One is tempted to make certain assumptions about a restaurant named Bouillabaisse 126: One, that bouillabaisse is on the menu. Two, that that dish must be the particular pride and joy of the chef, no doubt a transplanted Marseillais. Three, that the place attracts that preternaturally skeptical breed of expat clientele, on the one hand curious to discover if their beloved seafood stew can be faithfully reproduced beyond fishnet-tossing distance of the Mediterranean; on the other hand, already certain it can’t.
Would one be correct? Well, yes, no, and maybe.
Despite its name, Bouillabaisse 126 is purely a Brooklyn story, its hero, Neil Ganic, a Yugoslavian-born chef who made his name in the early nineties at La Bouillabaisse, a pioneering Atlantic Avenue bistro. In the dozen intervening years, Ganic reproduced variations of his winning formula in a half-dozen spots throughout the borough before disappearing from the culinary scene.
Then, last month, he made a full-fledged return, with a restaurant name and menu guaranteed to induce serious déjà vu in the minds and mouths of his loyal following. Bouillabaisse 126—the number is the street address in the burgeoning part of Brooklyn that’s called, in the current confounding fashion, Carroll Gardens West, Red Hook, and, as Ganic and his partners prefer, the Columbia Waterfront District—joins old-timers like Ferdinando’s Focacceria and newcomers like Schnäck, bringing Union Street an utterly unpretentious infusion of rustic French flavor.
The room is the unfussy Ganic’s grandest yet, dramatically high-ceilinged and sparsely decorated, with baguettes stowed away in an armoire and a striped banquette cushion adding a jolt of color to the exposed brick and bistro-yellow walls. In characteristic style, the day’s menu is presented on large blackboards lugged around the room by genial servers and heaved against the chunky wood tables, and despite daily additions and subtractions, it retains all the chef’s time-tested signatures: slabs of Gorgonzola girding a wine-poached pear; tender, golden crab cake, embellished with artful dabs of red-pepper aïoli, mustard, and diced-tomato salsa; that eponymous seafood stew (more on that later).
Ganic has a knack for turning out satisfying, homey but refined dishes that value flavor over frills. One night’s foie gras appetizer was an elegant exception: smooth, delicious pâté, ringed with a reduction of blueberry and black currant, garnished with a couple of buttery sautéed prunes and the daintiest dot of spicy mustard. Perfection. There’s a seafood chowder, of course. Mussels marinière, with a sop-worthy broth that invites repeated and prolonged bread dipping. Flaky, tender fish fillets—red snapper in a tomato-based Provençal sauce or poached cod in a cream-touched one—each served with lush mashed potatoes and the unexpectedly delicious vegetable of the day, like tender sautéed leeks or cauliflower gratin.
Despite the abundance of worthy alternatives—including non-piscatory ones, like a winter-hearty lamb shank with rough-cut red-cabbage relish, and filet mignon au poivre—it’s hard to resist the dish the restaurant’s named for, no matter how much the recipe veers from tradition.
And it’s bound to. Even the French can’t agree on what should and shouldn’t go into a proper bouillabaisse. As P. G. Wodehouse put it, “In bouillabaisse you are likely to find almost anything, from a nautical gentleman’s sea-boots to a small China mug engraved with the legend ‘un cadeau (a present) de (from) Deauville (Deauville).’ ” While Ganic holds firmly to the belief that edible ingredients make for the tastiest bouillabaisse, his is a version unlikely to mollify a Marseillais. This is mainly because by adding only a few chunks of a single type of fish (cod, snapper, or bass), he avoids the delicate issue of what species should be substituted for rascasse, conger eel, and other bouillabaisse-approved components. But who really cares? By any name, it’s still a delicious seafood stew overflowing with mussels, scallops, shrimp, and lobster all luxuriating in saffron-flavored broth.
When the dessert chalkboard makes its rounds, heed the suggestion to go for the chocolate-soufflé cake. Ganic is also known, mysteriously, for his double-boiler rice pudding, but two separate attempts at the heaping helping left us baffled by the sourish tinge and crunchy texture. It’s one thing to tamper with French classics, but when it comes to the arena of old-fashioned American desserts, even the most beloved local legend had better watch his step.
Ideal Meal: Crab cake, bouillabaisse or poached cod, chocolate-soufflé cake. Notes: BYOB for now.
126 Union St., nr. Columbia St., Brooklyn; 718-855-4405
Hours: Dinner, 5:30 to 10:45 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $8; entrées, $9 to $19.