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One Man's Frites

We'll always have Paris, as long as Keith McNally keeps obsessively re-creating his dream French bistro, true to the last faux nicotine stain.

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Let other restaurant impresarios fashion a Hapsburg drawing room or the Romanov Winter Palace. Keith McNally keeps churning out cozy corners of Paris for Manhattan to eat in. Odeon, then Cafe Luxembourg . . . but Lucky Strike set the theme with its nicotine-stained walls and menu scrawled on distressed mirror. Even the Slavic cellar of Pravda could easily be an exile's hangout in Saint-Germain. Then came McNally's masterwork, Balthazar, the grand café and its jewellike bakery, looking like he'd salvaged a corner of Montparnasse and shipped it directly to Spring Street.

Now he's conjured Pastis, a blue-collar hangout with artfully rusted tin ceilings and greasy finger smudges on the walls, wine by the carafe poured into small tumblers, homey crocks of onion soup sealed with Gruyère, and fabulous frites standing up in a paper-lined tin scoop. It looks like someone has simply dusted off a slatternly old bar and hash house in the grunge of the meat market. Les Halles (in France) is dead. Long live Les Halles on Little West 12th Street. As if Manolo Blahnik stilettos and pony-skin totes had not already corrupted the warehouse iconography of this remote district.

It can be tough to find. "I've been driving around in a taxi looking for this place for 45 minutes," a friend complains. The Washington Street approach by day has us creeping past double-parked trucks, braking for butchers and racks of carcasses. Yet the city's nocturnal avant-garde has been crowded into the bar and loitering in thick clots between tables from day one. The first week, Keith McNally looks anxious, pale, gloomy -- i.e., his usual obsessive self -- as he finds tables for chums and Balthazar regulars while the "no reservations" rabble remain backed up at the bar. After all, one doesn't park Calvin Klein or Lorne Michaels too long on hold, does one?

"I wanted this to be a place for everyday people," he says mournfully, juggling the power players. "People should just drop in. It's cheaper here. More casual." Indeed, prices are as promised: Dinner entrées start at $14, $1 less at lunch. The son of a dockworker, McNally toiled in London's own meatpacking district before moving to New York in 1975. So he's come full circle. He identifies with the place's working-stiff fantasy. That's his voice on the recorded message when you telephone: "If you know your party's extension, you're very lucky." Lunchtime's offering of "beans on toast" is English folk food. The postcard that comes clipped to your bill has a young woman head-down on a bar, a Pastis bottle in the foreground. Is she dreamy? Sleepy? Slightly sloshed? Suicidal? Still waiting at the bar come 3 a.m.?

With Balthazar's duo of Boulud-trained chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, coaching chef de cuisine Sascha Lyon, the simple bistro classics ought to be wonderful. And indeed, mostly they are. The sensational Balthazar bread, of course. That exemplary cheese-girdled onion soup. The vibrant leeks vinaigrette. A first-rate toss of beet, endive, walnuts, and Roquefort. The fine roasted poussin with garlic mashed potatoes. And the richly juicy braised beef with carrots. One evening's whole two-pound lobster, skillfully cooked and glazed with crumbs under the salamander, is just $25.50. Obviously, fat-phobes won't love the glazed pork belly on fragrant lentils as much as I do. The cassoulet, Sunday's plat du jour -- savory beans studded with sausage, duck confit, and fatty pork -- is equally wicked, equally good.

My mate the Road Food Warrior is impressed with the steak-frites (he insists we order extra frites as well), and he's pleased with the "butcher's tender" too, a fattier, tougher cut that's $1 more. The fritto misto with fried parsley can be a bit soggy. And there are bits of shell waiting to break your tooth in the mussel-spinach gratin. Sadly, the grilled octopus is not the caramelized beauty I think of (à la Periyali), and its white beans are a puzzling medley of just-right, undercooked, and mush. My guest, the fish-eater, is perfectly content with her duarade grilled whole with fennel and marinated olives. But I find it dry and slightly fishy. And the side of spinach is far too salty.

Pastis fills up at lunch too (reservations accepted), but without the yearning overflow of nighttime. It's a chance to see what the place might be like once the winds of fickle chic blow over (if ever). Now the simple rooms with the tiny tables and pewter railings to pile your coat behind and the gorgeous swirls of tile at your feet evoke images of innocents abroad, fractured French, and being ignored at La Coupole. I decide to risk a house cocktail, l'Amande Pastis, a refreshing cooler of Ricard, almond syrup, and soda. The caramelized-onion tart and the croque monsieur -- both winners -- arrive on an old wooden board. The day's special, a classic chicken stew in cream, reminds me of carefree days before the devil invented cholesterol. I have to laugh at the maître d's compulsive politesse as he refolds the wrinkled green-striped bar-towel "napkin" for a guest gone to the ladies' room. And thank heaven for no candied-basil or powdered-sugar flurries on the Old World desserts -- tingling lemon tart, poached pear with vanilla ice cream and superlative chocolate sauce, straightforward floating island, apple tart, and sublime crêpes Suzette, a childhood crush I'd totally forgotten.

At $2, I'm not going to complain about tea bags. Especially when there are excellent house wines by the glass or the carafe -- a half or a whole (about five or six small tumblersful), starting at $13. It was annoying that the cheapest red on the short wine list was a $52 Zinfandel, but now a $36 Gigondas has been added, so I won't call for the gendarmes.

I don't really know Keith McNally at all outside the nimbus of his transported Paris, except that his joints have legs. So he's a worrier. As if to smile might jinx it all. But I do see a tiny quick grin as he points out his own little joke on the menu -- the hamburger is $9 (and excellent), the cheeseburger just $8. I like to imagine he goes home at 4 a.m., pulls the curtains tight, and giggles uncontrollably over his nightcap of beans on toast.

Pastis, 9 Ninth Avenue, at Little West 12th Street (212-929-4844). Breakfast, Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to noon; lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m.; dinner, daily 6 p.m. to midnight; supper, Sunday through Thursday, midnight to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday till 3 a.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.


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