Monday, April 30, 2018

French Connection

Maybe NYC has always been awash in French restaurants; maybe we just never frequented the right neighborhoods; maybe they were out of what I considered our price range for a non-occasion dinner; or maybe they were just too friggin' snooty for my black jeans and black T-shirt wearing self.  Whatever it was, it seems the tide has turned, and that "reasonably priced" (of which there's no such thing any more in Manhattan) Italian trattoria that was opening on every other block (oh, how I long for the early days of 'ino, 'inoteca, Lupa with Ladner not mario, etc. etc.) has morphed into that more casual French bistro, and ain't that dandy? I mean, Italian food cooked at home is just so much better than the dreck served up at lousy Italian restaurants dotting the city (I'm currently looking at you, Serafina), that I'm happy to be donning my Francophile hat now, when Significant Eater and I head out for dinner.

Don't get me wrong - these won't necessarily be inexpensive nights out; but if you choose your drink(s) wisely, very nice dinners may be had without breaking the bank. Three additions to the French scene have opened recently (though you might have to hurry to one of them), in addition to the openings over the past few years of Le Coucou, Mimi, Le Coq Rico, Le Turtle, and Rebelle (sadly, closed). The latest batch includes La Mercerie, helmed by Marie-Aude Rose, and reviewed here by my friend Danny B.; Frenchette, in Tribeca, which opened at the beginning of April; and though it's not new, Racines, where they've brought in chef Paul Liebrandt, late of The Elm and Corton, for a residency expected to last through the end of May.  And having tried all 3 of this latest batch, I'm happy to report that the French bistro is alive and well here in NYC.

La Mercerie you read about by following that link above; certainly delicious food, but I think better for a nice lunch than dinner out. And certainly great if you've got $23,000 burning a hole in your pocket for that couch you must have!

Next up, Racines, where the short-term residency of chef Paul Liebrandt had us smacking our lips in anticipation. Racines (in my opinion) has always had an identity problem; is it a wine bar with restaurant style food, or is it a restaurant with a great wine list? Right now, with Paul, it's certainly a fancier restaurant with a great wine list. This is far from casual bistro fare, however. And it's got, to my taste, a lot of elements from both Japanese and Nordic cooking happening - Japanordica? For instance...
Kampachi at Racines via Paul Liebrandt
A first course of not so simple kampachi, with smoked yogurt and ossetra caviar, of a 5-course tasting menu, which included a crab/foie dish, turbot with ComtĂ© gnocchi, aged duck, and a fine chocolate dessert.  Serious Paul Liebrandt food, gorgeous plating, no punches pulled, for $90...a veritable bargain in our city today.  As I mentioned, the wine list is deep, and loaded with value.  Those who know way more about wine than me will study this list, and surely find something amazing. We were happy with a bottle of a 2010 Alsatian riesling blend at barely above retail, followed by a 2014 Janin Moulin-a-Vent, which went nicely with the duck (and chocolate), and also was bargain priced.  Here's the catch: if you want to eat food from a Michelin starred chef - go soon...he may be gone in the blink of an eye.

But then there'll always (we can hope) be Frenchette, perhaps my favorite of all the openings; certainly of the current crop, though it's hard to get Le Coucou off my mind. If you don't know the story of chef partners Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, read a little about it here. And from the welcome at the front door by a few of the industry's finest vets, to the casual yet pro service in the dining room, to the wine list "curated" by Jorge Riera (profiled recently in The Times), it's all good food & fun. The room rocks, and not with music that's too loud. I've been 3 times already, and can't get enough; other than the Italian food I cook at home, this stuff hits my sweet spot.

So, for instance, start (as I did on my first vist) at the bar with pig's foot croquettes, served atop a beautiful sauce gribiche. The roast chicken for 2 is no slouch either, all crispy skin and juicy meat, with a pile of pommes puree that's either half cream or half butter...or both. Try eating that at the bar (we did), and watch your neighbors covet your plates.  Last night, in the dining room, we more sedately started with a rare treat...
Goose neck barnacles at Frenchette
Percebes, or goose neck barnacles, all saline and finger-licking good, with a sauce meant to be sopped up with the excellent (FREE!) bread. You can't come here and not order the scrambled eggs...
Brouillade at Frenchette
No, I mean the brouillade, scrambled eggs so soft and creamy, you'll wonder why you don't make these at home (hint - they're a pain in the ass). Currently, they're topped with a taste of snails, but it's really all about the eggs, and brunch may never be the same. Now, it being spring, I must have lamb...
Spring Lamb Stew at Frenchette
In the form of a delicious lamb stew, with a sauce to die for. At home, I make lamb stew with lamb neck; here, I believe they're using leg, and I'm gonna give that a try the next time. Perfectly sweet peas, asparagus, baby turnips, carrot, and potato made this dish seem positively healthy. 

Dessert last night was a merely delicious mille-feuille...
Mille-feuille at Frenchette
Made all the better by its tri-star strawberries, from where I don't know.  But - does it really matter?

Digging once again at the low end (price wise) of the wine list, we opted to open with an Alsatian riesling, this one from Julien Meyer, and barely double the retail price (if you can find it).  We followed that up with another 2014 Beaujolais, this one a Fleurie from Marcel Joubert, and also priced to sell. In case you're thinking Sig Eater and I always down 2 bottles of wine at dinner, be good - there were 3 of us!

If we're entering into an era of moderately priced, French bistro-style restaurants (bistronomy?) here in NYC, I'm all for it. If these are places where sharing isn't "recommended" by the kitchen, and where the food comes out on normal plates when it is supposed to, then I'm all for it. After all, isn't it about time we all learned how to dine like grown-ups? Or, more to the point - let's make that French Connection.