One of the early restaurants to stake a claim in what over the past decade it helped establish as the Flatiron district, L'acajou is a lunchtime fave where uptown and downtown publishing meet. A long bar presumably crafted from the eponymous mahogany invites impromptu conversations among strangers, while booths in the dining area offer relative privacy in a fortuitous commingling of conviviality and seclusion, and the $9.50 lunchtime soup and salad and $21 prix fixe are increasingly attractive bargains in these days of small presses and overall expense-account parsimony. But L'acajou serves a communal function in the evening too, welcoming neighborhood residents and cash-clutching survivors of the malling of Sixth Avenue. The $27.50 prix fixe dinner, available until 8 p.m., is the perfect showcase for an unpretentiously classic menu that is definitely worth a detour.
My francophile mom joined me on my first visit and immediately decided on the three-course bonanza, starting with a scrumptious potato-and-leek soup that was not the usual parmentier, but rather bits and chunks of veggies in a mossy broth. I selected the terrine de jarret de boeuf ($7.50), which proved a sizable slab of pulled beef imprisoned in a rich jelly: primal perfection, especially when coupled with tartly toothsome cornichons, a smear of Dijon's best, and crusty slices of country bread. My friend picked delicately at her dew-fresh mesclun, saving herself for the precisely à point steak ($26) that was perfect in pink and thin, crisp frites complete with the optional sauce rouge the restaurant has waiting for ketchup diehards. I copped out with a well-executed frisée ($7.50) topped with a huge pile of richly porky pig bits. Mom's trout special, selected from among the four main courses the prix fixe offered, swam again, this time in a lake of brown butter with a topping of toasted almonds. Splendidly simple, it was enough to have her feigning fluency so she could compliment the waitress in French. She loved her crème caramel as well, although I found my blood orange soufflé in vanilla sauce slightly insipid, one of the few times the place fell short of its own standards of excellence.
When I returned, the trout was no longer available, and the waitress had an accent more Guinness than Gallic. I found my thrill, however, in a sautéed Dover sole ($26) that was almost good as the trout, but sans appetizer and dessert. The soupe du jour was a surprising puree of eggplant and potato with a hint of cumin for colonial style. Fluffy pucks of goat cheese drizzled with a roasted red pepper coulis topped toasted baguette rounds ($9.50) and were the perfect foil for a piquant tapenade. A roasted cod whose mild flesh was toned up with hazelnut butter and the muted zing of roasted garlic ($19.50) took one friend's fancy. The other selected a darkly flavored calf's liver in a stygian puddle of Armagnac, onions, and chanterelles ($18.50) that proved the chef had earned his toque. Not wanting to spoil the afterglow from my sole, I ended with twin globes of grapefruit-Campari and blood orange sorbet ($5), while my friends indulged in a better-than-average crème brûlée ($6) and a velvetly decadent wedge of chocolate cake ($6). Not the usual display of gastronomic pyrotechnics that have come to symbolize Gallic cuisine, the food at L'acajou is simply and satisfyingly stellar.
53 West 19th Street, 645-1706.
Open for lunch Mon- Fri noon to 3pm, dinner Mon- Thu 6:30 to 11pm, Fri- Sat 6:30- midnite, Sun 6:30- 10pm. Major credit cards. Limited wheelchair access.
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