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Posts from the ‘french’ Category

Rouge et Blanc: A Modern Twist on Old Saigon

Considering the man in the kitchen is an alumnus of Eleven Madison Park and Degustation, the new Soho neighborhood eatery Rouge et Blanc opened with very little fanfare. Perhaps this has to do with its impressively laid-back and congenial atmosphere, its desire to appeal to a quieter and less trend-focused crowd, or even its own lack of comprehension of how good the product it’s offering really is. A Vietnamese-French fusion concept restaurant that harkens back to Saigon in the ’40s, Rouge et Blanc is a quirky sort of place that, without question, presents some of the best food I’ve had in the past few months.

The restaurant is small, located on a quiet stretch of MacDougal Street on the south side of Houston. It’s the sort of place you notice only by walking past it. In the summer, the wide windows open to the street, beckoning to passers-by; the siren song of vintage Parisian tunes and the crystal clink of wine glasses draw them in. At the front of the restaurant are a few round tables with plush antique upholstered chairs for the lucky few diners who get to watch the world go by over steaming plates of lamb ribs and duck confit. Then, a bar, congenially tended by a well-suited man and packed with couples enjoying a bottle of bordeaux or burgundy. In the back is an intimate and sultry dining room – a blend of French bistro and Vietnamese tavern with soft light filtering through paper lanterns, separate cubicles with dangling red light blubs shedding a crimson glow over dinner, scarlet wooden chairs pulled up to dark and rough hewn tables, and curated elements of Parisian nostalgia dotting the walls.

The menu, created and executed by chef Matt Rojas, nods to both classic French and Vietnamese dishes. It is divided into three parts: a lamely-titled ‘wee plates,’ ‘small plates’ and ‘large plates.’ The wee plates are snacks – a fresh watermelon salad with goat cheese, house cured salmon with basil oil and crunchy glazed almonds, or briny razor clams with smoky charred leek conft. The small plates are like appetizers – flavor-packed and tender skewers of Vietnamese sausage with sweet onions and rice noodles, fresh green papaya with whole-fried prawns, and luscious strips of bone marrow with baby octopus and pickled plum. The large plates are, you guessed it, entrees (note: why they can’t just call them snacks, appetizers and entrees is beyond me – a quirk of this quirky spot). The green curry with roasted and grilled summer vegetables is remarkable – the house ground green curry paste is simmered long and slow with coconut milk until it’s thick and silken – it’s so good that if given the opportunity, I would gladly take a bath in it. The vegetables (turnips, yams, potatoes, brussels sprouts, carrots and zucchini) are soft and flavorful, salty and cooked just right. Also wonderful are the lamb ribs – cooked until they’re falling off the bone and served in a pool of roasted red pepper puree. The hand-made roti offered alongside is hot and oily, an upgraded version of fried dough.

Rouge et Blanc is an excellent restaurant disguised as only a good one. It’s not often spoken about; it’s not swamped with foodies and trend-setters; it’s not pretentious or self-important. It’s just quietly marvelous – a pleasant surprise to all who dine there expecting a solid comfortable meal and receive instead a remarkable one. The food served is obviously beloved by those cooking it in the kitchen – it is cooked with care; the atmosphere is utterly devoid of irritations – it is relaxed, quiet but not somber, personal, and convivial; the service, though slow every now and then, is friendly and informative. Rouge et Blanc is a diamond in the rough, obscured by the flashier new arrivals nearby (I’m thinking of you, The Dutch) yet peacefully truckin’ along.

Perfect For: later in the game dates, Soho locals, a quiet dinner with friends, older new couples, non-ostentatious foodies, cool fall nights

Rouge et Blanc on Urbanspoon


La Grainne: Contender for Chelsea’s Best Brunch

Brunch is a New York-y thing to do, and finding your neighborhood’s best brunch is almost a right of passage for those new to an area. Lucky for me, I had the inside scoop from a friend already living in Chelsea, and so finding the best brunch nearby was easy as pie. The winner? La Grainne, a no-pretense French cafe with some of the most flavorful food as I’ve had in Manhattan.

