Vive the New French in the West Village
If you're feeling disenchanted with the city, there's no better cure than sitting by the window at the New French on a spring evening. The skinny, tattooed waiter may be a little slow, but his band probably had a gig last night. Meanwhile, the balmy weather and flowering trees have brought a stream of humanity to the street outside: an elderly couple sharing a cigarette, girls with swishy long hair and short dresses, a rollerblading man who carefully adjusts his dog's bandanna, a goateed queen in a sequined black leather cap. The array of dogs alone—plump and svelte, moppish and sleek, purebred and mutt—is enough to keep me entertained.
The New French's menu is similarly eclectic. It's a fanciful jumble of dishes that read like a list of international greatest hits—pho to roast chicken, beet salad to pulled pork. It's not flawless, but there's an admirable whimsy and warmth about the restaurant. It's a place that knows what it is (a neighborhood joint) and what it's not (earth-shaking).
The New French is not a French restaurant. It's name-checking a legendary Minneapolis café that was, in its '70s heyday, a hotbed of bohemia, lefty politics, and good food. The original New French closed years ago, and the current New French doesn't serve the same sort of food and has only a tenuous connection to its eponym. Phillip Hoffman, the restaurant's operating partner, once owned the now-closed Nick & Eddie in Soho. Two of his old employees called him up a couple years ago and told him they wanted to establish a Nick & Eddie in Minneapolis. Soon thereafter, he got a call from a buddy about a restaurant space in the West Village opening up. It occurred to Hoffman that since there was now a reincarnation of Nick & Eddie in Minneapolis, it would be fun to revive the New French in New York—like a cultural-exchange program for restaurants.
Hoffman tapped Livio Velardo, who had been the sous chef at Tabla and Resto, to be the chef/owner of the New French. The limit of their aspirations, Hoffman says, was to create a "sweet neighborhood place"— nothing more elaborate. And so the second New French was born, perhaps a bit less boho than the first, but with its own charms, not the least of which is its low-key ambition.
The menu is a short romp, composed of seemingly unrelated dishes. It's vaguely bistro (mussels or burgers with fries, roast chicken, chicken-liver pâté) and vaguely Asian (vegetable curry, pho), but there are dishes that fall into neither of those categories. Not every one of the dishes works, but the place's breezy, hodgepodge approach does.
Chicken-liver paté comes spread thickly on three crostini, the savory, smooth pâté lent sweetness and depth by the additions of dates and port. A perky little salad of bitter endives and arugula comes on the side.
That instinct for balance—rich pâté alongside crisp, bitter greens—is one of the ways Velardo's cooking distinguishes itself. With plenty of butter, anyone can whip up a good chicken-liver mousse, but it takes finesse with contrasting flavors and textures to make it something memorable.
That's also what makes the beet salad so uncommonly good. A colorful jumble of pink and red beets and arugula is tossed with Parmesan cream and pickled red onions. The cream is pleasantly grainy (like good Parmesan is), and the tart slivers of red onion give each bite a zingy lift. It's not rocket science, but it's a really well-made salad.
Specials are written on the blackboard wall above the open kitchen every day, and they always include a pizza bianca with different toppings, and an entrée special that often involves fish.
One night, the pizza bianca was topped with pickled radish, shaved fennel, roasted red pepper, and smoked salmon. Traditionally, pizza bianca isn't seasoned with anything but salt and olive oil, so these baroque inventions are unorthodox but delicious.
When it comes to the pho, however, the tinkering with orthodoxy falls flat. This soup is a beloved dish, and if you're going to offer a non-traditional version, it better be at least as tasty as the original. Pho is usually relatively austere: rice noodles and various beef cuts in a beef broth, perfumed with star anise and garnished with cilantro. The New French's pho has way too much going on: slices of carrot, bok choy, chilies, scallions, and cilantro in chicken broth with brisket and thick rice noodles. It doesn't have the meaty depth of flavor that pho should.
A similar vegetable medley fares better in the curry—a big bowl filled with a tumble of veggies in a smooth, orange-ish curry that tastes of chilies, ginger, and coconut. It's halfway between India and Thailand. Too bad such a big bowl of curry comes with such a small bowl of couscous; I ran out of couscous and had to spoon up the curry like soup.
Roast chicken, another universal favorite, is done wonderfully with very, very crisp skin and moist meat. It sits on a parsnip purée that is definitely at least half butter—just the way I like it. The fish specials are generally good bets, too. One night, two triangular filets of fluke sat atop a sprightly mix of fresh green peas, fava beans, and sunchokes.
The small room is done in all yellows and oranges with blackboard walls and strategically placed mirrors to create the illusion of space. Along the south wall is a mural by artist and illustrator, Myra Kalman. It looks like mod hieroglyphics, with two-dimensional drawings of faces, sprays of flowers, and two sets of breasts. It's the kind of painting that you can keep looking at—and still notice something new every time.
There is something to be said for a restaurant that simply aspires to be your go-to neighborhood place, and then approaches the task with unpretentious, border-hopping appetite. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack or the Talking Heads might be playing over the sound system, you might be having a burger or pho, and you might be checking out the corgi or the mini-skirted girl walking by. You're not having a revelatory meal—you're just feeling right at home.
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