It's French Country–Bistro Fare at Calliope
At the end of a long meal, many diners enjoy a stroll, while others prefer to collapse in place for a nap and wake up later to the smell of coffee. A Frenchwoman I know has a better remedy: She drops a cube of sugar to soak in a glass of Calvados, then recovers it with her fingers and pops it into her mouth for a one-two punch of booze and sugar. This is called a "canard."
The tradition is dated, and I can't explain why my party commandeered the sugar bowl and began making canards during coffee service at Calliope, the new French-inspired restaurant in the East Village. We crunched our way to the end of the evening and breathed out fumes of apple-scented alcohol while talking with some nostalgia about France. I suppose it was something about Calliope's generous dishes, Nina Simone's voice crumbling around us like a pâte brisée, and the doors open to a honking, smoky Second Avenue as we sipped on Calvados that had us all feeling good.
Husband and wife Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson cooked at the Waverly Inn and Prune, respectively, before taking over the old Belcourt space, where the duo now serves country-bistro fare among the candlelight and potted herbs. Pity the person who orders the roast chicken, a breast covered in a glorious, impossibly golden skin, beside a cigar of rich, confit-stuffed cabbage ($25). Before she has taken her first bite, everyone at the table will be asking for some. The juicy black sea bass on a sharp, romesco-slathered toast ($27) is better when you make a mess of it, and the bread goes dumpling soft, falling apart in a creamy fondue of leeks.
A pork-and-rabbit terrine is a bouncy castle of meat, cut cleanly and served with hot mustard and cornichons ($13). It's the kind of dish you taste and immediately start to wonder, oh, wouldn't this be nice in a sandwich tomorrow? But of course, there won't be any leftovers. Elegant sheets of tête de porc ($12)—sprinkled with chopped cornichons, bouquets of parsley, and purple shallot threads—make the perfect introduction for anyone put off by eating a pig's face. But I missed the more slippery, gelatinous bits and pieces that appear like treasure in a thicker slice.
The Provençal-style tart is as big and round as a dinner plate ($7). It has a deeply concentrated filling of tomatoes, onions, and black olives, but the same pastry that is crisp along the edges is sadly undercooked and floppy in the center. A mackerel-and-avocado dish in an intense tomato sauce with chile oil and sesame seeds seems a touch out of place on this menu ($8). Order it, though, and you'll be glad the odd, fatty number found its way here to you.
Korsh moves through the dining room in his whites, often to deliver a welcome basket of cold, wet radishes and charred anchovy toasts to a new table or to say hello to a guest. On a recent night, he also poured a bottle of wine that a server had forgotten to bring out with our entrées. Service is still warming up. Cocktail napkins are slipped into place awkwardly a minute or two after the cocktails have arrived; the silverware often comes after the food. Occasionally, the wine is forgotten, and on a recent night, the wrong bottle was opened and presented. Calliope's staff handles these little missteps graciously, but it would be great if they learned about the dishes in depth, so they didn't need to consult with the kitchen to answer simple questions.
Desserts range in thoughtfulness. A chocolate dish was sprinkled far too generously with salt, but you won't be let down by the simple tart of apples and plums, lovely and wrinkled as a summer dress taken off at the end of a good day ($9). The baba au rhum is more flamboyant ($9), brought to the table with an entourage of accoutrements and cut in half Ducasse-style, just under your nose. As it steams, you're invited to pour over the rum and spoon on some lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream. This is not the dense, syrupy sponge of the classic French kitchen. It is better—a stretchy, buttery bun.
By the time a plate of huge madeleines is set down, you will either be too full to see straight or brainstorming ways to extend the sweetness of the evening. Either way, a glass of Calvados is exactly the thing you need. Sugar cube optional.
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