March 1, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
No Mere Bagatelle
Sea bass ravioli with artichoke; macaroni and luscious chicken behind. Photo: Steven Richter
Sea bass ravioli with artichoke; macaroni and luscious chicken behind. Photo: Steven Richter

        This oddly charming little bistro in the meatpacking district is a hive for noisy Euros and the voyeurs who like to breathe the same air and pretend they belong. It helps if you groove with the vibrating throb of disco that gets louder as the night goes on and actually seems to be coming up through the seat of our seriously underpadded banquette. And why doesn’t the maître d’ warn us not to plop down so hard? My partner’s back still aches two days later. Not your kind of place? Obviously, not exactly mine. So, you ask, why bother to write about it?

A proper Landaise salad with frisee, poached egg and lardons.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Well, the truth is, the food is not bad at all. Indeed, it can be very good. There will be toast to pile with whipped ricotta while you wait for your friends. The salade Landaise with frisée, bacon lardons and a poached egg is all that it should be. Half a truffled roast chicken arrives moist and juicy, wreathed with luscious country-style roasted potato chunks and buttery mushrooms. The romantic decorative relief and moldings on white walls are quite charming, the faux Warhols amusing and the staff not at all snooty. The designated water pourer is vigilance personified. And no one sneers that only one of us is ordering wine tonight: a red, of course, by the glass, a drinkable Côtes de Rhone. The prevailing attitude is noted on the menu: “Our Already Famous Bagatelle Smile…priceless.”

Deep fried shishito peppers on a few fluted calamari. Photo: Steven Richter

        If you live nearby, as I’m guessing the stylish young couple just in front of us does, it’s fine to come earlyish with the offspring (she’s a raven-haired flirt about 3 or 4, I’d say). Mom’s back is to me but when she stands up, her spiky red shoes mesmerize me with envy.  “I guess they’re wearing tights on the street again,” says our friend Dasha, observing the long legs above the red pumps. “I should get mine out.”

         “Leg warmers too,” I inform her. “I still have a pair from the 80s.”

Tuesday night calm before the disinhibiting DJ’s arrive on Wednesday. Photo: Steven Richter

        Nearly empty when we arrive at 9, the room starts to fill about 10 and is jammed by 11, with several large groups - in one corner a squadron of guys, a romantic couple eating at the bar,  clusters of good looking women, all dressed up  that you see in twos and threes and fives in lively restaurants. Perhaps they followed Marseille-born Aymeric Clemente from managing gigs at La Goulue, Le Colonial and Le Bilboquet or man-about town, Remi Laba, the owners here. Now at Bagatelle’s second-year anniversary, nocturnal fun-lovers return for chef Nicolas Cantrel’s French bistro familiars: beef tartare, charcuterie, pissaladière Niçoise, steak au poivre, pasta too, even a veal chop with Calvados sauce in the style of the Vallée d’Auge, everything pretty on the plate, as befits a graduate of Alain Ducasse’s kitchen at Aux Lyonnais in Paris and Louis XV in Monte Carlo.  With starters from $10 to $18 (for shrimp flamed with Pastis) or a basket of crudités with dipping sauces the table can share, and entrées $22 to $32 ($85 for Côte de Boeuf with pommes frites and salad for two), it’s not cheap but it’s not too expensive for Tuesday night out.

Alas, the French lack a certain je ne sais quoi on the subject of macaroni. Photo: Steven Richter

        Still, $18 seems aggressive for an appetizer of four small sea bass-filled ravioli in a flutter of fried artichoke leaves. And the endive salad with walnuts, blue cheese and pear seems to be missing something, oomph definitely, possibly a rousing vinaigrette.  But the Road Food Warrior is pleased with fluted calamari a la plancha – a skimpy six small carcasses to be sure – criss-crossed with a pair of deep frIed shishito peppers.  As a macaroni and cheese chauvinist, I’m not sure why the chef didn’t bake the elbow pasta with milk and cheese instead of tossing it with veal jus, French ham and Emmental. (Ze French, zey are so perverse.).  But it’s not like anything we’ve eaten anywhere.  I like it.  And my guy likes it even more.  

Pretty yes but otherwise, the endive salad is a big disappointment. Photo: Steven Richter

        They’ve turned the lights down and the sound up to agitato but we are not giving up on dessert.  An under-caramelized tarte tatin pales in comparison to the stellar version at Benoit two weeks ago. I’m curious about Paris Brest filled with Nutella but resist in favor of the chocolate tart, an amateurish version, sad to say, with big fat perfect raspberries and wonderful lemon sorbet.

        As I said, that was Tuesday. Such fine distinctions matter little on most any other nights when DJs famous in St. Tropez and St. Bart’s stir up tropical reveries.  Live uppers, they start the music mellow with old classics at 8pm, heating it up to a rolling boil about 11 when revelers whipped into a frenzy of dancing are prancing on chairs and banquettes (where spike heels would rip through any padding).

What a world we live in. Splendid out-of-season raspberries. Photo: Steven Richter 

        Fans come dedicated to losing the weekend at Bagatelle’s brunch. Chef Cantrel’s Le Croque Madame fluffed up with a truffled béchamel, his eggs benedict (with Canadian bacon or smoked salmon) and le burger with pickle and sauce Choron are just a formality when the DJ drill gets picked up live by Sirius Radio at 3 pm and waiters rush about delivering Dom Perignon with blazing sparklers tucked into the cork. Order a magnum or a jereboam (yes, they sell lots of jereboams) and Superman  -- a waiter wearing a tablecloth cape, hoisted aloft by two servers, will fly to your table, sparklings sizzling, to the theme from “Superman.”

         Is this you?

409 West 13th Street between Washington and Ninth Avenue. 212 675 2400. Dinner Monday to Wednesday 5:30 pm to Midnight. Thursday and Friday to 1 pm; Saturday 11:30 am to 1 am. Sunday 11:30 am to midnight.
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