Raising the Bar

Bar BlancPhoto: Noah Sheldon

Bar Blanc, which opened just before the New Year in a narrow little space on 10th Street in the West Village, seeks to be two restaurants in one. As the name suggests, it is a bar, a place designed, in accordance with the casual, downsize fashion of today, for cocktails and intimate chatting and the appreciation of fine though not overly pricey wines. But as the name also suggests, this is a bar with certain stylistic and culinary pretensions. Call for a reservation and chances are you will get a brisk French accent on the other end of the line. The salmon on the menu is described as “gently cooked,” and the pork isn’t just pork, it’s “milk-fed porcelet.” The actual bar is made of polished white marble, and the banquettes are upholstered in disco-style white leather. More than a few patrons are dressed in jackets, or stiletto heels, and as they sip their sophisticated Brunellos in the soft, clubby gloom, they’re treated to the low, incessant thrum of Euro club music.

The menu at Bar Blanc is as small as the space (there are only four appetizers), and just as showy. The restaurant’s co-owners met while working for David Bouley, and the chef, César Ramirez, is a diligent and artsy cook who is not averse to using four or five ingredients when one or two might do. This is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view, but in this era of terminally rustic Greenmarket dining, it’s rarely boring. Prim salad eaters have two lively choices: a little crown of baby Boston lettuce decked with hearts of palm and a large poached egg, or shreds of warm rabbit tossed with sweetbreads, greens, and little lumps of sheep’s-milk ricotta. The other appetizers include a duo of seared scallops topped, pleasantly enough, with candied bits of orange confit, and a bizarre raw-tuna creation, which the chef sprinkles with burdock root, mushrooms, black-truffle dressing, and a grimly salty miso sauce mixed, for good measure, with squid ink.

But these pyrotechnics rarely go horribly wrong at Bar Blanc, and when they work, the cooking is comparable to that of a much larger, more ambitious restaurant. The three house pastas (particularly a wheel of lasagne made with minced lamb, and a bowl of orecchiette with braised rabbit) are worth the price of admission. The red snapper I sampled was muffled in a little too much ginger-flavored tofu purée, but the chicken has a delicate Bouley tenderness to it, and comes with a platoon of sweet handmade chicken sausages and a potato purée injected with sinful amounts of Brie. The pork snobs at my table considered Ramirez’s “porcelet” preparation (it includes a rich brick of pork belly, pig’s-head terrine, and loin that tasted like Canadian bacon despite flavorings of anise and cinnamon) to be overstudied in the extreme, but no one complained about the well-aged strip steak, which is dressed with an opulent bone-marrow sauce and served with a single pickled cipollini onion.

Because of kitchen size and the extravagant cost of hiring a pastry chef, desserts have never been a strong point at this kind of small, bar-centric restaurant. At Bar Blanc, which has a pastry chef, neither the Meyer-lemon soufflé (more of a fluffy lemon-and-cheese tart than a classic soufflé) nor the pear parfait (nicely crumbly but without much pear flavor to it) are mindblowers, but they do what decent desserts should, which is bring your civilized meal to a more or less painless conclusion. Your best choice is probably the slim bittersweet-chocolate cake, which comes with a spoonful of salty butterscotch ice cream on the side. If this doesn’t sound like the average slice of pie at your local corner bar, that’s because it’s not. But get used to it. As tastes change (and rents continue to rise), the upscale-bar dining trend, begun at Pearl Oyster Bar and Craftbar, flung into the popular consciousness by David Chang, and now being desperately aped by grand Frenchmen like Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud, will only accelerate.

With its sweeping indigo carpets and loopy, carrot-shaped Philippe Starck pediments, the lobby of the Royalton Hotel was, briefly, during the shank end of the last millennium, a place of glamour and style. The house restaurant, called 44, was home to the wunderkind chef Geoffrey Zakarian (Town, Country), and was also the favorite lunchtime spot of Tina Brown and an assembled court of preening, cocktail-swilling Condé Nast editors. But Tina Brown has moved on, as has Zakarian, and in an effort to recapture some of the old heat, the owners of the hotel have recently given the space an extreme, multimillion-dollar face-lift. The old color scheme has been replaced, in the lobby, with a muddy cowboy brown, and the restaurant, now called Brasserie 44, has been refashioned with curving blond-wood booths and a strange pattern of rattan-style netting, which makes it look less like a big-city dining destination than like a run-of-the-mill breakfast joint in some mid-level Hong Kong business hotel.

The proprietor, John McDonald (Lever House, Lure Fishbar), is adept at producing buzzy, crowd-pleasing restaurants focused on various themes. But so far there’s not much buzz here. Maybe it’s the space, the drabness of which is compounded by the flat, dimly lit lobby. Or maybe it’s the menu, which is a mishmash of familiar though capably reproduced Greenmarket and bistro staples. These range from a properly seasonal though blandly sweet roasted-chestnut soup to the usual array of braised short ribs (inedible one evening, slightly edible the next) and “milk-fed” poularde (a standard chicken dish), to those twin totems of the upscale-barnyard dining experience, braised collard greens and Anson Mills grits (in this case, truffle-scented). The rib eye (from Four Story Hill Farm) is a nice piece of beef, provided you have the $42 to procure it. After all, you’re not in Kansas. You’re in midtown, where even the most virtuous Greenmarket feast is expense-account fodder.

Bar Blanc
Address: 142 W. 10th St., nr. Waverly Pl.; 212-255-2330
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $18; entrées, $20 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Slow-roasted rabbit-and-sweetbread salad, chicken or braised-lamb-shoulder lasagne, bittersweet-chocolate cake.
Note: The wine list isn’t extensive, but it’s interesting and well priced.
Scratchpad: Sure, the vibe is slick. And it’s a bar. But the cooking is multi-star caliber.

No stars.
Brasserie 44
Address: 44 W. 44th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-944-8844
Hours: Lunch: noon to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5:30 to 11 p.m. daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $14 to $24; entrées, $22 to $42.
Ideal Meal: Tuna tartare, dry-aged rib eye, sticky-toffee pudding.
Note: Beef eaters take note: the $22 lunchtime Black Angus burger ain’t bad.
Scratchpad: One star for the food. Minus one star for the grim makeover. And did we mention that six of the nine entrées cost over $30?

Raising the Bar