May 11, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Bar Artisanal: Olive and Still Kicking

Bar du Fromage and Charcuterie is the focus of Terrance Brennan’s theme. Photo: Steven Richter  
Bar du Fromage and Charcuterie is the focus of Terrance Brennan’s theme. Photo: Steven Richter

        How quickly downtown’s nomadic grazers swooped in on Bar Artisanal.  It’s Saturday night. Leggy girlfriends perch at lounge tables sipping cocktails, eyeing a milling crowd. Anyone remember Asparagus Beach? It’s only a little less crowded than the night we needed to walk behind Spike Lee to make it to the exit from the Tribeca Film Festival after-party for his movie Kobe Doing Business.  (If you think that’s a documentary on Japanese beef, I suggest you skip the film.)  

Downtown nomads flock to this Tribeca station with its eclectic bistro menu.  Photo: Steven Richter

        With industrial fretwork framing its lofty space, a waiting room clock and tall mullioned windows on an odd corner below Canal Street, the place feels like a railroad station. That doesn’t quite explain the bird cage chandeliers. Last time I ran into Brennan – it was on an extended tapas crawl – he was clearly smitten with Spanish cooking and hunting space for a Spanish wine bar. Why not here?

        “Because it looks like a French train station to me,” he says. So we get a simple brasserie with a cheese fixation.  Expect a contempo French veneer with some pop-up Spanish and Italian – Marcona almonds, Manchego beignets, pan tomate, a little pesto here, some panzanella there.  Menu Esperanto.
Pizza margarita in the guise of a pissaladiere from the wood oven.  Photo: Steven Richter

        The ovens of the short lived Trigo in this spot had scarcely cooled when Brennan moved in, trucking carts of cheese and salumi, rushing to meet catering commitments to the Festival. A week before opening, Brad Thompson, abruptly unemployed with the closing of Lever House, signed on – giving Brennan a strong hand in the kitchen. Jason Ferris, the sommelier I admired at Gilt, had 48 hours to shape the cellar. If the dining room crew seems tentative, that could be why.  

Chef Brad Thompson’s plump and crusty chicken nests on bread salad. Photo: Steven Richter

Irresistible egg. Photo: Steven Richter
        The menu, divided into categories by whim – Amuse Bouche, Cru, Petit Plats, Plat Principaux, Menu de Burger, Pissaladières, and Bar du Fromage et Charcuterie – looks gentle enough for troubled times.  There’s a $13 burger with pickled green tomato and our reasonably decent $11 free-form oval buffalo mozzerella is a stand-in for real pizza from the wood oven, and all entrees are $20 or less.  Our fussy quartet – recognized at the door and definitely cozied – likes rare hanger steak with first rate fries and La Belle Rouge chicken crispy, juicy and salty but on not-quite-enough panzanella salad.  Like so many sensible boomers who swore off eggs when cholesterol was invented, I am now addicted to them and like to pretend one a day can’t really hurt.  So of course we’ll share the “soft egg” on wild mushrooms with ramps and frico. Yolk smashed and divided in four, I expect my arteries will sleep right through it. I can’t remember ever tasting a more sensationally ethereal beignet, but what does a glass of raspberry frappé have to do with it?  I want a dipping sauce. The pastry chef has a few askew fixations that you won’t find me checking out: Candied fennel for one, and rhubarb-ginger compote with balsamico.

A bistro without hanger steak?  Not likely, and this one is good. Photo: Steven Richter

        Well, the meter does run up when you’re having fun – gossip, exposés, people-watching, spying on my ex-colleague Adam Platt two tables away – ID’ed by the sommelier. By the time you have a cocktail and two glasses of wine, share a pissaladière, two entrees and an amuse bouche or two – I’m not sure why eight or nine grilled cheese poufs on skewers need to be $8 – the tab can hit $100 for two.  And we haven’t gone near an artisanal cheese or glanced at charcuterie.  (Mixed platters for the table at $30 or $45.)    

        Razor clams on a thick hunk of bread in parsley pesto need to be uniformly tender at any price – one huge clam could neither be cut nor chewed. But we’re coming back. The room is fun, noisy of course, but not painful, and we all want an encore of tonight’s luscious lamb burger with its heart of goat cheese on an olive roll. Some of us follow Thompson wherever he goes and feel pampered by this sommelier. All of us are fond of Brennan. Given his optimism in staking a downtown claim right now, it’s hard to be really angry that he threw open the door before buttoning up his shirt. I have to believe he’ll get it right.
268 Broadway at Sixth Avenue 212 925 1600, Monday to Thursday, noon to 10 pm; Friday noon to 11 pm; Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 10 pm


Nice Try, Mr. Armani
Anticipation trumps reality in Armani’s new restaurant. Photo: Steven Richter

        Emporio Armani Caffe in Paris is all style and chic, not even trying to be Italian – pesto without garlic?  So I didn’t have high hopes for Armani Ristorante 5th Avenue till I read that Lorenzo Viani had come from Forte dei Marmi to conjure the menu.  Viani is a legend on the Tuscan seashore.  He brings a big roll of cash to the fish market in Viareggio and outbids any rivals for the best of the daily catch. Lean, blue-eyed Lorenzo Viani, in faded blue jeans and shirtsleeves, is the flirtatious ladies man.  Well, never mind that part.  I thought, smart move, Georgio. 

