There must be a little black cloud hovering over Philippe Feret's head. Everything that could go wrong at his new restaurant Acacia has. On opening day, Con Ed shut off the gas. Two weeks later he's only half-gassed, and the critics arrive. He can't afford a decent kitchen crew with so few customers, so he's been working eighteen hours a day, racing back and forth, prepping lunch here, starting dinner uptown at his Brasserie Julien, then scooting back to Acacia's kitchen just in case anyone shows up. And he was skinny to start with. The room is forbidding, too, almost naked and without charm, except for the ostrich-egg chandeliers, because he decided to frame the mirrors himself for half the decorator's price and hasn't got to it yet. Both places have that I-did-it-myself-on-a-couple-of-bucks look. Still, uptown Third Avenue is frenetic and kicking, and Brasserie Julien has found its niche. Acacia, settled on an odd stretch of East 59th Street with trucks rattling by, is a wallflower waiting for the dance.
When Feret is good, he's great. From my very first tasting, I loved his classic ancien cuisine at Julien -- intense fish soup with spicy rouille, wonderful frisée salad with bacon lardons and a perfect poached egg, the cassoulet, the choucroute, the giant braised lamb shank, his sirloin-frites, the buffalo short ribs and sensational buffalo tartare. (Oh, yes, in his spare time Feret promotes ostrich and buffalo and runs Carême Specialty Foods.) Best of all, when the waiter dishes up two filets of rich, juicy herring or a thick slice of fine country pâté and then sets the big oval terrines on the table so I can help myself to seconds, I am reminded of the mad excess at my favorite La Régalade in Paris. I've learned to avoid the fish, almost always overcooked and infinitely inferior to everything else. But I can't take the boisterous music -- anything from a piano, bass, and live chanteuse to a singing guitarist -- that so delights Julien's bar crowd weekdays from nine on, and weekends from ten. "The clients want it even earlier," Feret claims. That's why I was looking forward to nothing more than a little night music at Acacia.
Ah, quiet. Only two tables occupied. And the sound system is primly decorous. (So far . . . live weekend music is threatened for fall.) The lonesomeness of Acacia cannot daunt our intrepid quartet. We've confiscated a bowl of house-made garlic chips from the bar and are sipping wine and devouring sensational onion rolls, huge and warmed, a signature of both places that even the Atkins-diet disciples are eating. The menu is almost a twin of Julien's, dinner entrées $12.50 to $31, with prix fixes at $20 and $28, a $12.50 early-bird special, and le petit menu for junior at $11. The kitchen is slow, but if we pretend we are in a tiny Left Bank bistro, it's not unusual that one man triples as maître d', bartender, and captain, as the manager does tonight. And again, the herring draped atop warm potato salad, its terrine parked on the table, brings a sense of bonhomie -- and a taste for everyone. My guests agree with me that the buffalo tartare, the steamed asparagus, the snails and portobellos flambéed with Ricard, the seafood soup, and the frisée aux lardons are a welcome antidote to the endlessly clever food we eat around town these days. Except for the too-sugared Moroccan chicken b'steeya, all the entrées have our group cheering -- first-rate cassoulet, thick lamb steak, the buffalo rib-eye, and excellent fries. Acacia's crème brûlée is oversize, spiked with Grand Marnier and nicely soothing. Three slices of pistachio-sprinkled chocolate marquise could be dessert for three. But nougat glacée with cracked praline and the chocolate-and-coffee mascarpone mousse are this crowd's favorites.
Now that Con Ed has smiled on his gas setup, and the mirrors hang ready to reflect the hungry throngs, if they find their way, the only question is: Can Feret keep up the quality of this homey fare without cloning himself?
Brasserie Julien, 1422 Third Avenue, between 80th and 81st Streets (744-6327). Dinner only, Mondays through Fridays 6 to 11 p.m., Saturdays 6 to midnight. Closed Sundays in July and August. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.