‘Where’s your wife?” my fellow diners invariably asked as they settled into their chairs at A.O.C. Bedford, the cozy, prim, incurably quaint new restaurant on Bedford Street in the West Village. As readers of this column, they were acquainted with my wife’s taste in diminutive, incurably quaint restaurants. I’ve written (not entirely incorrectly) that she favors petite tables dressed in crisp linen, clean, simple menus, and rooms roughly the size of a horse stable (my wife has a fondness for horses). She favors exposed brick, too, and there is plenty of that at A.O.C. Bedford, which occupies the former space of a briefly popular establishment called Boughalem. The new owners have kept all the brick intact, but the tone of the room has been elevated in a formal, Continental way. A.O.C. (it stands for appellation d’origine contrôlée) is the official French designation for food products of the highest quality, and so the tables are covered with elegant, eggshell-colored linens, and if you order a bottle of Burgundy, it will be decanted at tableside, in the proper way.
This is not normal procedure in this raffish sector of the Village (the absurdly raffish Shopsin’s is right around the corner), but then A.O.C. Bedford does not always fit the usual small-restaurant mold. It’s really a big restaurant straining to escape a small restaurant’s body, which is probably why my wife, with her finely attuned small-restaurant radar, veered politely away. Possibly she heard me muttering greedily about the house suckling pig, and the paella, both of which are served, in the classic big-restaurant fashion, for two. The pig, which I ordered within about 30 seconds of sitting down, was crisp and honey-colored on its exterior, and served on the bone in the Iberian style (the chef is Venezuelan), with a little pile of dates on the side for sweetness. The paella, which came to the table heaped in a large salver, was infused with D.O.-approved (the Spanish equivalent of A.O.C.) saffron and contained a satisfyingly high ratio of fresh seafood (shrimp, scallops, cockles, etc.) to oily, salty (and D.O.-approved) Calasparra rice.
There are many more D.O.-approved (but not, curiously, A.O.C.) ingredients on the menu at A.O.C. Bedford, and a few Italian-approved D.O.C. designations as well. My favorite officially approved ingredient was the (D.O.) Serrano ham (splashed with D.O.C.-approved balsamic vinegar from Modena), which was arranged in a little stack, like ribbon candy, and served with soft confit tomatoes and crunchy pieces of ciabatta toast. There’s an agreeable standard-issue, small-restaurant slab of duck terrine available as an appetizer, and a plate of wafer-thin octopus “carpaccio” washed with extra-virgin olive oil, D.O.-approved pepper, and a touch of fleur de sel. You can get a good bowl of gnocchi (with crumblings of tangy, D.O.-approved Cabrales cheese) as an appetizer or an entrée, but the best of the starchy, pasta-category items was the freshly made tagliatelle, tossed with a generous helping of savory, faintly chewy cèpes mushrooms and flavored with a hint of truffle oil.
“A.O.C. Bedford doesn’t fit the small-restaurant mold. It’s a big restaurant in a small restaurant’s body.”
If my wife ever does go to A.O.C. Bedford, I’ll warn her about the house soundtrack, which has an unremittingly jaunty, Euro feel, and tell her to be sure to admire the handsome bottles of Armagnac decorating the unisex bathroom. I’ll steer her away from the lifeless fennel soup (she likes fennel) and suggest she order the meaty, exceptionally fresh dorade, presented on a bed of roasted onions. I’ll extol the virtues of the boneless rack of lamb (it’s rolled in a thick herb-and-bread-crumb crust), and warn her off the duck, which was underdone on the evening I sampled it. I’ll also give her the happy news that the desserts are strictly small school (small kitchens, as a rule, can’t afford full-time pastry chefs), with a couple of exceptions. There’s a smoothly competent flan crowned with bits of orange citrus, and a compact little cheese cart laden with properly soft, funky (and no doubt non-A.O.C.-approved) cheeses from Spain, Italy, and France. Best of all, though, is the crêpes suzette. It’s prepared tableside with all the trimmings, and expertly finished, in classic big-restaurant, uptown fashion, in a fiery cloud of brandy.
The proprietors of the Hacienda de Argentina, the new pampas-themed steakhouse on East 75th Street, have a similar taste for pomp and ceremony, although they exhibit it in a slightly different way. “This place looks like Juan Perón’s tomb,” exclaimed my Uncle Frank, the family gastronome, as he peered around the dim, windowless room. Uncle Frank was right, as usual, although upon closer inspection, I also discerned a touch of Eva Perón’s influence in the restaurant’s odd décor. Tall, guttering candles are set up on the tables, and vases of white lilies decorate the corners of the room. A suit of armor is propped beside the swinging kitchen door, and many of the chairs are great thronelike structures, carved with knobby-wood designs. The banquettes are stretched with spotted swatches of cowhide, and the menus are set between big lacquered slats of wood, so when you open them, you feel vaguely self-conscious, like the guest at a genial, offbeat reenactment party.
What they’re reenacting, at this eccentric, generally high-quality steakhouse, is the great gaucho tradition of grilling beef, which, as Uncle Frank pointed out, is usually done communally, from a great brazier in the center of the room. The grill is kept safely in the kitchen at Hacienda de Argentina, but the food cooked over it tastes authentic enough. There are plump morcillas (blood sausages) stuffed with sweet onions, and several varieties of chorizo (long pork salchichas—sweet Argentine chorizos—and the classic peppery Spanish variety), which you can enjoy separately or together, in a kind of pampas combo platter. There are deliciously charred lamb chops (served with a chaste wedge of lemon) and tough, Flintstone-size short ribs, which I ended up gnawing. But the real attraction is the steak. It’s available in different cuts and variations, the most intriguing of which is between classic Argentine grass-fed beef (imported, due to USDA restrictions, from Australia) and good old corn-fattened USDA prime. Although the U.S. prime (served in filet and shell-steak form) is appropriately tender, even buttery, it tastes bland compared to the textured, gnarled, grass-fed variety. Take a bite, and maybe you won’t be in Juan Perón’s tomb anymore. You’ll be out on the great, wide-open pampas (or, possibly, the Australian outback), sniffing the tall grasses, feeling the wind in your hair.