June 16, 2014 | BITE: My Journal
Keith McNally’s French Twist
A carnivorean yen yields to dry-aged prime rib with cider braised onions and pommes soufflées.
The first thing I notice walking in is the astonishing, golden glow. And next, standing just inside the door, brother Brian. Well, it is “Friends and Family” night at Keith McNally’s new Cherche Midi, so it’s no surprise to see Brian. You may be too young to remember his glory days in a celebrity whirlwind at Canal Bar and his triumph at the doomed 150 Wooster. He’s come in from his retreat in Saigon and settles at a two-top for a long, intense tête-à-tête with Reika Yo Alexander of EN Japanese Brasserie.
It’s Cherche Midi for a street in the 6th arrondissement in Paris where Keith once lived. For early foodies like me, it will always be the street of the charismatic baker Lionel Poilâne.
Wood-shuttered discretion and a doorman replaces Pulino’s big windows and blazing red neon.
I could pretend I’m not wowed by the crowd here tonight -- people who look like you should recognize them and some that you do. “Oh my God, it’s you…” The blather and the kiss-kiss, maybe even a genuine hug. Choosing a chair with a view, sampling my friend’s excellent calvados cocktail, “Wise Norman,” and ordering one for myself, I can’t say if we waited long. Long enough to taste another companion’s “Flower of Scotland,” (a complex and refreshing blend of Hendrick’s gin, lemon, fresh basil and espelette pepper). Already, we’re impressed.
Deliciously fried frog’s legs sit in a green garlic velouté with garlic chips and fried parsley.
Studying the cream colored menu, deciding who will order what sets off debate. Time to notice that the garden chairs that tortured the derriere and the raucous din of Pulino’s are gone. The window to the street is partly shuttered now, stilling traffic blare. There is insulation in the walls and under the tin ceiling. The floor is new. Pink tablecloths topped with bistro paper are a pretty strong statement in a frugal era of bare wood and plastic placemats.
Here’s Keith looking worn and forlorn at raucous Pulino's, with bare tables.
And listen, do you hear the sound of no music? Keith dares to defy the current wisdom. “Now that I’m 400 years old, I don’t want to hear music except when I go to hear music,” he says. That means from 7 to 10 pm, we hear restaurant sounds, ourselves, the bussers, a whoop from the next table.
In her short sleeve blue shirt and burlap apron, our waitress agrees the insulation has made it quieter.
Then, very quickly, we’re umming and oohing over the steak tartare, lush and mustardy, to pile on toasted ovals of baguette. And to emphasize how French it can be, luscious little frog’s legs, roly poly in a puddle of green garlic velouté with crisp garlic chips and fried parsley.
Starting Friends and Family night on a high: First-rate cocktails and voluptuous steak tartare.
“You’re the only restaurant critic I invited,” Keith, making table rounds, confides. He looks older and more gloomy than I remember. That happens, I guess. The age curse. Fortunately, I have my back to the mirror and need not be reminded of my own.
Worn and humble as always, Keith McNally greets chef Barry Wine with a faint smile.
“Keith is always so great with mirrors,” remarks another guest. Yes, the old mirrors may remind you of Balthazar and the cosmetic glow from behind the bottles may recall Pastis or Schiller's. (Keith is reminded of Luxembourg, he confides.) The bottles were whiskey at Pulino’s. They are wine bottles here.
Why are these beets so delicious? Just great beets? Or is it the brebis, the pistachios, a marinade?
A young blogger named DineGirl beat me with her report on the pre-opening dinners. She loved everything she ate, though she found the menu “subtly intimidating” in offering frogs legs, “which were tasty but had a lot of little bones."
I’m not sure fine lobster ravioli in ginger buerre blanc need piquillo ribbons, but they’re pretty.
That’s a plus for McNally’s effort here. He needs to draw millennial nomads who may find the appetizers, from $12 to $19, and entrées, $21 to $48, “a little on the high side,” but also “yummy, chic and fun,” to quote DineGirl.
You might order the prime rib just for the rarely seen pommes soufflées that come with.
I am not going to contradict her. Old fogies should be happy here too, not only for the kindness of he cosmetic glow. Frog’s legs have always meant putting up with those little bones. You scarcely see them anywhere. There are jaunty and delicious. And you almost never see those tricky, twice-fried, inflated potato balloons known as pommes soufflées. They need to be eaten fast, hot from the pot.
The sardine fan at our table approved these sautéed critters on grilled country bread with saffron aioli.
I probably wouldn’t choose sardines, sautéed and draped on grilled country bread with saffron aioli as my first choice. I’m not a big sardine fan, but they’re original and rustic. That voluptuous beef tartare, the perfect beets sprinkled with pistachios and sheep’s milk brebis, and homemade lobster ravioli in a ginger beurre blanc with ribbons of red piquillo peppers are my favorites.
Another "It Burger" for McNally, the NY Post declares. It joins a prestigious duo at Minetta Tavern.
The Post has already hailed the $21 Prime Rib Burger, topped with a rectangle of gruyère, bacon marmalade and roasted mushrooms as the new “It burger.” Shades of the carnivorean leaning at McNally’s Minetta Tavern. With a dab of hot mustard, the burger has already got hot status with our team. The fries are pretty good too, but they could be a shade deeper.
I like this salad more than anyone at my table but agree thin shavings of asparagus are lost in the toss.
Slivered green asparagus gets a little lost in a busy toss of pickled chanterelles, frisée, Parmesan and garlic bread crumbs. A small loaf of house-baked brioche and rhubarb compote are elegant accessories with roasted foie gras, if only the liver weren’t a tangle of veins.
The roasted foie gras needs some more thought and maybe a better liver to start with.
I wouldn’t dream of predicting how the kitchen will be turning out that prime rib a few weeks from now. A little more caramelized crust would help. Balthazar’s Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla are veterans in McNally kitchens. The boss counts on that. I guess I will too. Pre-opening dinners are not a time for too persnickety judgments.
I was feeling so French by the end of the meal I could only think, yes cheese.
What you want to know is that the slings and arrows of Pulino’s annoyances are banished in this obsessively careful revision on the corner of Houston and the Bowery. By ten, we were feeling so transported to Paris, we decided to have cheese. Old Chatham Kinderhook, sheep’s milk brebis and a blue bufala from Italy, with a side of apricot preserves and honeycomb.
How unpretentious can a cheese service be? Well, it’s the exciting choices that count.
Jean-Georges has kiss-kissed the room and joined his partner Phil Suarez and Ian Schrager at a big round near the bar. (The chef will be running the kitchen at Schrager’s new 25-floor Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street.) There was music now and nocturnals trooping in demanding validation. The tall women had arrived. Men wearing hats skated across the floor. Brooklyn, perhaps? It seemed time to leave. Yes, of course, I’ll be back, probably forced to dial secret phone numbers in hope of getting in.
Of course, this woman is smiling. She’s with Phil Suarez, Ian Schrager and Jean-Georges.
282 Bowery at Southwest Corner of Houston. 212 226 3055. 5:30 pm. to 12 am
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