        There’s not much sizzle near Fifth in midtown – I do like Beacon to the west and Mia Dona to the east – and it would be a joy if Armani the restaurant worked, at any price – and this menu is boutique, though not absurdly couturier in dollars.  We can zoom directly to the top by elevator but I am curious to see some rags, so we take the escalator. There are no shoppers. The Road Food Warrior moves purposefully, measuring trouser width on his fist, checking out pinstripes on the rack.  The clerk tries for nonchalant.  Both he and I are wondering if Steven is really a customer.  Panicked, I sidle toward the restaurant where I spy our friends in the murk, tucked into an oversize leather curve of a banquette, spiffily black and white.

The ristorante’s spiffy black and white design leaves us in the dark. Photo: Steven Richter

        Dark in restaurants must be “smart.”  These are the deepest shadows I’ve ever tried to see my food in with no help at all from twinkling shafts of teeny moving light at the windows and one bold spot in the middle of each table.  Happy hour has drawn a flashy crowd, singles more or less, heat seeking missiles, raucous, five deep at the bar. We can barely hear each other across our huge pod.

The pasta took forever to arrive and by then, who cared?  Photo: Steven Richter

        If you are comfortable paying $560 for a wrap skirt, you certainly won’t be at all troubled by $23 scallop antipasto, pappardelle with sausage ragu at $26, and a martini-perfumed filet of suckling calf at $34.  That’s a nice pour of wine in a beautiful goblet for just $12. And in the longish wait between rushed and distracted visits by our waiter, we are going through two baskets of wonderful bread. Dear Lorenzo: I guess if most diners don’t know you were here this dabbling won’t really hurt you. Indeed, the pasta is dutifully al dente. And I like thin slices of scallop on “a thousand layers of potatoes” with shaved summer truffle and my penne with calamaretti and crab. But tuna tartare lacks a hit of citric oomph.  And what is this slime in the stuffing of the too tough calamari? The seafood pasta the waiter forgot to order takes thirty minutes to finally emerge from the kitchen – with a pitiful staccato of overcooked sea critters.  Clearly you had nothing to do with hiring the crew or drilling them for the big time.

        “May I buy you coffee,” says our waiter, “to apologize for the so-long wait?”

        Coffee? How about a wrap skirt?

        As we head for the elevator I can’t help overhearing a customer complaining her coat was stolen at the bar.  As I wrote at the time, I wish I had thought of that. 

717 Fifth Avenue at 56th Street. 212 207 1902; open daily from 11:30 am to 3 pm for lunch and Monday through Saturday from 5:50 to 11 pm for dinner.


Bar Blanc Bistro Baffles 

Kiwon Standen, has a full house tonight at the revised Bar Blanc Bistro. Photo: Steven Richter

        I loved the smart black-and-white sophistication of Bar Blanc and the bold new American cooking of Bouley veteran Cesar Ramirez.  When Ramirez left and I saw the place had shut down for a makeover, I assumed the owners were battening down for the recession. The nouveau pauvre Bar Blanc Bistro look, burlap and butcher paper, seemed to confirm my suspicion. 

An impressive $18 starter of scallops at Bar Blanc Bistro.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Alas, I am totally wrong.  The prices are exactly the same, not outrageous at all, appetizer and hors d’oeuvre $7 to $18, entrees $26 to $30, but no surrender to bargain seekers except for a new bar menu with half-price everything, excluding the burger, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday to Friday. Ten dollar desserts and an amateurish apple crumble tells the tale, though the $8 macaroni-and-cheese with bacon could be dinner for me. 

This $24 pasta special just needs more pasta. Photo: Steven Richter

        No.  If tonight’s turtle pace and misfires are an indication, chef Sebastian Zijp does not have the talent of his predecessor. Just flipping a little bacon into nearly every dish is not enough. How flavorless can seared tuna be?  Of course it’s very early.  I only dined once at this new incarnation, investing $268 to feed four, and the house was so packed I could scarcely get through the aisle with my coat on.  Perhaps Bar Blanc Bistro fans will be less demanding.

142 West 10th Street between Greenwich Avenue and Waverly Place. 212 255 2330; Monday to Saturday, 5:30 pm to 11pm; Sunday, 11:30 am to 3 pm and 5:30 pm to 11pm.

Patina Restaurant Group