If I were a restaurateur, I'd hate Keith Mcnally's guts. First he produces Balthazar, sure to trigger Liza Minnelli's nostalgia for those magical days on the set of Gigi, her father Vincente's sumptuous valentine to turn-of-the-century Paris. Then he fashions Pastis, a "working-class" beanery so duskily stunning and Galliphilic that the current City of Light can boast no new restaurant as unabashedly evocative of its past. Against such polar triumphs, how do I create a brasserie that doesn't come across as a lazy knock-off or wouldn't look more impressive at the SmithHaven Mall?
Marc Packer and Sam Hazen are two men who must know how to channel anger, not only opening Rue 57 barely two café au laits after Pastis but choosing to do so at a location more off-putting than the thought of attending Celine Dion's family reunion. For while McNally routinely induces mystery with an out-of-the-way destination, these men picked the southeast corner of 57th and Sixth, a major urban crossroad with a bank on one corner, a Sports Authority on another, and a storefront sporting the throwaway chic of under-construction plywood on the third. But only a newsstand in front of the bank, the shockingly insipid Jekyll & Hyde next to the plywood, and red traffic lights persuade anyone to linger here. (Shouldn't folks who willingly let their shivering broods wait online outside J&H be charged with reckless parenting and have their children impounded?)
When you're at a juncture people purposefully pass through rather than head toward, subtlety is rarely the most effective way of getting attention. This could explain Rue 57's traditional burgundy awnings alternating with garishly cubist columns of jonquil-yellow light, and an interior oversaturated with swirling fabric patterns, Art Nouveau lighting, and arcs of polished brass.
But perhaps it's just these touches of overkill that account for Rue 57's exuberant swell of midtown workers, visiting business executives, and well-shod shoppers who got so disoriented by Bergdorf's final clearance sale they came out and accidentally walked west. Or is there something else that makes these shoppers teeter this way again? If it's not the lychee martinis (and I'll wear a Jekyll & Hyde T-shirt if it is) or the prices -- as reasonable as Pastis's but no match for Mangia's down the street -- it must be Sam Hazen's cooking. Whether starting your meal with a bracing slide of oyster bathed in a frisky tomato-lemon confit or the soothing welcome of a lusciously warm, piquant mission-fig turnover with Parma ham, you sense a chef who has devised a menu he thoroughly enjoys.
Hazen's penchant for contrasts hasn't always led to such infectious results. At Cascabel, his culinary counterpoint often went awry. There was that Gorgonzola mousse with sauterne granità and a pear . . . no, it's too horrible. (But know this: It was dessert.) And it's partner Marc Packer who owns the Harley Davidson Cafe around the corner. My only meal there offered no evidence that Packer was interested in being a keeper of fine dining's flame.
But that was then and this is pow! A staff of rarely flappable waiters with sparkling eyes unhesitatingly recommend both fish soup and duck crumble, confident that the sweet density and fragrance of the former will recall some swoon-filled memory of a seaside tavern near Cap d'Antibes (or at least a favorite novel set there) and that the latter will have diners gleefully attacking the neat little pouches of delicious shredded meat spiked by a jus snatched from the ordinary by a dusting of star anise.
A brandade of cured cod and Yukon-gold potatoes seems flat alongside such delights, but when the truffle broth washes over the forkful of foie gras wrapped inside a soft potato ravioli, it sparks a conversational synapse of at least two beats. Butternut-squash tortellini flecked with sage offers only a slightly less severe case of blissful oblivion -- provided you brush off the slivers of overbearing Parmesan.
Rue 57 wisely acknowledges the success of yet another savvy restaurateur, Steve (Ruby Foo's, Atlantic Grill) Hanson, who has proved that operating any kind of seafood-friendly establishment without a sushi bar is as ultimately self-defeating as talking oneself out of buying leather pants. Though hardly innovative -- except for yellowfin tuna roll that slyly sneaks in a spunky Niçoise garnish -- the fish is clean, well cut, and actually superior to the platters of fruits de mer being served here as if they were tortilla chips at a burrito palace.
I wish every day at Rue 57 was Thursday, when the plat du jour is short ribs, braised to ropa vieja shreddedness. But I will gladly settle for crispy-skinned snapper atop a pool of satisfying opposites, white beans over roasted tomatoes and arugula. And though the risotto is a bit oily, the lamb shank in the middle is served as such a tenderly appealing stew, the grains were bound to get short shrift.
Steak is as bland as frites are golden and robust. The burger is feistier. Steak au poivre, however, has the right kick in the head. For those who prefer beef hearty, the bourguignon is almost drunk with power, but the same wasabi potatoes listed as a side dish on the menu have no business ringing this plate. (How about some plain mashed, please?)
Why the bouillabaisse splashes so listlessly is all the more puzzling since the appetizer fish soup intimated that this dish would promise the same density for two-fisted slurping. Herb-roasted chicken was made for this wretched weather, and the jus surrounding it is soppingly worth at least half a loaf. What's guaranteed to fend off foul weather with true zeal, however, is a mere side dish -- a glistening ragout of beluga lentils and onion confit, more tranquilizing than brandy (or Pertussin).
With such comforting main courses, desserts should have been simple and direct. There is a pleasant Bartlett-pear tatin, an airy Kaffir-lime brûlée, but a quick scope of the room clues you that this cheerfully unpretentious crowd would be happier with more-familiar richer, thicker, or icier goodies. After all, we're not really in Paris. Nor is anyone acting like they want to be. Fifty-seventh and Sixth may be no Place de la Concorde, but it's close to home. So we've come to Rue this day. And that's just fine by us.
Rue 57 (60 West 57th Street; 212-307-5656). Open 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily. Appetizers $6.25 to $16, entrées $16 to $29. Amex, D.C., JCB., M.C., V.