November 29, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Déjà Vu: Rouge et Blanc (CLOSED)

 Thin slices of Lobster mushrooms drape a perfectly cooked rib eye. Photo: Steven Richter.
Thin slices of lobster mushrooms drape a perfectly cooked rib eye. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Tommy can you hear me? Tommy can you see me? Yes, yes, we’ve settled into Rouge et Blanc, a new and charming surprise south of Houston serving French-Vietnamese dishes with considerable verve. And we can hear. We can see.

        Thomas Cregan and executive chef Matt Rojas, owners here, go against fashion’s mania for cacophony, daring to pad the ceiling with soundproofing. There’s a sweep of drape over the bar to swallow any stand-up raucousness. And it’s light enough to actually see the food without flashlight or coal miner helmet, most of it inventive but not belligerently provocative. That the menu has today’s date is another sign of good intentions.

Spicy Vietnamese sausage on rice noodle salad with pistachios. Photo: Steven Richter.

        And so are tonight’s starters. I love the large heads-on prawns fried whole, crouching over fragrant green papaya salad with curry-scented vinaigrette, and the tangy grilled Vietnamese sausage on rice noodle salad with pistachios and sweet onion vinaigrette. It isn’t easy to decide. So many of the appetizers are calling out to our foodie foursome. Grilled baby octopus with bone marrow and pickled plum sauce is definitely novel. Chicory lettuce with salted pork and pumpkin seeds is a deviation on the ubiquitous frisée toss. And a twitch of nuts and seeds obviously belongs to chef Rojas (ex Eleven Madison Park, Degustation and Shang).

Prawns fried whole crouch over green papaya salad. Photo: Steven Richter.

        This first week the kitchen is braving only five entrees, three of them meat, two of them 18 oz. rib eyes, one prime aged, one not. But I’m already fixed on a duo of appetizers. Both prove to be generous portions, easy to share. First up, a feisty fried rouget, standing jauntily on the plate, dressed with garlic, chile, lime and peanuts, full of flavor but slightly too cooked for me. The desultory parchment-package of stringy wild mushrooms poached in soy garlic butter is the sole disappointment.

Savory fried rouget rides in wearing a green corsage. Photo: Steven Richter.

        And then we are left to sit and stew. A small flow of late arrivals have taxed the kitchen. Cregan, exchanging a few sentences in French with our Belgian-born companion, realizes we’re getting antsy. For me, it’s the stern seats and challenging backs of the unpadded chairs – a handsome red Chinese chair.

         “Reproduced from an original by a Brooklyn shop,” he tells us. “The Chinese screens in the corners are antiques.”

         Reclaimed wood from Virginia make up the table tops. Watch where you set your wine on the warped boards. We’ve just finished wiping up after a glass of water toppled.

         “Would you like some more bread while you wait?” he offers.

         “Bread, oh you have bread…?” This is the first we’ve heard about bread. Five inches of a warmed baguette appears.

         “Maybe you’d like some butter,” Cregan adds belatedly, flummoxed by the delay or simply unpracticed.

Merciful soundproofing and just enough light in the small back room. Photo: Steven Richter.

        And then the food arrives. Eaters that we are, derrière fatigue and sodden trousers are forgotten. Everything is good, even the quail that sprawls as if Manet’s Olympia had one too many. Perhaps $26 is aggressive for five fatty little mustard-marinated lamb ribs, but they’re luscious on a plate strewn with roasted peppers and tomatillos, and in an extra bowl, a roti canai, the Malaysian handkerchief-like bread in a puddle of peanut sauce. From the starter lineup, rich and unctous five-spice-braised oxtail with daikon and turnips (just $13) pleases me.

Grilled quail with mushrooms and pine nuts. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The only difference between the 18 oz. Creek Stone prime aged rib eye at $69 and the everyday 18 oz. rib eye at $45 is aging, the waitress has explained. Both come draped in thin slices of lobster mushroom with a disc of herb butter and a stack of excellent fries. Of course I’m worried that the economy-class cow will be tough and tasteless. It’s meaty, yes, but first-rate. (And no longer on the menu, it seems, not to distract from the pricier cut.) New this week: duck confit with haricots and white beans. A pork butt dish is in the testing stage due to hit the menu soon.

Mustard marinating lamb ribs slightly tames the fatty richness. Photo: Steven Richter.

        We debate pastry chef Melissa Chang’s $22 caramelized foie gras with poached pear and cocoa nib nougatine for our one dessert to share from a choice of just three. My friend Sylvie yearns to try it. She’s a major fan of Jean George’s foie gras brûlée. I persuade her that tarte Tatin with an Armagnac-soaked prune will be a more soothing choice at this late hour, even given the accompanying basil ice cream and my determination to avoid lawn clippings in my desserts. Reluctantly I taste the ice cream. It is the essence of sugared basil, loathsome. But fashion’s tide is against me. Nothing I’ve written in several years has halted the corruption of dessert. Our companions love it. So there.

