Here's a hungry cat lurking on a scarf
And these little creatures are confident that
they won't be what's for dinner
they won't be what's for dinner
so let's think about our dinner:Once upon a time in Paris, there were extravagant, elegant, formal restaurants. Oops, left out "very expensive." But you knew that.
And there were also these choices:
A bistro - once a comfortable neighborhood place to get a simple meal, good food, nice wine, relaxed atmosphere. The menu would feature French classics: coq au vin, snails in parsley garlic butter, sole meunière, crème caramel... By the way, bistro isn't a French word. It came to Paris with occupying Russian soldiers, following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. I don't think anyone's written anything in praise of the behavior of a Russian occupying force, ever, but these guys came to Paris hungry and were in the habit of charging into any establishment that even smelled of food cooking, and they would holler "Быстро! Быстро!" which means "fast, fast". Finally they left, leaving behind what they said when they entered a place serving food. When it was clear they were gone, the restaurant owners put back the good furniture and the pretty mirrors.
A brasserie - once a large, informal, noisy space featuring a rather elaborate display of beers on tap, often highlighting a relationship with a particular brewery, and a menu rooted in hearty Alsatian classics, sausages, choucroute garni...
A bistrot was a smaller bistro, with a somewhat reduced menu.
A bar was once, well, a bar, featuring "alcohols" and wine, and at midday there could be stacks of sandwiches, ham on long skinny bread...
Then came the wine bar, elaborate wine lists, wine by the glass or by the bottle or by the flight, and food that can range from cheese and cold cuts to rather elaborate cooked specialities.
Over time, the distinctions among the different establishments have been mixed and blurred until -- well, imagine someone who thinks she can speak French trying to design a tee that bears an idiomatic and witty French expression. So the whole thing turned from a list into a mix-and-match multiple choice exercise. All of the above, plus a few places that characterize themselves as "bistro/tapas bar" or "Asian brasserie" or "Japanese bistro" or their food as "French-inflected", sprout and fade in Paris, and in New York, with sad regularity.
And frankly, while this jolly goulash of styles and levels of cooking and service can be confusing, it can also work in your favor. A little preliminary research - like checking the actual menus on your trusty computer - can help with your choice, because the odds are better that the broader the menu, the more likely that more people will find something they actually like or at least will actually order. I brought a friend to a well-known classic brasserie in Lyon, where he was so entranced by the shiny brass taps and the optics and the jolly glasses of beer, that his French failed him, and he thought he was ordering a classic Choucroute Garnie, which is sauerkraut with a couple kinds of sausage and a pork chop. Unfortunately he ordered the Choucroute Maison, which that day turned out to be Sauerkraut with Fish. The combination was having a moment. As food does. Caveat edax.
Anyway, if you enjoy a mix of cultures and attitudes, you could do a lot worse than to come to New York for food. We have a "range of ranges," meaning everything from fine dining places that have received three - three! - stars from the Michelin people, to retro diners, to places where you want to have someone check the restroom for Michael Corleone's gun, even though the gun was fictional and the restaurant is only 2 or 3 years old. Restaurants that pride themselves on serving authentic Szechuan or Fujianese food, may also boast that gluten-free noodles are available on request. Steakhouses offer vegetarian options.
|(grateful appreciation to The New Yorker magazine)|
"French-inflected" is a word that turns up in a lot of local restaurant reviews. In this loose category, I like Élan, and have gone back several times.
Two newer places that I think have real possibilities but aren't quite ready for prime time are Auguste and Chevalier. Chevalier opened recently in the new Baccarat Hotel, and as you may imagine, the table settings and the crystal are magnificent. The first time we tried it we just loved the food. However, when we went back, things didn't measure up to our first experience, so we decided to wait and let them settle in before deciding whether to return. Actually, this is another example of Blur, the menu is very dressy, and yet all the PR describes it as a brasserie.
Speaking of the Blur, there's a spot called Match 65, which describes itself as a brasserie. A brasserie is the one thing it's definitely not. It's a tiny place, might pass for a bistrot in dim light, if you don't eat the food. Himself gave it a low B minus and would prefer not to go back.
Auguste, newly opened on Lexington Avenue after it lost its lease on Bleeker Street, is close to being a real bistro, and we thought we'd made a great discovery on our first visit. It didn't withstand a second visit, there was chaos in the kitchen (orders got lost, food arrived cold, that kind of chaos), so again we're letting it settle in some more.
Finally, on East 79th Street, there's a place called Quatorze that lots of people, including Himself, love. I'm not a fan, but this place has a lot of very vocal supporters, so I'm including it. But conscience insists that I disclose that one night I ordered calf's liver and it was adequately prepared, but for the accompanying sauce which was exactly the same as that which accompanied Himself's steak. He advises visitors to stick to the cassoulet and the roast chicken.