A phenomenon is taking place in the West Village. The old-guard French bistros are disappearing, and being replaced bynewer French bistros. These revamped institutions offer colorful cocktails, eclectic wine lists, loud music, bright decor, and most important, modern menus that reflect contemporary ideas about cooking. Now instead of saucissons Lyonnaise, frisée aux lardons, steaks frites, and heavy cassoulets, we have seared tuna, grilled whole fish, plenty of poultry, vegetarian apps and entrées, and salads out the wazoo. Though the menu has been rejiggered often in a vaguely Asian direction the quintessential Frenchness of the cooking and culinary outlook remains.
There are plenty of examples, but my current fave is Little Owl. Not long ago it was Chez Michallet, which could boast that it was located in the tenement made famous by Friends, and had received a 24 for food in the 1998 Zagat, putting it right up there with Mesa Grill and Café des Artistes. Neither fact, apparently, guaranteed its longevity. The location couldn't be betterthe corner of Grove and Bedford, surrounded by some of the Village's quirkiest architecture, visible through vast multi-paned windows that seem to bring the street inside the small (30-seat) dining room. The walls are whitewashed tongue-and-groove board, the tables small but well spaced, the soundtrack runs from rock to rap, and there's some decent art on the walls to remind you that the neighborhood was once home to artists and bohemians, long since driven out by wealthy townhouse dwellers and tourists.
Somewhat contrary to form, the signature dish is "the pork chop," the only entrée to have its own definite article. Nearly two inches thick, this massive eminence ($19) rests on butter beans, like a linebacker tanning himself on a pebbly beach. The flavor is fennel-ly, and three of us worked on it doggedly, then took a big chunk home to make pork hash the next day. Otherwise, fish rules. On one visit, we had a choice of a whole grilled porgy, roasted halibut filet, or broiled cod chunk, constituting half of the six entrées. Pick the cod ($18), which comes with a memorable succotash of corn and peas in a pesto vinaigrette. There's also a toothsome chicken entrée, compounded of supremely crisp skin and moist white flesh, and looking like it spent some time under a brick.
The appetizers subversively attack the comfortable stolidity of the entrées, reaching in Italian and Asian directions, which is something any modern Parisian bistro might do. Most playful are the meatball sliders ($9), a trio of homemade, cheese-dusted buns cradling flattened orbs that mix veal, beef, and pork. The sliders disport themselves on a bed of baby arugula, which may profitably be put inside the buns before letting them slide down your gullet. Need I say they're irresistible? Seafood also dominates the appetizer menu, some of it merely seared, in a tip of the hat to Nobu, which started the craze. In a combined Japanese and Italian flourish, a perfectly fried soft-shell crab ($14) is hoisted, legs upward, on a bed of microscopically diced sour veggies that the menu dubs salsa verde.
And the quirky name? Look out the window at the building across the street, and direct your attention to the eaves. There you'll see, precariously perched on one corner of the roof, a plastic owl, of the kind used to scare pigeons away.
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