Located on the corner of 21st and 9th Avenue, La Grainne is in the heart of Chelsea – and you can tell that most of its clientele are locals that just keep coming back. After treating myself to a few meals here, with friends, family and just by myself, I can certainly see why it’s so loved; La Grainne is a total gem! It doesn’t have a name that pops up in Grubstreet or Eater or the New York Times as a ‘hotspot’ for weekend brunches, and that’s part of the charm. There’s no fuss, no muss here with a staff that is both friendly and wildly efficient, a rustic cobbled-together decor, and a menu of crowd-pleasers.
The small dining room is almost always packed to the gills at lunch hour, both during the week and on weekends. Crowds will mill awkwardly at the door, spilling out onto the small sidewalk patio, until a table opens up. The open kitchen is the beating heart of the restaurant, always bustling, throbbing with energy, and surrounded by soaring lush bouquets of fresh flowers. Bistro-style furniture crowds almost every inch of floor-space, pushing diners elbow-to-elbow at peak hours. The best seats are those in the window, away from the crush at the center of the dining room, swathed in natural lighting, and prime spots for some pretty quality people-watching. The feel is warm, vibrant, relaxed – the perfect neighborhood spot that you can just keep going back to time and time again.
Perhaps the best thing about La Grainne though is the food. It’s hearty and comforting, the sort of un-prissy French food that makes you wish you were in Paris…all the time. And the best part? It’s relatively inexpensive and served in truly massive portions. The menu reads like a laundry list of classic Parisian favorites: gooey and pungent french onion soup, escargots in a traditional garlic butter sauce, quiche lorraine, the largest salad nicoise you’ll have in a Manhattan restaurant, a simple yet delicious bowl of mussels marineres, both sweet and savory crepes, golden roasted chicken with potatoes, and of course decadent desserts like tarte tatin, creme brulee and chocolate mousse. The croque monsieur and croqur madame sandwiches are marvelous, made with thick crusty bread, hearty slices of ham, and gooey gruyere cheese; they’re not too greasy and big enough to feed a small army. For a lighter sandwich option, try the baguette au fromage; simply a toasted baguette with layers of creamy soft brie (or swiss) cheese, this Parisian lunch favorite is easy on the stomach and luscious without over-doing it.
The ratatouille is somewhat of a house specialty at La Grainne, and it’s just about mind-blowingly delicious; a blend of baked tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and onions, this rendition of a French ‘peasant’ dish is immensely flavorful, aggressively seasoned, and nothing short of perfect with a slice of crusty bread. Similarly mouth-wateringly good is the brunch special ‘oeuf maison,’ a house egg dish featuring a delicate poached egg perched atop a moist potato cake, all surrounded in a pool of the ratatouille. It’s a hangover cure in a dish and not in the least bit prissy.
La Grainne is just wonderful – great for enjoying soul-satisfying meals with friends or for sipping a citron presse over a goat cheese salad with the day’s paper. It’s got an infectious energy, making it quite literally a ‘happy place.’ And the best part? There are no pretensions here – not among the crowd, the staff, or the food. It’s just simple, friendly, delicious. What more could you ask for from the neighborhood hangout?
Perfect For: francophiles, Chelsea locals, weekend brunching, a solo lunch, people-watching on the patio

Le Grainne Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lyon: Mediocrity for Middle France

For a city with so many restaurants, ethnic cuisines of all varieties, and an often thrilling gourmet scene, New York is depressingly deprived of high-quality casual French bistros and brasseries. Sure, on occasion, you’re lucky enough to stumble across a gem like Cafe Cluny or Le Gigot, but the vast majority of options either sink into muddled mediocrity or hover loftily in the heavens with Daniel or Jean-Georges. The middle ground is vast and empty. Unfortunately, West Village newcomer Lyon does little to elevate the current state of French food in Manhattan.

