Photographs by Danny Kim
For classically trained chefs of the old school, finding an appropriate culinary voice for this casual, post-gourmet era is a little like trying on hats in a buffeting windstorm. You keep frantically grabbing at different sizes and styles, until you find something that sticks. Over the past decade, the accomplished, slightly star-crossed French cook Alain Allegretti has tried on more hats than most. During the course of his peripatetic career, he has worked with luxury-minded luminaries like Alain Ducasse (at Louis XV in Monaco) and Sirio Maccioni (at the old Le Cirque 2000 on Madison Avenue). He’s run the kitchen at a gourmet restaurant at the Ritz (the doomed Atelier), opened his own fussy eponymous French establishment in the Flatiron district (the ill-fated Allegretti), and even done time working at a trendy, crowd-pleasing tourist trap (La Petite Maison, in midtown).
At his polished new Chelsea bistro, La Promenade des Anglais, however, Allegretti finally seems to have hit on a style (or a hat, if you will) for this new dining age. The modest-sized room, on the ground floor of the London Terrace apartments on 23rd Street in Chelsea, features bistro-style mirrors and a long, polished white marble bar. The waiters are dressed in vests and jaunty navy sneakers, and the ceiling has been painted with palm trees and cobblestones to evoke the famous promenade in the chef’s hometown of Nice from which the restaurant takes its name. There’s a decent haute burger at this cheerfully unfussy restaurant (lunchtimes only, with brandied onions and melted Gruyère), along with a variety of communal “for the table” items (delicious crostini piled with fresh mussels and fennel, pots of whipped ricotta with wedges of toast), and even an elegant North African–style slider (on the bar menu), which the chef makes with crumbling bits of merguez sausage.
Allegretti divides his elevated brasserie menu into a jumble of sections and subsections (I counted eight), and with the exception of the curiously flat and heavy pastas, the best dishes tend to be rooted in his Mediterranean background. The premier for-the-table dish, my tasters and I agreed, was the tempura-like zucchini-flower beignets, which are crunchy like little savory cookies and served with fresh tomato sauce for dipping. The classic French onion soup at this posh little brasserie has an overthick, almost stewlike quality, so get the Provençal fish soup ($14) instead, which has a deep, rusty color to it and is garnished, in vintage Niçoise style, with a feathery house-made rouille. That old Mediterranean staple octopus a la plancha ($16) is enlivened here with fried chickpeas and chorizo, and the delicious frog’s legs Provençal is served over a layer of smooth, gently dissolving garlic cream.
Most of the seafood entrées at La Promenade (try the grilled branzino with lemon olive oil) are executed with a similarly light touch, and if you’re in the mood for something heavier, the kitchen can do that too. The osso buco I ordered one evening was tender enough to eat with a spoon, and the honey-glazed duck breast ($29) tastes like something you’d find at the grand old gourmet establishments Allegretti used to haunt uptown. You can complement these dishes with ten varieties of Champagne, and a slew of cocktails with un-Niçoise names like the Kentucky Redhead and Pumpkin Divine. The desserts are similarly fashionable and up-to-date (try the s’mores-like guanaja mousse), although none of them packs as much punch as that old Ducasse favorite baba au rhum, which the kitchen dresses with orange zest and decadent spoonfuls of whipped cream.
Mas (la grillade), which opened several months ago in a slightly ungainly two-tiered space on lower Seventh Avenue, is the brainchild of another talented, classically trained chef attempting to adapt his refined cooking style to the tastes of the increasingly informal, rusticated dining world. Galen Zamarra trained under David Bouley, among others, and runs the excellent haute-barnyard farm-to-table restaurant Mas (farmhouse), on Downing Street. His new place is designed, as the name indicates, as a kind of casual bookend to the original operation. The menu is held together with bits of twine, and features elemental dishes (“fire-popped” popcorn, “wood-fired” oysters, “spit-roasted” squab) cooked over an open flame. The tables in the restrained, well-appointed room are set with guttering candles, and the air is perfumed with the faint aroma of wood smoke.
Unfortunately, most of the dishes I sampled were devoid of that just-off-the-fire crackle and gusto that characterize the best kind of open-flame cooking. “This is like something you’d find at a restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg,” said one of my tasters as she sipped at a bowl of admirably rustic but curiously bland organic pecan soup. I enjoyed my small-plate anchovy-and-ricotta tartine appetizer, although I can’t say the same about the tepidly cooked, exorbitantly priced spit-roasted squab ($36) or the expertly arranged but strangely denatured duck cassoulet ($36). The pricey New York strip steak ($49) was the only thing I sampled at this polite but oddly unaffecting little restaurant that had a proper grilled bite to it. The haute-farm-style desserts are mercifully free of wood-fired items, although you may detect a vague hint of smoke in the upside-down cake, which is made with fresh grilled pears, a scoop of honey ice cream, and an elegant huckleberry compote.