latest venture, where classics such as steak frites happily coexist with more internationally-minded offerings, such as a selection of (French) tapas. Like the restaurant’s designers, the kitchen at L’Actuel seems intent on smashing a few misconceptions–that classic French cooking is too rich (the immaculate frisee aux lardons shows it doesn’t have to be), that it’s too heavy (th e Alsatian choucroute proves weight isn’t always tied to size), and that it mustn’t change (the classic tarte flambe with the not-so-classic addition of wasabi and bluefin tuna insists that it can, and sometimes should). The result is a brasserie where the food feels as modern as the setting, and where even an old standby like creme brulee is fair game for a little tweaking–at L’Actuel it’s presented six ways, infused with everything from an ordinary flavor like vanilla to extraordinary ones, like basil or thyme. The latter can taste a little strange, but as they say, to make an omelette you have to break some eggs.

Most French thing about L’Actuel: “The cheese plate, which was the real deal–we love cheese!” Least French thing: “The decor–the room feels like it should be in L.A.”

THE BRASSERIE

100 East 53rd St. (between Park and Lexington Ayes.); 212-751-4840

To those unfamiliar with the original, Philip Johnson-designed Brasserie in the Seagram building, a first visit to this newly reopened New York classic may be a surprising experience. Instead of the belle epoque romance that most New Yorkers have come to expect from the concept, this version wears its modernity on its sleeve. From the undulating folds of the restaurant’s pearwood ceiling to the bank of video monitors that hang above the bar and capture on-screen the faces of arrivals as they walk through the door, The Brasserie could not be further from traditional expectation. The tabletops are apple-green glass; banquettes reach to the ceiling; and (wallflowers beware) entry into the restaurant’s subterranean dining room is made literally center-stage. Of course, Philip Johnson’s design was never about smoked glass and brass fixtures, which may have freed the restaurant’s designers (not to mention the kitchen) from the nostalgia inherent in the project. Chef Luc Dimmet has wisely held on to some of the The Brasserie’s signature dishes like onion soup, quiche Lorraine, and a short rib pot au feu, but he has given himself the room to liven things up with less traditional ones like a burger with mushrooms and tempura peppers, or to give a little twist to many of the classic bistro dishes, such as using a picante broth for the steamed mussels. Still, much of what’s best on the menu is the determinedly straightforward, from heartier options such as the duck cassoulet to sweeter ones such as the chocolate beignets. Clearly, however, The Brasserie is meant to be more than just a place for good food–with the most comfortable bar stools in the city, and some of the sexiest bathrooms anywhere, its owners clearly intend for it to be a lot of fun. True, unlike the original, this version may close its doors between the hours of 1:00 and 6:30 A.M., but for now at least (and until someone opens the equivalent of the old Studio 54), “fun” means nothing crazier than an order of lemon profiteroles and eight hours of sleep.

Most French thing about The Brasserie: “It’s a Parisian fantasy of what an American restaurant would look like–we loved it.” Least French thing: “The waiters, who were all super-nice.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group