The relatively new restaurant in the storied Cafe Bruxelles space on Greenwich Avenue is gorgeous. Wood-paneled and gleaming, it’s hard not to be enamored by the seductive golden glow, the rolling French accent of the host, the sparkle of lantern light reflecting off glass knick-knacks, the cheery red-and-white check of the tablecloths. Everything is so shiny and new, rosy with optimism, plucky, design-conscious, and comfortable without being shabby. The narrow railroad car space is bustling to the point of bursting at the seams with well-dressed West Villagers, happy to be inside from the cold. The atmosphere is frenetic at peak hours, buzzing with conversations in French and English that rise to a fever pitch as more and more bottles of wine fly off the shelves. As the night goes on, Lyon is like a train picking up speed, starting off slow and steady before roaring through the countryside.
Unfortunately, despite its seemingly endless charm, Lyon falls depressingly short on the food front. With such beauty all around you, it’s hard not to be disappointed by generally bland and uninspired cuisine, especially when French comfort food is supposed to be so rich and flavorful. In short, the appetizers were a relative success when compared to the mediocre entrees. The onion soup is a marvelous way to start; it is brothy and savory, filled to the brim with tender ropes of beef brisket, heightened with an only slightly discernible layer of rich marrow jam, and served with a crusty slice of baguette, topped with creamy fontina cheese. It’s safe to say that the onion soup was the highlight of the night. Other notable starters are the jumbo-sized Lyonnaise salad, topped with hearty chunks of bacon and a delicately placed poached egg, and the escargots, served mixed into a vibrant green watercress risotto with a pungent and authentic-tasting garlic sauce.
The entrees are a laundry list of traditional French dishes: steak tartare, lamb shank, steak au poivre, and so forth. The kitchen takes a few liberties with classic cuisine, offering the eponymous skate wing and a modern bacon-wrapped whole branzino. The executions on the heftier dishes leave something to be desired. The bacon-wrapped branzino is not as advertised; rather than serving a whole fish, it offers delicate rounds of the flaky white dish – a fairly anemic and pedestrian alternative. The lamb shank is absurd in a couple of ways: 1) it is served on the bone in a plate half as big as the table, evoking caveman-style dining 2) the portion size is inexplicably larger than anything else on the menu, and 3) there is absolutely no seasoning on the meat; it was begging for healthy doses of salt and pepper. For such a large and tender piece of lamb, it is upsetting to see it served with so little flavor or pizzazz.
Lyon is simultaneously the epitome of casual glamour and a culinary disappointment. While so beautiful and glossy on the exterior, its restaurant guts need a lot of work. Not only is the food just a hair above mediocre, but the service is frenzied and inattentive and the wine list is poorly curated for a restaurant rooted in such a vino-centric culture. The best way to enjoy Lyon is to waltz into the crammed and spiffy bar, order une bouteille de vin and some fromage from the bartender, and spend your evening languishing over the two of the best parts of French culinary culture. If you’re smart, don’t bother with the crowds in, the wait for, and the irritation of finding a table in the dining room.

Perfect For: a drink at the bar, a bottle of wine over chocolate cake and cheese, gatherings of friends, a venue for francophiles, escaping chilly nights

Lyon on Urbanspoon

The Bourgeois Pig: A Slinky Parisian Dive

It’s always an exciting experience when I run across a place that perfectly suits what I’m in need of that night. In the case of a Tuesday night recently, it was the Bourgeois Pig to the rescue. After finishing a frosting-filled class on baking cupcakes at Butter Lane in the East Village, all I could think about was salty savory food and a bottle of big and bold red wine. The Bourgeois Pig, an E. 7th Street institution at this point, delivered all that, with panache.

