|Photograph by Kenneth Chen.|
The old Francophile smoothed his cuffs in a practiced, slightly weary way, and regarded, for perhaps the thousandth time in his illustrious dining career, a plate of profiteroles covered in chocolate sauce. The profiteroles represented the conclusion of our faux-brasserie feast, the tail end in a long, familiar conga line of pâtés and salad frisées and hanger steak piled with frites. During the course of our meal at Bistro du Vent, we’d observed all the usual bistro rituals. We’d studied the list of interesting, though not overly esoteric wines (“The Loires are a little young,” the Francophile said). We’d listened to the recitation of the specials by our waiter, who was dressed in a white waist apron. We’d admired the quaint NON FUMER signs in the restrooms, and taken turns dutifully sampling spoonfuls of onion soup. But when the profiteroles arrived (and fine profiteroles they were), the Francophile lapsed into a brief, uncharacteristic silence. “I don’t sense a French hand at the helm here,” he finally said. “You need a French hand at the helm in a restaurant like this.”
Well, not really. Not in this town, at least. Thanks to Keith MacNally, and his band of acolytes and imitators, French-style bistros are as thick on the ground these days as hot-dog carts, and much more profitable. Which may be why such practiced, original (and non-French) restaurateurs as Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali couldn’t resist taking a crack at the genre. Bistro du Vent, which opened six weeks ago, on the far-western reaches of 42nd Street (the name means “Bistro of the Wind”), has the same casual, sturdy look of other recent Bastianich-Batali ventures. A bright red awning hangs outside the window (bright red being to fashionable New York brasseries what bright yellow is to McDonald’s), and the wood-cut tables and chairs are blocky and thick, and varnished a dark, woodsy color. There’s a cozy, dimly lit room in the back with red leather banquettes along the walls, and a bar and café area in the front that is small, even stunted, by Bastianich-Batali standards, and susceptible, whenever the door opens, to icy gusts.
The captain of this drafty little ship is another talented non-Frenchman, David Pasternack, who is also the chef at the much-praised Bastianich-Batali seafood restaurant, Esca. Before that he worked at another much-praised restaurant, Picholine, on the Upper West Side, an experience that reportedly left him with a passion for the simple dishes of southern France. But for such an innovative chef (we can thank Mr. Pasternack for the current crudo craze), his cooking at Bistro du Vent is resolutely, even doggedly, by the book. The appetizers include the requisite boudins, two kinds of pâté, and a decent, though beefy-tasting onion soup, served in a polished white tureen. There are huitres (oysters), of course, and plates of salmon fumé sprinkled with pomegranates. There are salads made with chopped beets (shaped in a colorful little turret and drizzled with a tangy sauce gribiche), salads hiding barely palatable helpings of duck leg and gizzard, and, of course, a fine salad frisée graced with a generous, Batali-size allotment of pork lardons.
None of this food is very original, but none of it is very bad, either. The best, predictably, are the earthy dishes: the terrines, the boudins, and the simmering meat dishes. The country pâté is dotted with prunes. The Francophile gave his benediction to the chicken-liver terrine (it’s smooth as whipped butter, and twice as rich), and to a sizzling brochette of kidneys, lamb hearts, and bacon. My favorite sausage was the shiny boudin blanc (stuffed with mashed chicken and sweetbreads), and if it’s pork you like, order the fatty Lyon sausage, laid over a bed of lentils. The pork loin was too thick and too dry, but the big, leviathan lamb shank fell off the bone in a pleasing way, and the excellent beef daube was moist enough to eat with a fork, and tasted nicely of oranges. The steak-frites was very fine, especially the frites, and the giant côte de boeuf (which we asked to have cooked medium rare) was charred on its exterior in a professional way, but rare to the point of rawness in the middle.
If you don’t have the stomach for this kind of unrelentingly beefy grub, try the rotisserie-roasted chicken, which has nice deposits of black truffles stuffed under the crackly skin. If you’re looking for light, inventive, Esca-like seafood interpretations at this bistro, however, you’re out of luck. Chef Pasternack’s version of bourride, the traditional, garlic-infused fish stew from Provence, was pasty, even bland, the times I tried it. It’s sprinkled with almonds and loaded with thick, fatty fish (in fairness, bourride is supposed to be loaded with thick, fatty fish, like mackerel and eel), but the aïoli-laden sauce has a dull, oddly watery quality. There’s a daily fish special on the menu (a good piece of tilefish one evening; simple sautéed loup de mer, the next), and also a good appetizer of whole grilled shrimp drizzled with a chickpea vinaigrette. But the only other standard seafood entrée is a piece of featureless baked cod, dusted with a wan cover of bread crumbs, and served with half a boiled egg and a single, sad-looking anchovy on top.
This lack of imagination is a surprise, considering Pasternack’s talents, although given the Bastianich-Batali track record, it should evolve over time. For now, Bistro du Vent serves one of the better salad frisées in all of Hell’s Kitchen, and if you crave an oversize, reasonably priced ($20) lamb shank after the theater, this is a good place to find one. The most interesting dessert is a plate of sugary roasted pineapple, served with pink peppercorn ice cream. The least interesting is the crème brûlée, which is a little stodgy, like custard. There’s a good lemon tart, however; a smooth chocolate pot du crème; and, on one evening, scoops of fine prune-and-Armagnac ice cream presented in a frosted sundae cup. And then there are the bite-size profiteroles, which are light, not soggy, and crunch in the mouth in a pleasing way. Maybe they’re uniquely French—then again, maybe not. At this point, who really cares? At a simple neighborhood bistro like this one, they’re as familiar as a good breakfast doughnut in a Greek diner, as comforting as apple pie.
Ideal Meal: Boudin blanc, beef daube or roast chicken, profiteroles.
Note: The Loires might be a little young, as my Francophile friend insists, but the wine in general is expertly chosen, modestly priced, and presented in an unfailingly professional way.