David Waltuck is such a family man, he’s got two of them: the nuclear version at home and the squadron of loyal cooks, waiters, and dishwashers who work for him at Chanterelle, the elegant TriBeCa institution he opened with his wife, Karen, 21 years ago. For the past two decades, he’s fed a multitude of mouths, not least of all the ones on his payroll.
For the uninitiated, Chanterelle staff meals are family-style, mostly one-pot affairs, more homey than haute: hearty casseroles and stews, soups, and stir-fries, few of which have ever graced Chanterelle’s meticulously calligraphed menu. But Waltuck, from his patrician perch amid curried crab coulis and shaved white truffles, sensed a growing hunger for the simple, satisfying food he fed his employees, and shrewdly gathered his recipes in Staff Meals From Chanterelle, out last month from Workman Press.
If you’re not in the mood to cook his wine-and-brandy-braised brisket yourself, however, you can order it at Le Zinc, the disarmingly unpretentious joint David and Karen opened last month, nostalgically resurrecting the name of the unaffiliated eighties-era TriBeCa bistro that used to inhabit its lofty, barrel-vaulted premises. The new Le Zinc shares certain characteristics with its sumptuous sibling – crackerjack service, an intriguing wine list with a diverse by-the-glass selection – but it’s also lots of things Chanterelle isn’t: open late; designed for walk-ins rather than reservations; a casual, affordable spot for those with a yen for chopped liver instead of seared foie gras.
Like Chanterelle, Le Zinc is spare, a shock at first for anyone whose bistro-brasserie associations begin and end with Keith McNally’s atmospheric oeuvre. There’s no patina, faux or otherwise, just creamy walls texturized with bits of straw, gray backlit banquettes, bare wood tables more Ikea than antique. There is a zinc bar, of course, adorned with one of Karen’s famous oversize horticultural extravaganzas, and wine bottles arrayed on dark wood shelves. The only stab at décor is the growing collection of art posters, a visual tribute to the longstanding Chanterelle tradition of enlisting artists (like Keith Haring and Francesco Clemente) to create menu covers twice a year. But the room doesn’t feel gallery-cold: The welcome is warm and informal, and the biggest VIPs seem to be school friends of the Waltuck offspring, Sara, 11, and Jake, 9, who populate the restaurant early one Sunday evening.
After she finishes her own supper at a corner banquette, Sara works the room like a junior Sirio Maccioni. “What’s good?” asks the mother of a restless boy wearing a No. 7 baseball jersey who wants a burger and fries.
“Everything,” says Sara, biased, perhaps, but not far off the mark.
Chef Michael Sullivan, a Chanterelle alum, channels Waltuck’s proclivity for incorporating New York flavors and inherited family recipes into a French framework with Jewish and Hungarian undertones – plus a few incursions from Chinatown, where Waltuck likes to do his shopping. To keep the cost commendably low, the kitchen gravitates toward less expensive cuts of meat, braised shanks and briskets, and onetime trash fish like monkfish and catfish, finessed with Asian seasonings.
There are bistro staples on the menu – a respectable frisée salad, hearty, rustic terrines, and steak-frites (quel frites!) – but for every well-executed standard, there is an even more exciting innovation. A trio of irresistibly crunchy Chinese-spiced duck wings, for instance, served with a pungent dipping sauce of fermented black beans and chili. (Memo to Waltuck: Bottle it!) Curried Vidalia-onion fritters, lightly battered and skillfully fried, come with a sweet-sour tamarind dipping sauce. Waltuck credits his wife’s mother for his pork-stuffed cabbage, but we’re pretty sure he did some tweaking; this is hefty, hearty, and crowned with a dollop of sour cream. And one evening we try crispy-crusted pig’s-feet cakes, meltingly soft chunks of meat encased in polenta.
Pig’s feet certainly signify peasant food, perhaps a little too stridently for some folks. That’s why even though Sullivan also uses them in the braising liquid for his tender brisket, he refrains from ladling them out alongside the thick slices of tender meat and the garnish of whole roasted carrots and mashed potatoes. Tripe, another hard sell, appears in a scrumptious tomato-based Tuscan stew with haricots verts and a shower of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
On a cold night, we make a meal of peppery hot-and-sour soup enriched with venison and tofu, a wintertime elixir that radiates shock waves of warmth. Chicken Grandmere sounds like any run-of-the-mill roasted bird, but it’s defiantly moist, swathed in a luxuriantly rich sauce riddled with cubes of bacon, garlic, and vegetables. One night we order the macaroni and cheese, only to discover it’s sold out, and the next time it’s out of the rotation. But even in our cheddar-and-Parmesan-deprived despair, we like the idea of a dynamic kitchen that tinkers with the menu nightly. It’ll keep us coming back to see when David’s mother’s chopped chicken liver will make its triumphant return.
Chanterelle pastry chef Kate Zuckerman pulls double dessert duty at Le Zinc, where she favors homey puddings and simple tarts, all fine, first-rate sweets. But her bête noire, a ravishingly dense, bittersweet slab of flourless chocolate bliss, takes the cake.
Le Zinc is open every day for lunch and dinner, until four in the morning, a happy circumstance for anyone who lives or works in TriBeCa, and especially for David and Karen Waltuck, who’ve finally found a place where they can kick back and relax and have a bacon cheeseburger just like Sara’s friend, No. 7. If nothing else, Le Zinc is delicious proof that the only thing better than eating at Chanterelle is working there. Maybe they’re hiring.
139 Duane Street (212-513-0001). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 4 p.m. Dinner daily, 5:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Appetizers, $4.75 to $10.50; entrées, $11 to $19. All major credit cards.