I have a weakness for restaurants that look as though transported from an outer arrondissement—places where I half expect the mustachioed patron to pop out of the kitchen to share a pastis with the diners, his Rubenesque wife to woman the cashier, and her apron-clad brother to tell me to avoid the sweetbreads. Chelsea’s Trois Canards certainly fits the role. Its small sidewalk café and wooden bar come direct from Pathé’s back lot and the obligatory hanger steak graces the menu, but there all resemblance ends. Madame has been replaced by a mini skirted lovely who looks as though she only eats salads, while Monsieur’s appeal is more vieux Brooklyn than vieux Paris.
Seduced by the Franco-facade, I rounded up some friends from the neighborhood and was lucky enough to snag a four-top in its own small alcove, not an impossible feat in this spot that spaces tables for dining rather than maximum profit. The breadbasket, complete with duck-shaped butter, announced that the place paid attention, and a bistro menu as well
edited as the space offered something for every one. Salads like a classic Caesar ($6.50) or a jazzy arugula with thin slices of Fontina ($7.95) tempted those in need of roughage, while more substantial fare like a garlic-infused flan that mixed in the dense pungency of mushrooms ($6.95) and an excellent pâté de foie de canard complete with toast rounds topped with caramelized onions ($5.95) showed off the chef’s technical prowess. The mains that confirmed his mastery were especially notable for the vegetable accompaniments that highlighted each dish. The establishment’s perfectly roasted namesake ($17.95) appeared on a bed of white and wild rice surrounded by a mix of onion, zucchini, and carrots. Salmon fillets played off noodles laced with bits of red bell pepper, mushrooms, and more ($14.95), and the peppercorn-crusted steak cried out for its frites and roasted tomatoes ($18.95). Even the clichéd garlic mashed were perfect under the roast chicken drippings ($13.95). A closing salvo of desserts including a nicely torched crème brûlée ($6), a satisfying apple tart topped with caramel sauce and a scoop of pungent cinnamon ice cream ($6), and a Grand Marnier soufflé with a rich alcohol-laced sauce ($10) proved that this kitchen had its ducks all in a row.
Unfortunately, they’d fallen out of step when I returned. The kitchen was still humming away. The pâté was still chewily toothsome, the special arugula and tomato salad a classic, and the salad of endive and Roquefort mined with nuts and great chunks of bleu ($6.50). But the dancing diva detailed to our table couldn’t get anything right, and the assistant manager who tried to help only got in the way. The appetizers came out wrong, the soufflé order went in too late, and everything seemed to take an eternity in a restaurant almost empty the day after Gay Pride Day. The kitchen, though, was just ducky. The hefty Maryland crabcake with lobster coulis ($7.95) made a perfect light meal, the flan appetizer proved an equally satisfying entrée, and the Dover sole special ($23.95) with a summer vegetable mix, beet chips, and the added surprise of rice reconfirmed the chef’s skill with sides. The soufflés ($10 each) had some wind taken out of them by the service, but the praline was a burnt-sugar wonder and the sauce on the Grand Marnier was like sublime eggnog. We left vowing to return, for when these ducks are waddling in formation, they’re hard to beat.