Summer Escape

French Twist: Nice Matin is a rare destination restaurant on the West Side.Photo: Kenneth Chen

I’m sweating, finally. At last, we’ve reached that point where no summer-weight suit feels light enough after 11 a.m., and when, if a cab pulls up with its windows down and the air-conditioning off, you desperately want to let it go. Mind you, after a spring of flooded reservoirs, I’m not complaining. Well, not unless someone dear decides it would be just peachy to dine alfresco—overlooking the fact that, unlike Paris or Portofino, our local version of the experience often comes complete with the percussions of eighteen-wheelers crossing multiple road plates, the serenade of coffin-size boom boxes with blown speakers, and the chance to sit shoulder-to-thighbone against looming pedestrians who feel free to look down, point into your plate, and bray, “Now, that looks good! Howzit taste?” When this occurs, it’s wise to recall that even before Bloomberg’s smoking edict, a single four-tined stab into a stray hand was punishable by law.

I love summer and want to revel in the pleasures of long, sultry nights and wrinkled linen, but I’d rather do it someplace that feels not only at peace with the season but invigorated by it, where the management won’t wince when I wipe my whole damp face in my napkin, and the mood is so egalitarian even Graydon Carter wouldn’t expect to be treated differently from anybody else. Someplace like Nice Matin.

Nice Matin has the requisite outdoor area for those who crave their meals perfumed with a whiff of the M79 crosstown. Yet why sit outside when inside offers that rarest of things on the West Side—a restaurant that feels more like a genuine destination than like a neighborhood hangout?

True, the dining room can get as raucous as late August on the rocky beach in the Mediterranean city after whose morning newspaper the restaurant is named. And like that beach, Nice’s décor, while Bain de Soleil–sun–kissed bright and shiny, is hardly idyllic (I shudder to think what might have happened that could drive a man to create the room’s centrifugal light fixtures. The uncomfortable banquettes alone can leave you begging for an epidural).

But the dining room fizzes and pops the way you pray your backyard cocktail party will—the ambience is refreshing enough that it could be mere yards from the shoreline—and chef Andy d’Amico’s cooking evokes the region’s seaside freshness and ease. Menu items come in three sizes. House hors d’oeuvre are actually savvy, economical appetizers for those more curious than starving: handfuls of brightly stewed peppers, pliant leeks, sweet dense beets with enough chèvre to add spark, cucumbers and yogurt (too shy of mint), bread crumbs and garlic mellowing split sardines, a pocket-changeful of sliced merguez sausages, and a glistening opaline cluster of poached mussels bathed in a silken rouille.

They set a lively standard for d’Amico’s real appetizers. Luckily, quite a few aren’t shy. Brandishing an arresting, smart contrast of fennel against grapefruit, an order of cured mackerel commands attention. Shrimp, unapologetically bathed in garlic and oil, also includes a hot pepper or two. Velouté of mussels is less dynamic than its poached predecessor, but pistou harvests the flavor of roadside-stand vegetables, and frisée tossed with Roquefort, sweet pears, and walnuts radiates summer so effectively you might consider sunblock.

Surprisingly simple entrées seek to soothe more than stir. Despite its splash of orange, a dense daube of short ribs may not recall summer, but it’s sure delicious. Lamb ravioli flecked by sage and orange, salmon swathed in spices, and olive-oil-basted grilled bass necklaced by artichokes are more likely to inspire momentary Mediterranean fantasies. Sole Milanese is a sweet idea, except the fish doesn’t uphold its end of the bargain. Escalope of veal and duck magret are markedly, perhaps deliberately plain for those who prefer Amsterdam Avenue to the Riviera, but the result is more disruptive than satisfying. Equally nonaggressive but more effective are roast chicken atop smothered leeks, and a meaty stack of portobellos topped by grilled radicchio and balsamic-bathed onions. Oh, a small warning: Nice Matin’s thin slivered onion rings will turn you piggier than a French sailor back in port fed his first bowl of bouillabaisse.

Is mango Tatin a Niçoise classic? Who cares? Order it. Is chocolate pot au crème with lemon? Never mind. Don’t. Chocolate fanciers should choose the ganache, lemonheads the very tart tarte. Anyone uptown dreading what that hot-air balloon of a cab ride will do to linen by the time you get to that meat-market meeting spot of the moment, unwrinkle your brow if not your skirt. Nice Matin has caught the revitalizing rush of summer. Better yet, it’s kept it inside.

It’s not that I never want to eat under the stars. I just don’t want to eat right next to the sidewalk. Which is but one reason I’m willing to cross the river to Five Front, tucked in under the span of the Brooklyn Bridge. Its lovely, often peaceful garden is only occasionally marred, not by the sound of bridge traffic (it’s actually an almost Zen-like hum) but by one of the neighborhood’s toddlers, who can’t quite believe they’re still stuck in a stroller in a restaurant at 11 p.m. Imagine.

The children’s stray screeches, however, are more often obliterated by the moans of delight generated by food so simple yet terrific that the Promenade may no longer so offhandedly claim status as the Heights’ main draw. Not when Five Front serves dishes like these: a solidly packed, sweet-and-spiky crab cake; mussels in a thin velvet of curry; sweet-pea ravioli as sparkling as captured fireflies; a green salad that absolutely startles with lightness and balance; a striped bass with beets; a superbly spicy San Vito Lo Capo seafood stew; delectably shredded short ribs; and a burger that doesn’t need foie gras or anything else to be just right. Plus great banana-bread pudding and fruit buckle, in a no-frills room or garden where a T-shirt seems right at home, and the staff makes you feel that way, too. As for the kids? Ever hear the result of a gay man sitting with his partner telling a straight mother to quiet her indulged squawking bundle of joy? You don’t want to know.

Nice Matin
201 West 79th Street; 212-873-6423.

Five Front
5 Front Street, Brooklyn; 718-625-5559.

Nice Matin, 201 West 79th Street (212-873-6423). Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily. Dinner, 5:30 to midnight daily. Appetizers, $4–$12; entrées, $16–$25. All major credit cards.

Five Front, 5 Front Street, Brooklyn Heights (718-625-5559). Lunch, noon to 3 p.m., 11 to 4 p.m. weekends, and dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Wednesday–Monday. Appetizers, $5–$12; entrées, $9–$18. All major credit cards.

Summer Escape