The Indestructible Brasserie
As the town’s old, grande dame French restaurants continue to expire, the city’s great classically trained chefs are frantically hedging their bets. Along with Daniel, a neighborhood café (Café Boulud), and a distinguished midtown burger joint (DB Bistro Moderne), the Boulud empire will soon include a new restaurant in that superchef’s Valhalla, Las Vegas. Jean-Georges’s original flagship has more international outlets these days than the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, and Mix in New York, the poor cousin to Alain Ducasse’s woefully overpriced Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, recently began serving a new bistro-oriented menu containing a newfangled version of banquette du veau. But the most conspicuous downmarket transformation has taken place on 55th Street, where La Côte Basque has morphed into Brasserie LCB, an agggresively casual establishment with rustling potted palm fronds and yards of brass railings all polished to a glittering sheen in the fashionably faux, Balthazar style. Luckily, there’s nothing fake about Jean-Jacques Rachou’s menu, which contains old La Côte Basque favorites like cassoulet plus an impressive roster of hearty old-fashioned dishes like calf’s-liver Lyonnaise, tournedos Rossini, and an exceptional rendition of tripes à l’Armagnac, cooked in veal stock and brandy and served with all the grandness it deserves, under a great silver warmer.
Frogs’ legs are my favorite dish at Gavroche, newly opened on a clamorous stretch of 14th Street, and if you don’t like the sound of rumbling buses, and if weather permits, you can eat them alfresco, in a shaded little garden covered in flagstones. Dave Pasternack, the resident seafood expert at Esca, also turns out to be a closet Francophile, and his new Batali-backed restaurant, Bistro Du Vent, attempts to replicate the simple culinary glories of old Provence, like socca (a kind of chickpea pancake); a thick, bone-sticking version of pistou; and even salade Niçoise. For full-on French immersion, however, I like to travel down to Le Quinze, on Houston Street, where it’s a curious pleasure to slouch at the little round café tables with the rest of the louche downtown café lizards and puzzle over back issues of the sports paper L’Equipe (the owners are former French rugby players) while sampling the chunky foie gras terrine, cannelloni stuffed with monkfish, and, if it’s lunchtime, the most illustrious croque monsieur in the city, stuffed with big flaps of ham and covered in melted Gruyère cheese.