These people are definitely not from the neighborhood,” one of the weary old fressers at my table observed, as we sat down to dinner at Daniel Boulud’s boisterous new restaurant, DBGB Kitchen and Bar, which opened a couple of months ago on the Bowery. The neighborhood in question used to be called skid row, of course, but those days are long gone. Boulud’s latest experiment in downmarket dining (the name is a ham-fisted play on the vanished Bowery punk institution CBGB) occupies the ground floor of a new residential building made of steel and glass. Its long, glittery façade is etched with random quotes from erudite foodies through the ages (Hemingway, Samuel Johnson, Proust), as are the mirrored walls of the front “tavern” room, which was routinely jammed, on the evenings I dropped by, with groups of antic food-magazine editors and flush-faced bank interns gobbling fancy hot dogs and eagerly swigging flagons of artisanal Belgian beer.
Boulud’s new restaurant (it’s the fifth in his Manhattan empire but the first he’s opened below 44th Street) has been described in the press as a gourmet hot-dog stand or, more charitably, an upmarket burger joint. But what it really feels like is an overstylized, disco version of an old Alsatian beer hall. The black wood tables are surrounded by conspicuous totems of workaday kitchen life (bottles of wine, boxes of lentils, battered pots and pans donated by Boulud’s super-chef friends), and each place is set with a monogrammed coaster, on which you can rest one of the 55 carefully procured beers available in bottles or on tap. Aside from the usual tired brasserie appetizers (escargots, oysters, cucumber soup), the menu contains fourteen varieties of sausage made by acolytes of the Parisian pâté genius Gilles Verot, plus a “Tête aux Pieds” (Head to Feet) section, which includes an entire deboned pig’s trotter and little squares of crispy fried tripe, a Lyonnais offal specialty. “This is right up my alley,” declared my giant fresser brother as he cut into the pig’s foot (“I’m not touching that monster,” sniffed Mrs. Platt) and then the surprisingly delicate tripe, before working his way through the excellent sausages, which have catchy names like “Beaujolaise” (a deliciously fat, pork-stuffed link sweetened with red wine), “Boudin Basque” (spicy, porky blood sausage over whipped potatoes), and “Vermont” (more pork, garnished with melty curls of Cheddar and crème fraîche). With the exception of an ingenious creation called “asparagus and fried egg” (a fried hen’s egg wreathed in lots of salty duck cracklings served on poached asparagus), the standard appetizers are dreary by comparison. So, the assembled burger hounds at my table were distressed to report, are the chef’s latest haute hamburger creations, like the “Frenchie,” dressed with greasy pork belly confit plus Morbier cheese, and the $19 “Piggie,” which is muffled in jalapeño and too much pulled pork.
Despite all this heavy ordnance, it’s possible to eat like a dainty uptown Frenchman at DBGB. There’s a long selection of wines by the glass, and if you don’t feel like washing your sausages down with beer, the house offers four bottles of pricey uptown Champagne. None of the entrées are groundbreaking, but seven of them cost under $20, including a pleasantly rich wheel of beer-braised carbonnade with gingerbread croutons for $18, and a nice lemony chicken breast, served in the old-fashioned Provençal style with ratatouille and a wedge of garlic, for $17. The desserts include a mishmash of tortured, ice-cream-sundae-style items and several familiar facsimiles of old French classics. These include a wedge of strawberry tart layered with mascarpone, a wet little pillow of baba au rhum suffused with perhaps too much rum, and a pleasantly fluffy Grand Marnier soufflé, which you can pour, for old times’ sake, with a little white pot of crème anglaise.
An even more antique form of Frenchness is on display at the new Manhattan outlet of the famous Parisian steakhouse in the 17th Arrondissement called Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte. “We don’t do ketchup, we don’t do mayonnaise, we don’t do butter with your bread,” said my genial waitress, who, unlike the famously brusque ladies at the original establishment near the Porte Maillot, spoke in the rich, lilting brogue of outer-borough New York. Like the ladies in Paris, however, she wore a black frilled skirt and white apron, which made her look like the parlor maid in a forties Broadway farce. As in Paris (and the newer branches in Barcelona and Bahrain), my table was set with rolls of white paper and the kind of stubby, plastic-handled knives you find packed away in boxes in your grandmother’s attic. And like in Paris (where the menu of starter salad, beef, and frites has been set in stone since 1959), all the waitress wanted to know was whether I wanted my steak rare or “bloody.”
By New York’s elevated beefeater standards, the various meat selections at L’Entrecôte (the approximate French term for “rib eye”) are skimpily sized. But none of this matters very much once you start spooning the sacred house “secret sauce” on your matchbox-size piece of beef and piling it with drifts of the salty, pleasingly crinkly house frites. The recipe for L’Entrecôte’s butter-and-cream-based sauce is closely guarded (the key, according to Le Monde, is an infusion of chicken-liver essence), and it has the ruinously addictive powers of crack cocaine. Non-addicts might notice that their salad is scraggly, that the cheese plate appears to have been bought at the Food Emporium, and that the bread brought to the table by their un-French waitress is dry. But hopeless junkies (like me) won’t care. The dizzying infusion of fatty richness makes dessert superfluous. And at $24 for a steak, salad, and all the fries and sauce you can eat, the fix is relatively cheap.
DBGB Kitchen and Bar (View Menu)
Address: 299 Bowery, nr. First St.; 212-933-5300
Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m., Sunday to 11 p.m. Lunch, Tuesday through Friday noon to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $7 to $16. Entrées: $14 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Asparagus and fried egg, Beaujolaise or Vermont sausages, lemon-and-rosemary chicken, Grand Marnier soufflé.
Scratchpad:The food is not the best in the Boulud empire, but we’ll give one vigorous star for the sausages and the offal.
Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte
Address: 590 Lexington Ave., nr. 52nd St.; 212-758-3989
Hours: Dinner, daily, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12:30 to 3 p.m.
Prices: $24 prix fixe.
Ideal Meal: Salad, steak frites, buckets of secret sauce.
Note: Like the famous restaurant in Paris, this one does not take reservations.
Scratchpad: Half a star for the faithful though not perfect attempt to reproduce this French institution, and another half-star for the secret sauce.