East Side Gallic Gorge
One of the classics of French regional cooking is choucroute garnie: sauerkraut topped with a cholesterol wet dream of smoked and pickled pig parts. The dish seems at first more German than French, but anyone who knows the ping-ponging history of Alsace understands that it's spent many years under the flag of Deutschland. The resulting cultural confusion makes for a cuisine that subverts the cabbage-based dishes of Germany with a Gallic touch. The dish's ingredients hark back to the days when the harvest signaled a rush of preserving as food was put up for the winter. Indeed, professional Surkrutschneiders, who shredded, salted, and pickled the cabbage with elderberry leaves and cumin, existed until the early part of this century. The savory threads are the perfect underpinning for smoked pork: back bacon, loin chops, hocks, sausages, bratwurst, weisswurst, and more. Alsatian Jews even favored preserved goose with theirs. (The more recent seafood choucroute and choucroute salad are tasty, but anathema to true kraut lovers.)
New York's version of things bistro ignores the heartier brasserie classics, and no one could ever claim that choucroute garnie is lite fare, so the dish usually appears as a weekly special. One place that offered it nightly was Quatorze on 14th Street, but with the creation of Quatorze bis and the closing of the Village branch, I'd lost track of it. A reminder from a friend prompted a visit to the spot marked by the remembered red front with its gold lettering. Another lapsed loyalist and I were pleased by the familiar, but startled by the changes. The fin de siècle posters that had decorated the Village spot were engulfed by framed book jackets from obscure authors, presumably regulars, and the crowd was relentlessly East Sidenot an undone tie or stray hair. My friend demanded her blast from the past and selected the chicory with bacon ($9.95), but though the bacon-fat-infused hot vinaigrette was as yummy as ever, we suspected that the curly endive had been tarted up with its Belgian cousin. She pronounced her braised duck ($22.50) with green peppercorn sauce acceptable, but not worth the detour. I fared no better with my starter: haricots verts ($6.25) I considered mere string beans, too old and too tough for haricot status.
The choucroute ($21), however, was undiminished. A plate of mildly sour cabbage floss riddled with juniper berries and chunks of satisfyingly fatty bacon topped with three different sausages ranging in taste from the dark smoky pork to light lemony veal, it was my pig dream made flesh. The only shortcomings were a meager pork loin and a boiled potato that would have been better off baked. I headed back again with a couple just returned from New Orleans, who set themselves up for the feast with a few well-chilled malpeques ($1.50 each) while I nibbled at my light prelude of endive, roquefort, and walnuts ($9.50). Ignoring the Rhine wineonly rants of connoisseurs, we selected a Château du Prieuré 1997 Brouilly, and indulged in the panorama of pig parts that confirmed the consistency of the krautmeister down to the dry pork loin and flaky potato, then dawdled over coffee, profiteroles, and liqueursuntil an unrequested check and vanishing crockery that felt like a bums's rush reminded us that this was an East Side story and not a true Gallic gorge.
323 East 79th Street
Lunch: Tue-Fri 12pm-2:30pm, Sat and Sun 12pm-3pm. Dinner daily 5:30pm-11pm. Amex, MC, Visa. Limited wheelchair access.
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