A Chef for All Seasons
For all our pretenses of sophistication, Gothamites are creatures of habit. Our cityscapes are defined by the two or three neighborhoods where we live, work, and play. The rest of the city is as foreign to us as garam masala to a Senegalese cook. I hadn't put a foot above 86th Street on the East Side for decades before enrolling in an antique jewelry course at the 92nd Street Y. A little exploration time pre- and postclass allowed me to revise my vision of the Upper East Side as an enclave of Chanel-suited, micron-thin women with dew-lapped husbands in tow. I discovered instead an area alive with frolicking children (at 5 p.m. at least), quirky specialty boutiques, and a myriad of small restaurants like Pascalou.
A red, French-style entrance signals this tea-towel-sized spot named for owners Pascal and Lottie, along with a streetside blackboard offering the day's specials in the fine round hand that all French schoolchildren learn. Inside, each corner is filled with the decorative signals that have become bistro clichésred-shaded wall sconces, tiled wainscoting, rattan chairs, tiny tables, and on this evening a space heater to ward off an unseasonable chill. The crowd is indeed older, and conservatively dressed. But Pascalou is saved from being just another bistro bis by a passion and warmth that become apparent as soon as you're presented with the menu.
On the first visit, my friend and I had been lured inside by the chalkboard's promise of the last choucroute of the season. Settled in with glasses of a heady Jaboulet Côtes du Rhone 1998 ($20), we were trying not to fill up on crusty bread when the mustard's arrival in a ramekin surrounded with cornichons heralded the main event. We were glad we'd left room. More than just cabbage and pig, the fluffy choucroute also featured carrots, apples, and a slither of preserved onions ($18.75). There was a slab of pork done to the pulling tenderness of great barbecue and a wedge of satisfying saucisson flavored with a hint of fennel; as always, a frankfurter asserted the dish's plebeian origins and a few juniper berries added a subtle flavor of good gin. Claiming not to be too hungry, we cleaned our plates, but chose to top off our repast with expressos, small glasses of Muscat de Beaume de Venise ($8), and a promise to return for dessert.
1308 Madison Avenue, 212-534-7522.
Open daily 11 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Major credit cards. Limited wheelchair access.
As we passed under the wirework Tour Eiffel that overhangs the narrow stairway and headed up to the even tinier upstairs dining room on our second visit, we vowed not to be seduced by the choucroute. One taste of the arugula and endive salad sprinkled with walnut and a crumble of Roquefort ($9) convinced us we were right, as did a salad that combined sweet beet root with the leafy zest of arugula. The offering to spring that was a thicket of green and white asparagus with a tarragon-perfumed vinaigrette proved that this was a chef for all seasons ($7.95). Lamb two ways captured our fancy. The five rib chops pinwheeled over a bed of slightly spicy couscous suggested a Maghreb connection ($19.95), as did the cumin-scented shank ($19.95), a cudgel of slow-cooked tenderness. The nigh-unto-perfect duck confit ($18.95) also hinted at Eastern mysteries with a touch of cardamom in the accompanying rice, but the surprise of choucroute and carrots soaking up juices underneath was a perfect tip of the toque to the changing season, and the garlic-strewn haricots verts on the side were wonderful.
After all that, dessert was doomed yet again. But we cared little as we sipped our muscats and savored the unexpected delight of April in Paris on the Upper East Side.
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