The sister restaurant to cevicheria Desnuda and neighbors with foodie havens like Porchetta, Pylos, and Caracas Arepas, The Bourgeois Pig has its pretensions. Reservations are not accepted, and a doorman hovers underneath the Gothic red lanterns outside, taking phone numbers for the waitlist; if there are no tables, there are two options: wait outside or wander until you’re buzzed. However, despite such speakeasy-like irritations, The Bourgeois Pig is a surprisingly warm and friendly place. The small dining room is really more like a lounge, with low tables and shabby red velvet couches; a bar curves around on the side, with high chairs crowded in. The light is low, cast off by a flame-inspired chandelier that glows softly amber, glinting off regal and patterned crimson wallpaper. It’s easy to hide out in the Bourgeois Pig, in a dusky corner, perhaps with a lover or just a good friend. The crowd is diverse: old hippie men with their much younger girlfriends, youthful couples laughing, small groups of friends splitting a fondue pot and bottles upon bottles of well-priced wine, East Village regulars perching at the corner of the bar, chatting up the competent and charming bartender. The vibe is boisterous yet controlled, seductive, romantic in a boozy sort of way. Really, it is all wonderfully bougie and convincingly Parisian.

The main event at Bourgeois Pig, besides indulging in half-price bottles of French wine on Mondays and Tuesdays, is the fondue. There are savory and sweet options, ranging from shrimp, crab and lobster bisque fondue to french onion fondue to Italian-flecked mozzarella, parmesan and provolone fondue, dark chocolate & Baileys fondue, dulce de leche with white wine, dark chocolate with cinnamon and chilis, and butterscotch fondues. My personal favorite, the rarebit fondue, is a cheese-based option and is delightfully salty. Sharp cheddar cheese is blended with nutty dark beer, mustard, and grains of paradise. The result? A rich, boldly flavored, and unusual fondue, served with soft rounds of herbed roasted potatoes, crusty pretzels, Brussels sprouts, and cornichons – parfait! If fondue isn’t your cup of tea, other small plates and sweet treats are offered, such as pumpkin cheesecake, a variety of bruschetta, tartines, a traditional antipasto, lump crab gratin, and customizable cheese boards.

The Bourgeois Pig is wonderful for what it is. It is not fancy or sparkling and new; it isn’t a full-blown restaurant, and it’s not your typical bar. Like many of those restaurants that have chosen to come to East 7th Street, the ‘Pig’ is a niche environment: not for everyone, but just about perfect for its target clientele. The wine flows freely; the fondue is delicious; the service is friendly; and the crowd is just weird enough to offer up some really fantastic people-watching.

Perfect For: food-inspired decadence, oenophiles, fun with fondue, a quirky Parisian date night, seducing another, late-night eats

Bourgeois Pig on Urbanspoon

Bar Henry: Where Opulence Comes Cheap

Bar Henry somehow manages to snag a niche spot in the crowded Soho bar scene. It has the opulence of a plush fancy restaurant, the prices of a student-friendly spot, the mystery of a hidden bar, and the food of a comfort food den. Now, while all this sounds great, Bar Henry isn’t perfect. On a Thursday night, it’s eerily quiet, which makes me question why the slightly triste atmosphere – poor marketing and PR? hit-or-miss food? creepy bartender?

On my first visit, none of the above were obvious flaws. Upon descending the steep flight of stairs, illuminated by the seedy red glow of the neon sign, to the subterranean watering hole, you enter the dark bar room. To the left, a 100 year old mahogany wood-paneled bar, meticulously arranged and well-stocked with liquors, lit by the glowing pin pricks of recessed lighting. The right, the obligatory exposed brick wall, an eating bar with black leather stools, brass antique light fixtures. A black and white tiled floor adds a touch of nostalgia to the sultry vibe. Through the bar, past the partially-open kitchen, in the back, is the petite dining room. Surprisingly luxe for a restaurant where entrees price between $15-$30, the back room is furnished with red velvet chairs edged in gilt. White tablecloths cover the wooden tables; red brick pillars complement the distressed exposed brick walls; dim golden light flickers from vintage lamps and reflects off the copper ceiling. The look is old New York mixed with French haute – compelling, rich, luxurious.
The food blends French and American comfort food, offering everything from Mussels Mariniere to the ‘Hamburger Henry’ to a Manhattan dry aged steak, provided by Pat LaFrieda’s outfit. The bedeviled eggs, made even more wicked than the old-school classic by black truffles, are a decadent ‘snack’, while the deep ruby beet gazpacho, thick yet refreshing, is fantastic way to cool down on a steamy night. The hamburger is not for the faint-hearted, big, juicy and flavorful, topped with sweet caramelized onions, funky Valdeon cheese, and served with truffle fries. If you’re looking for rich but don’t want to take down a whole burger, opt for the smooth and flavorful chicken liver mousse, served in a generous creamy dollop with raspberries and crusty bits of toast.
Bar Henry is an all-around surprise; it is surprisingly sexy, surprisingly haute, surprisingly intimate, and a surprisingly good value. Due to the quiet on a Thursday night, Bar Henry is either set to close soon or is refreshingly undiscovered. Judging by my remarkably pleasant experience, sans crowds and any inkling of pretension, let’s hope it’s the latter.
Perfect For: first dates and secret trysts, stolen kisses, haute bar snacks, luxuriating under budget, large parties, late-night treats, wine-fueled conversation

