Just two and a half months old, the New French, an unassuming little spot in the West Village, cannot fool the Underground Gourmet, who, having studied the language in junior high, is pretty astute about these things. New though it may be, French it is not. By way of its menu, its unpretentious cooking, and especially its superfriendly (some might say anti-French) service, the New French is an American bistro, and a good one at that. Yes, it’s possible to consider a dish like pho kind-of-French since the noodle soup originated in the former French colony of Vietnam. Steak-frites and moules-frites? Sure. But then there is vegetable curry, pulled pork with mustard raita, and a brisket sandwich on ciabatta to consider.
So what’s with the name? Partner Philip Hoffman, who ran the Soho restaurant Nick and Eddie in the eighties and nineties, says that he borrowed it from the Minneapolis boho-hippie-artist restaurant the New French Café, which closed seven years ago. When a former Hoffman colleague opened a Minneapolis restaurant last year and named it Nick and Eddie, Hoffman got the idea to pull what he describes as “a sort of karmic switcheroo” and call his place the New French.
And so the room—formerly Le Gamin—has been stripped of its Gallic knickknacks, although the familiar faux-rattan chairs remain. The Venetian-blinded space is square and plain, offering a view of the open kitchen and of the whimsical mural painted by Hoffman’s friend, the artist Maira Kalman. Those familiar with her work (her handwriting also serves as the font for the menu and the paper place mats) will sense a similar quirkiness in the New French’s ambience and food, a blend of homey welcome and adventurous spirit.
Take that pulled pork, for example. Chef-partner Livio Velardo, who has worked at Tabla and Resto, slow-roasts the shoulder cut with chiles and beer, then arranges it in tender clumps over strips of toasted Sullivan St Bakery pizza bianca, drizzled with mustard raita. It’s a terrific starter, and one you’ve never seen before. The pizza bianca itself, a sort of lumpy flatbread, gets top billing as a nightly special, grilled until the corners crisp up and variously topped with ingredients like a pungent mingling of spring onions, Gruyère, goat cheese, and red-pepper relish. The kitchen exhibits a similar devotion to beets, multicolored versions of which show up slivered raw in salads, or cubed, roasted, and slicked with a light Parmesan cream in another winning appetizer. There is care taken in the smallest of details, like the adroitly dressed arugula-and-fennel salad that garnishes a trio of crisp crostini spread with a chicken-liver purée sweetened with dates, and the lively herbs that punch up pristine mixed greens.
You may not mistake the pho (in chicken or brisket renditions) for one you’d find in Sunset Park, which isn’t to say the soothing broth and fresh vegetables aren’t satisfying in their own way. Likewise, the mildly spicy vegetable curry has a bright carroty flavor that seemed more college co-op than outer-borough Thai. Of the sandwiches, the brisket outshines the burger, and both come with either a small salad or the kind of skinny, golden-brown Balthazar-style fries that are impossible to stop eating. As for more-traditional entrées, the halibut is accessorized with bluefoot mushrooms, spring onions, and peas, and betrays a knack for fish cookery, while the fork-tender lamb shoulder has a nice gamy flavor that marries well with the plate’s Niçoise olives and stewed peppers.
A short wine list complements the concise menu in scope and price, and gracious servers—some of whom sport hats, others tattoos, and still others both—will graciously offer a taste before pouring a glass. Like the press pots of coffee that arrive with miniature hourglass timers, the offer is a small, civilized gesture in a small, civilized restaurant—one of several that add up to make an impression in any culinary language.