Le Pain Quotidien, the country-chic bakery-café known for seating its breakfast and lunch customers at giant communal pine tables (as if braving the subway every day weren't claustrophobic punishment enough) and encouraging them not only to make eye contact but to converse, to interact, or at the very least to pass the salt, has recently expanded its elbow-rubbing campaign beyond sandwiches and pastries to include full dinner service at its SoHo branch (100 Grand Street; 212-625-9009). Thus far, elbow rubbing has mercifully not been enforced. And the accomplished Med-French cooking is a relative steal in a neighborhood where bathroom-fixture stores display their wares the way art galleries do.
News of the nightly bakery-to-bistro conversion hasn't yet spread, so most evenings, crowding is definitely not an issue. Late one weeknight, we're the only ones occupying the 25-foot table in the front of the restaurant when an incoming couple very un-communally asks to be seated in the vacant back room before we even get a chance to pass them the salt.
That might be a slight disappointment for owner (and gung ho communal-dining advocate) Alain Coumont, a wiry, energetic French-trained Belgian chef who started baking bread when he couldn't find any he liked well enough to supply his Brussels kitchen. Unexpectedly, the bakery business took off, and Coumont became an accidental emissary of artisanal bread, cloning his concept throughout Europe and Japan before ultimately landing in Manhattan, where he now runs three branches of Le Pain Quotidien. This past January, Coumont the itinerant baker finally reverted to his first career as a born-again chef.
The candlelit, loftlike back room, with its toasted-wheat-colored distressed-plaster walls and its almost absolute lack of adornment (save a patchwork silk tapestry on one side and an artful assortment of rusty tractor seats hanging on the other), improbably combines the monastic and the manorial. A fake fire glows in the hearth at the far wall, and above the bread-bedecked mantel hangs a black-and-white photo of a distinguished, patriarchal-looking gentleman -- "an old uncle," according to Coumont.
The monastic ambience was part of Coumont's original plan: He envisioned serving a nightly fixed menu of crudités, soup, bread, a hearty dish like pot-au-feu or meat loaf, and dessert. In finicky SoHo, that one-size-fits-all approach didn't fly. So he expanded to eight appetizers and five entrées, all priced à la carte (appetizers, $7 to $13; mains, $14 to $19). But the meal still begins auspiciously with a complimentary plate of crisp, fresh crudités like haricots verts, radishes, and niçoise olives, plus croutons topped with brandade de morue or salmon mousse, and a burlap-lined basket of the bakery's excellent, earthy pain au levain and spectacular baguette.
An ingredient-obsessed perfectionist, Coumont insists on the absolute finest and freshest, sniffing about and shopping around until he's reasonably satisfied he can't do any better. Thus he named his herby mesclun salad for his upstate organic farmer, Gary. Wild-game purveyor D'Artagnan supplies most of his meats, including the French duck liver that becomes an irresistibly rich and satiny-smooth foie gras terrine, served with slices of toasted pain au levain and spiced apple compote; the squab, grilled to a crackling dark brown but rare and juicy inside, enhanced with a delectable juniper jus; and the spoon-tender lamb for the slow-cooked pot-au-feu in a saffroned milk broth, with its garnish of couscous and yellow raisins.
The defining characteristic of Coumont's eclectic cooking is his unabashedly extravagant use of herbs, a habit he gleaned from the creator of la cuisine minceur Michel Guérard, an early mentor and his collaborator on the out-of-print Minceur Exquise. It's evident in his oregano-laced spaghettini with oven-roasted tomatoes, creatively accessorized with tapenade and black beans, a toothsome pasta dish as good as any you'd find in the best Italian kitchens. Rosemary and thyme sprigs are planted like birthday candles everywhere, and fried sage leaves perfume an appetizer of artichoke hearts and slender asparagus, drizzled with a truffle vinaigrette enriched with walnut oil, mustard, and chopped truffle.
Delicate goat-cheese-and-sage ravioli is all herbal essence, no tomato-sauced cliché. Roasted salmon is crowned with a pat of maître d'hotel butter that releases the flavors of anchovy, garlic, saffron, and pastis as it melts over the fish. The sweet, buttery buffalo mozzarella in the caprese salad is shipped from Italy and arrives at Grand Street less than a day old.
Even so, you may prefer to postpone your dairy fix until after dinner, especially if you catch sight of the cheese cart, with its seductively pungent, perfectly ripe specimens of mostly French unpasteurized cheeses (to go with the small but sufficient all-French wine list or Belgian beer), including a lusciously oozing Vacherin, a mildly tangy crottin de Chavignol, and a big-flavored, creamy Fourme d'Ambert. Order three, five, or seven, and they arrive artfully arranged on a ceramic bread board with walnuts and wine-soaked figs. And, of course, more of that empire-building bread. Afterward, chocolate-mousse cake and vanilla charlotte seem somewhat redundant.
Bernard Massuger and Boubaka Segda aren't a couple, but they might as well be. Their two-man operation at Cosette (163 East 33rd Street; 212-889-5489) has all the hallmarks of a traditional mom-and-pop French bistro, with Massuger greeting guests and waiting tables most nights and Segda heroically manning the stove (and dishwasher). Nearly everything about the humble 31-seat restaurant, which was known as Le Totof before the previous owners got homesick for Brittany, is classic French, from the Côtes-du-Rhône table wine to the house specialty, a Gruyère-crusted brandade de morue.
The only indication that there is a West African and not a Frenchman in the kitchen is the soukos music playing softly over the sound system. Segda's repertoire -- rich onion soup; flaky-crusted pissaladière; pan-seared, basil-stuffed cod with ratatouille; tasty poulet rôti with potato gratin; textbook-juicy steak-frites -- covers all the Gallic bases with verve and uncommon finesse. Massuger, who commutes between Murray Hill and his Asian-inflected Orienta uptown, is an especially gracious host, opening bottles to offer tastes of wine, flitting between tables to make sure all is well.
Cosette is exactly what every neighborhood should be lucky enough to have: an affordable French bistro (the average entrée price is $15) with consistently well-executed food, a friendly demeanor, and a comfortable, very low-key atmosphere. And, in the spirit of Le Pain Quotidien, excellent bread, this time courtesy of the homegrown Sullivan Street Bakery.