Bar Henry on Urbanspoon

Raoul’s: A Soho Legend Keeps it Hot

Raoul’s got it going on. It’s the type of place with a certain special something that you only find on rare occasions. From the outside, it looks dark, like a sultry bar for those in the know. Inside, it’s a quirky French restaurant with stand-out food, risque decor, a poppin’ bar scene, and a resident psychic.
Soho has its fair share of hotspots, most of which fall sadly short on either the food front (Mercer Kitchen? Delicatessen? yikes) or in terms of atmosphere (Kittichai? Blue Ribbon Sushi?). Raoul’s hits the sweet spot; it’s got the whole package. Dark and buzzing, the restaurant is separated into three areas. At the front is the bar, and boy, is it your classic New York bar; banquette tables against the wall face out, affording some pretty fantastic people-watching; bar stools are grabbed by early revelers and as the night chugs onward, crowds begin to gather; a twisting and narrow set of stairs wind up to the bathroom, where, surprisingly, a psychic also sits, lurking, waiting.

Separated slightly from the bar is the front dining area with black-white leather boothes, complete with coathooks and hatracks, tables covered in white paper, a corner booth where groups can hold court. Raoul’s charming eccentricity is exemplified by the massive painting of an anonymous nude woman, hung front and center, and the neon blue glowing fish tank (yes, with a few lone fish) standing tall at the entrance. In the back, through the kitchen, is the patio and garden, secret to those not curious enough to inquire. Part-external and part-internal, the year-round garden area is quiet, almost idyllic, a spot protected from the spirited shenanigans of the front rooms. Raoul’s is a feast for the eyes, not only in terms of the incredibly attractive clientele, but also because of the endlessly interesting paintings, photographs, and postcards that cover the walls as a standing art collection.

Raoul’s food is classic French comfort food, and it’s amazingly good. We’re talking butter, butter, butter, fat, butter, and salt – how could you possibly go wrong? Steak abounds with a tender wagyu option, a luscious steak tartare, and a steak au poivre. All three options wow with an all-steak no-funny business tartare, topped with an oozing quail’s egg and served with crusty baguette. In my experience, this tartare is only surpassed by that at Quality Meats, a top-notch steakhouse. The steak au poivre came bloody pink, crusty with black and white pepper, hulking, and flanked by a mound of salty french fries; it was a steak-lover’s dream, a francophile’s bit of nostalgia. The wagyu, an American cut of Kobe beef, came more refined, slinky and tender, on a bed of thinly cut fingerling potatoes, chevrettine, and lemon: a modern steak for a modern woman.

Aside from the steak, Raoul’s just kept the good times coming with beautifully-seared sea scallops, sweet and juicy from the crusty caramelization and paired with flavorful wilted greens, with a generous disk of moist pate de maison atop walnuts and crisp baby spinach, with a quirky asparagus and leek starter made unusual by funky quinoa and a smooth English pea puree. Desserts were rich and uninhibited, ranging from a well-executed profiteroles, drenched in melted chocolate, to a wicked chocolate trio, made special for my mother’s birthday by an enormous sugar cage (pictured below). One dish after another showed not only the skill in the kitchen but also the range, the inspiration. The food at Raoul’s seems cooked with passion, with care – each offering came perfectly seasoned, decadent, borderline gluttonous.