         48 MacDougal Street between Houston and Prince Streets. 212 260 5757. Dinner only Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight. Closed Sunday.


Evolution at Devi

Shrimp and calamari masala fritto misto is new on the menu at Devi. Phto: Steven Richter.

         When the creative duo of Suvir Saran and his chef partner Hemant Mathur took over as owners of Devi in November, 2007, their sophisticated tasting menus had already won legions of fussy New York foodies. And me.

         Let me get the caveats out of the way: I met Suvir before he succumbed to the restaurant trade. His introductions to friends transformed a long trip to India for Steven and me. No longer mere tourists, we were greeted as ambassadors from Suvir’s world. I chronicled the crumbs of his snacking trail through the chaotic markets of Old Delhi for Food & Wine. My favorite Christmas dinner was a vegetarian feast at his table. And most recently, he led Devi’s partners to pledge 5% from every lunch and dinner check in November to Citymeals-on-Wheels. How can I be impartial, you might wonder? Well, I suppose if Devi were suddenly to falter, I might be tempted to ignore it.

My niece Dana is in her element with so many vegetarian choices. Photo: Steven Richter.

        But tonight’s visit with my spice-loving vegetarian niece in tow is not that night. Suvir himself has already departed for Thanksgiving at his upstate farm – Hemant fusses in the kitchen. (Were you shocked when Mathur announced he was leaving to open Tulsi on East 46th Street? Well, it seems he’s decided he can open Tulsi next month without abandoning Devi, or so he told me.) Alongside the house’s usual chef’s amuse -- a pyramid of Bhel Puri, rice puffs, with tamarind, mint, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, with a frizzle of chickpea flour vermicelli on top -- Mathur has added a favorite Mumbai street snack: potato, onion, tamarind and yogurt piled in a miniature puri crisp.

Sweet corn and green beans in curry; Manchurian cauliflower. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I do have a carp (just to keep everything kosher). I think the by-the-glass wine pour could be an ounce more generous (to go with the house philosophy of more is more). And the rush to remove service plates before the first dish is served – tonight even before our guests arrive – suggests the staff needs some training.

Onion parmesan kulcha with raita, an extra from the kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The penny pincher in me is tickled to see new prix fixe balm for 401K distress: The three and four course create-your-own tasting menus at $40 and $50 are real deals, considering that à la carte entrees run from $24 to $34. And there is still the 6 course (plus amuse) $85 chef’s tasting for full immersion. Of course we are adding garlic naan and a side of our must-have crisp fried tendrils of okra tossed with red onion, tomato and cilantro to the discount special.

Yet more cauliflower comes as a gift of the house. Photo: Steven Richter.

        And, it will be noted, the kitchen has sent out an extra order of another favorite, Manchurian cauliflower, in its spicy-sweet Chinese-Indian glaze with our starters: corn and green bean curry with coconut, grilled scallops with roasted pepper chutney and bitter orange marmalade, and a delicious new twist on "Masala fritto misto" with shrimp and calamari tossed in heady spiced flour and softly fried to dip into tomato chutney mayonnaise.

Saving room for my lamb, I refused to taste the extra shrimp. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Dana, who used to eat fish but now won’t touch anything with eyes (except potatoes), is thrilled with her sprouted mung bean and peanut chaat, spiked with mint, tamarind and cilantro in small pappadam cups. Sprouted things to a vegetarian are like foie gras to a carnivore, I suppose.

         Given the extras – guess who finishes the last of the Manchurian cauliflower? – I refuse to even taste the chef’s shrimp gift. I have not been able to resist the onion-parmesan kulcha and raita that arrives from nowhere and am struggling to save appetite for my tandoori lamb chop from Jamison Farm.

Two more minutes in the tandoori oven and my lamb chops were perfect. Photo: Steven Richter.

         Alas, my yogurt-marinated lamb is almost raw inside. I send it back expecting the worst and am impressed that it is not overcooked on return, but perfect. Given the South Indian potatoes alongside – just a taste – and the irresistible sweet-and-sour pear chutney, I can only eat one chop. The okra salad suffers from a double dose of salt and is sent back uneaten.

They don’t do Sloppy Joes like this in BigFork. Dana takes the leftovers home. Photo: Steven Richte

        Dana is not used to eating like a restaurant critic four nights in a row. She is ohhing and ahhing but can barely make a dent in her Indian Sloppy Joes -- a smash of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cauliflower, peas and carrots - to eat on spiced bread. She takes the leftover home for breakfast.

          8 East 18th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. 212 691 1300. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm, Sunday 5 to 10 pm.

Cafe Fiorello