‘This looks like a fun place, honey,” one of my toddler-addled, restaurant-deprived Upper East Side friends declared to his wife as they settled down to a meal at Café d’Alsace, the latest addition to Simon Oren’s growing bistro empire. Like Oren’s other popular French-themed establishments (Nice Matin, Marseille), Café d’Alsace is located in a region (88th Street and Second Avenue, down the street from Elaine’s) terminally starved for decent food. Like them, it boasts many of the cheery features that have helped make the ersatz bistro-brasserie model the dominant comfort formula of our age. There is the curved pewter bar (here with a ring of decorative, antique seltzer bottles suspended over the barflies’ heads), and rows of tables jammed together, which, in summertime, will no doubt spill out onto the street. There is the meticulously tiled floor, which suggests equal parts bonhomie and old-fashioned good taste, and, of course, there are the posters on the wall, in this case ones depicting hoisted beer steins and other scenes evocative of old Alsace.
Luckily, there is also a real live French chef in the kitchen at Café d’Alsace, and an accomplished one to boot, although Philippe Roussel, who last ran the very good midtown brasserie Montparnasse, is from Brittany, not Alsace. Several of the familiar staples of the French-American brasserie canon are on display here (charcuterie platter, foie gras terrine, a fine hanger steak and frites), but mostly Roussel (who is also a partner in the venture) peppers his menu with rib-sticking Alsatian specialties, many of them favorites of his father, who was also a chef. There’s a tarte flambé (slightly weathered and overcrisped on the night I tried it); crocks of potée Alsatian swirling with white beans, cabbage, and nuggets of bacon; and big, heavy-artillery items like the famous Alsatian casserole called baeckoffe, and a faithfully robust version of choucroute garni, with sauerkraut simmered in Riesling, two cuts of pork (smoked belly and breast), and four kinds of sausage, all served in a cast-iron pot.
To reach these formidable entrées, however, one must first plow through a selection of slighter, more obvious dishes, which my restaurant-deprived Upper East Side friends seemed happy enough to do. Our efforts were aided by Aviram, the dapper, suspiciously trim Israeli “beer sommelier,” who introduced us to a pleasant $16 bottle of St. Sylvester’s Ale from Belgium. The amber-colored beer went well with the very good in-house sausage appetizers (duck, pork, or boudin blanc, sliced over sauerkraut), but less well with the frog’s legs, which were drowned in a standard garlic-and-butter sauce and tasted like some pallid Gallic version of buffalo wings. If you don’t think a dish called tartare oriental (cold salmon molded with pike) has any place in this extremely French lineup (it doesn’t), try the duck ballotine (a round slice of foie gras pâté mingled with vaguely gamy-tasting chunks of smoked duck) or the quenelles de brochet, made the traditional way, with ground pike, but served with head-on shrimp, and muffled in an overly thick white-wine sauce.
Thickness and heft are not a problem with the choucroute, which is constructed like a kind of pork-lover’s tepee (the sausages being the tent struts) and takes several yeoman-size gentlemen to eat. Ditto the baeckoffe, a piping-hot agglomeration of lamb shoulder and oxtail, simmered together with slabs of bacon, onions, and potatoes in plenty of butter and Pinot Gris. If you lack the stomach for this kind of industrial-size grub (we forgot to mention the lamb shanks, braised in Kronenbourg lager), try the professionally done poulet roti, or the trout, which is presented in two fillets, painted with a rich Riesling sauce, and served with a mound of buttered spinach. For dessert, there are plates of Alsatian sugar cookies (called mignardises), good apple and chocolate tarts served with equally good scoops of gourmet ice cream, and a giant multilayered napoleon-style pastry, which is perambulated around the room on a big tray so as to entice people into ordering it. We did, of course, and I can tell you, for a fact, that there’s nothing like it at Elaine’s.
Sascha is the name of the other new brasserie-style restaurant in town, but instead of Alsace, the chef and co-owner, Sascha Lyon, attempts, with varying degrees of success, to directly channel the fake-brasserie template made famous by his former boss, Keith McNally. Sascha is located in the meatpacking district, a block south of the well-known McNally outlet Pastis, where Lyon served as executive chef for five years. It occupies two floors of a wedge-shaped former biscuit factory, one a downstairs bistro-bar called the Gansevoort Room, the other a more swanky upstairs dining room, with linen-covered white tops and round tassel lamps. There are also café tables scattered on the sidewalk (for lunch and brunch), even a walk-in bakery serving pastries and bread à la McNally’s Balthazar. The menus are slightly different downstairs and up, but both are stocked with a jumble of rehashed and retro items, ranging from overpriced seafood plateaus to cherries Jubilee and egg creams to chateaubriand for two.