Raoul’s is classic New York: a hidden garden, most popular at late seatings, a bar for locals, a shh-shh reputation. Despite it’s touristy location, it is notably devoid of lost-looking visitors. Most diners look like regulars, sons and daughters of regulars, those who heard by word-of-mouth. A true gem in the heart of Soho, Raoul’s shines brightly in a neighborhood known for cookie-cutter eateries.

Perfect For: hidden trysts, pre-gaming the game, the sport of people-watching, late night meals, being part of the in crowd

Raoul's on Urbanspoon

Balthazar: A Socialite’s Brunch

Balthazar proves that brunch has become a blood sport in Manhattan. Getting a table there involves jostling baby strollers and 6-children families, holding on a reservation line for 20minutes, or just plain ole waiting for a good long while. If you’ve won out over the many others and nabbed yourself a table, you’re pushed into the Balthazar brunch machine, a well-oiled contraption that moves at an alarming speed, crams as many patrons as possible into a cavernous dining hall, and pushes out classic Parisian fare with impressive quality.

Despite the factory-like flavor of Balthazar’s manic brunch, the restaurant manages to maintain a certain urbane French charm revered and extolled by New York’s fashionable set. The sister restaurant to Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Morandi, and the rest of Keith McNally’s rapidly expanding empire, Balthazar has the look, feel, and attitude typical of McNally. No expense is spared in painstakingly recreating the look of a classic Parisian bistro. Converted from a leather warehouse, the expansive and airy dining hall can seat up to 200 people at the long zinc bar, luxe red leather banquettes, and large circular tables, all arranged helter-skelter in the rollicking maze. Everything from the gigantic antique mirrors to the sunny distressed yellow ceilings to the polished dark wood finishes seems authentically Parisian. Slowly turning ceiling fans, bright golden light, and a beautifully tiled floor complete McNally’s masterpiece. It is clear that at Balthazar, as at his other thematic restaurants, restauranteur-extraordinaire Keith McNally is not selling food; he is selling an experience.

The food won’t blow your mind, but it’s certainly good enough to attract a rabid following. High points include the bakery’s baked goods, a best of compilation offered in the bread basket, and the wide range of beautifully-prepared egg dishes. The Eggs Norwiegan and Eggs Benedict offered perfectly poached eggs that when cut into oozed golden yellow yolk all over a crispy toasted English muffin and salty soft breakfast potatoes; the Eggs Florentine, served piping hot in a cast iron skillet, baked poached eggs in with fresh spinach and artichoke, seemingly healthy yet surely loaded with delicious butter and cream; the Eggs in a Puff Pastry was a spruced-up and fancy Egg McMuffin, impossible to eat like a sandwich yet composed decadently of flaky pastry, fluffy eggs, rich cream.

Other notable dishes include the Sour Cream and Hazelnut waffles, unusual yet also found on Schiller’s menu, and the Apple Cinnamon pancakes, made to the perfect consistency and somehow imbued with a savory rather than sweet quality. Fresh and generally well-prepared, the food at Balthazar is beyond decent yet seems to come second fiddle to the incredible bustling scene and distinct decor. Typical of McNally restaurants, atmosphere and experience reign supreme at this Soho brunch mecca.

Of course, the price of such a lovely spot in such a hoppin’ neighborhood is crowds, crazy, fashionable, pushy crowds. In order to eat in peace, you’ll first need to contend with the stressed-out hostess, bitchy Manhattan desperate housewives, too snobby for their own good gay mafia, baby strollers brigade, and bankers in tshirts used to getting what they want when they want. Once you get past such obstacles though and work up an appetite, the servers treat you like gold and the food will make you think, for at least the length of the meal, that it was all worth it.

Perfect For: feasting with the fashionable, family get-togethers, birthday celebrations, francophiles, a classic New York experience, boozy brunch, hosting out-of-towners

Balthazar on Urbanspoon