For a certain subset of wistful, French-leaning gourmands, bistro remains one of the most durable, comforting words in the restaurant language. It conjures images of convivial carriage-house quarters with steamy windowpanes and country stews cooked in tiny backroom kitchens. At a spare little space down on Hudson Street, two seasoned—and, I’m guessing, slightly wistful—restaurant veterans, Maryann Terillo (formerly of Jarnac) and Elisa Sarno (formerly of Babbo), are attempting to re-create this old world once again. They call their restaurant Bistro de la Gare, after Terillo’s vanished West Village café where they worked together in the eighties. Their narrow railroad space has fifteen tables and a five-seat bar where you can chill bottles of wine brought in from the liquor store around the corner (the restaurant’s currently BYOB, but the wine-and-beer license should arrive in a few weeks). There are familiar, earthy preparations on the menu, like duck rillettes, and an appropriately bulky cassoulet served in an earthen crock as heavy and round as a cannonball.
We’ve seen this show many times before, of course, and like a classic, old opera, its pleasure isn’t in the content necessarily. It is in the neighborly scale, the ritualized pace of the proceedings, and, if you’re lucky, the modest price of the show. This bistro (the menu’s stated theme is “Mediterranean,” which means a French-bistro format mingled with hints of Italy) isn’t exactly cheap, however. On one of my early visits, $9 bought a small tuft of mesclun salad, and for $3 more you could get a smattering of seafood (mussels, ribbons of squid, a shrimp or two) thrown into a tangle of frisée. The duck rillettes ($10) come in a thimble-size cup but are redeemed by their unctuous, country- style flavor. So were the fat, fresh scallops ($14 for two), which the kitchen sears, then tosses with sherry vinegar and shreds of black garlic, and perches atop a little mountain of fava beans.
The dishes on the entrée list are fairly ambitious for a fifteen-table joint, and the best of them tend to be more Italian than French. The gnocchi alla Romana, with Tuscan kale and grilled hedgehog and white-trumpet mushrooms, has a refreshingly unformed, home-style quality to it, as does the “Greenmarket” lasagne, which is constructed with plenty of gooey béchamel and Parmesan and sheets of paper-thin house-rolled pasta. On the other hand, the sautéed skate delivered to our table had a bedraggled, grayish tinge to it, and the “crispy” rabbit was muffled in a generic, overbreaded crust. My cassoulet was thick and sturdy enough to feed an army of ravenous peasants, but most of its crucial elements (sausage, pork cheeks, duck confit) were overcooked. If you’re in the mood for a proper country feed, order the robust interpretation of chicken cacciatore instead, which is tossed with mushrooms and bits of salty pancetta and poured over a smooth mass of polenta.
Bistro de la Gare was filled with a friendly buzz on the evenings I dropped in; as is the custom with a certain kind of old-fashioned restaurant, the proprietors emerged from the kitchen to commune with their patrons and, on occasion, even clear their plates. Small kitchens have a habit of ignoring dessert, but that’s not the case here. Eight dollars buys a thick wedge of flourless chocolate cake (with a spoonful of crème fraîche on the side); an affogato made with vanilla ice cream and a generous splash of espresso; or a healthy serving of bread pudding, torn up in a white porcelain bowl and covered with crème anglaise. For $1 more you can get a round of chocolate “budino” pudding, garnished with a scoop of odd but palatable goat-cheese ice cream; or an elegant panna cotta, dressed with crushed walnuts and a film of white-wine syrup, that quivers delicately when you tweak it with your spoon.
When Alain Ducasse’s casual bistro-brasserie outlet Benoit opened almost two years ago in Jean-Jacques Rachou’s old Le Côte Basque space on 55th Street, the city’s dwindling number of French snobs (okay, basically just this French snob) were scandalized by the slimy, rock-hard quenelles, the overcooked, overpriced chicken, and the grim, watery quality of the onion soup. But late last year, Ducasse installed Martha Stewart’s former private chef, Pierre Schaedelin, in the kitchen. The tiny, darkened barroom of the restaurant still has an unfortunate flat-screen TV flickering in the corner, the cramped dining-room layout means the tables are still too close together, and on crowded evenings the harried waiters occasionally crash into each other. But Schaedelin—who has also worked for two Ducasse restaurants in Europe and been the executive chef at Le Cirque—has revamped and expanded the classic brasserie menu, instilling it with some much-needed professional zip.
The quenelles de brochet ($22, in a dreckish, rust-colored Nantua sauce) remain distressingly rubbery (“Maybe they’re supposed to be that way,” offered Mrs. Platt brightly), but the onion soup has a bubbly, agreeably thick gratinéed top, and Schaedelin’s signature tarte flambée is worth a special trip. The salmon en croûte was as big as a toaster (that’s too big), and the fresh, hand-chopped beef tartare seemed slightly oversauced. But the boudin aux pommes has a nice, crisp snap to it, and other stately old delicacies (steak au poivre with Brussels sprouts, duck à l’orange without too much orange) were well received by our little group of Francophiles. The thing to get on a cold, early spring afternoon, however, is Schaedelin’s faithful rendition of Rachou’s legendary cassoulet. It’s made with tarbais beans and faintly caramelized hunks of pork belly and country sausage, and is so filling that when dessert rolls around, you’ll only need a taste of the excessively large tarte Tatin ($24 for two) or the famous Ducasse baba au rhum, which is as rich, decorative, and exquisitely boozy as ever.