There was a time, not so very long ago, when ambitious French haute cuisine restaurants opened with a splash in prominent skyscrapers and hotels all over midtown Manhattan. But as the shadowy, slightly opaque name suggests, La Silhouette is an haute cuisine restaurant for our new, post–haute cuisine era. It’s technically in midtown, but to find it, you’ll have to trudge several blocks from the subway to the borderlands of Hell’s Kitchen. The bar serves $15 cocktails and $97 bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin, but it’s barely big enough to seat six people. There are no linens on the tables, and the menus have a laminated sheen. The tiny, sunken dining room in the back is manned by professional waiters wearing neatly pressed vests, but it feels pokey and austere, like something you’d find in suburban Miami or off the lobby of a provincial European hotel.
But once dinner begins, the mood in the matchbox-size dining room begins to change. “This looks lovely,” muttered one of the grizzled Francophiles at my table as he examined an old-fashioned torchon of Hudson Valley foie gras, which was smooth as proverbial silk and served with two disks of Melba toast and a spoonful of delicately chopped pear chutney. The risotto appetizer I enjoyed one evening was wreathed in a vividly green parsley foam and scattered on top with boutique mushrooms (hen-of-the-woods) and a handful of crisped, garlicky snails from Burgundy. My neighbor’s beet salad was constructed in delicate layers, in the familiar Alfred Portale style, and if you order the pappardelle at this outwardly unassuming establishment, you’ll find that the flat, chewy noodles are rolled fresh every day, and smothered in a rich, faintly gamy wild-boar ragù.
La Silhouette is run by youthful haute cuisine veterans (the chef, David Malbequi, comes from the Boulud empire; the owners met as managers of Le Bernardin), who’ve wisely decided that in the chastened, postrecession world, it’s wiser to spend your cash on ingredients than décor. The lamb loin I ordered one evening (crusted in mustard, over farro tossed with artichokes and olives) wouldn’t have been out of place at one of Daniel’s finer restaurants, and neither would the softly braised monkfish tournedos, which were sunk in a rich, smoky shellfish broth cut with a hint of preserved lemon. The blanquette de veau I sampled was made with slippery veal cheeks and perhaps too much cream, but both the New York strip (with buttery collard greens and a vinegary sauce diable) and the tender, crackly, mushroom-stuffed Amish chicken are instant classics of the new gourmet-comfort-food genre.
If you’re weary of gnawing on trendy, overpriced comfort foods, a quiet dinner at La Silhouette offers all sorts of other vanished, reaffirming pleasures. The fresh-baked bread is served by deferential (and non-tattooed) waiters with little silver tongs. The wine list is heavily French, but not in an aggressively priced, overly stuffy way, and the desserts are elegantly familiar without being cloying or clichéd. There are round, sugary beignets stuffed with orange pastry crème, and a classic moelleux pastry filled with caramel and garnished with chopped apples and smooth crème fraîche ice cream. The chocolate soufflé for two has to be ordered beforehand and contains veins of deeply pleasing molten chocolate in its fluffy depths. The grizzled Francophile took one wistful bite, then another. “I’m a happy man,” he said.
The first sign that something’s gone horribly wrong at the new midtown branch of the famous Côte d’Azur restaurant La Petite Maison is the rumpled canvas banners, which are strung up on the railings outside the old Rockefeller townhouse on West 54th Street like advertisements for a new Olive Garden outlet at the local mall. Then there’s the awkward space inside, which consists of an echoing, mostly vacant subterranean dining room and a small bar area upstairs, which the proprietors have jammed with tables in a doomed attempt to create a sense of antic bonhomie. And finally, as you chew your way through the greasy fried zucchini blossoms, the gummy, $55 truffle-laden risotto, and the stringy Chateaubriand for two ($70!), there are the rotating wandering-minstrel bands, which circulate relentlessly among the cowering diners, belting out hoarse renditions of “Volare” at the tops of their scratchy voices.
I don’t recall enduring minstrel bands when I dropped into Nicole Rubi’s original, celebrity-saturated restaurant in Nice. But that was before La Petite Maison franchises began popping up, Olive Garden style, in London and Dubai. Presumably, the menus at those outlets contain listless, overpriced facsimiles of Niçois classics just like this one. The $38 order of tuna “tournedos” I sampled were wrapped, unaccountably, in flabby sheets of bacon; the shrimp with pastis ($42) were mealy one evening and fresh the next; and my bowl of Provençal fish soup was properly rusty in color but as warm as old bathwater. Take refuge, if you must, in staples like artichoke salad, and the lamb chops, served with a lumpish stack of chickpea frites. Whatever you do, avoid the flan for six ($40) for dessert, which is as big as a hubcap and appears to have been thickened with spackle.