Restaurants that mimic Parisian bistros have become so commonplace downtown that we hardly notice when a new one pops up. I’ve always found certain aspects annoying—the pseudoantique advertising plac- ards, predictable menus, haughty waiters, and tendency to fail at replicating another time and place. With the recent appearance of Pastis, named after a somewhat nauseating anise liqueur that turns milky when diluted with water, the formula has finally been perfected for better or worse.
Laid on with unusual subtlety, the decor features a pair of handsome, high-ceilinged rooms accented with dark woods and lined with white tile suggestively cracked around the edges. A wall-hugging banquette is overlaid with the customary metal railing, behind which coats and briefcases are stashed. The most over-the-top detail is the brown stains on the tin ceiling, as if a dozen bathtubs had overflowed in seedy flats overhead. The menu apes the kind of ordinary Parisian establishment that has no interest in the innovations of haute cuisine, most closely approximating, say, a café in Montparnasse, with its penchant for short dishes that make good snacks with a glass of wine. Choose the tiny Provençale pizza called pissaladière ($5), deliciously topped with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives.
Making for maximum dining flexibility, there are also plenty of sandwiches and main-course salads. The croque monsieur ($7) is easily the best in town—two slices of an excellent homemade loaf from parent Balthazar’s bakery trimmed so they fit together to make a bread casserole, then layered with jambon de Paris and bubbling melted Gruyère. To eat it, snap the halves together like a leghold trap. Heavier dishes include a sirloin frites with a thick sauce of eggy béarnaise, and a half lobster ($15.50, market price) sided with the same perfect fries as the steak.
In addition, the menu offers heavy grandmotherly fare sometimes served in crockery, like tripes gratinées ($13) slicked with plenty of animal fat, coated with crumbs, and baked to complete tenderness with potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes. Every day sees a new plat du jour, recent examples including a creamy coquilles Saint Jacques and a savory casserole of lamb and sliced potatoes that arrived inundated with so much liquid tallow that it might have been poured from a pitcher.
In fact, the enduring culinary contribution of Pastis to New York dining may lie not in its studied evocation of the bistro, but in its rehabilitation of the lowly egg. There’s a salad of frisée and lardons smothered with a poached egg ($7), a plate of boiled leeks topped with a chopped-egg vinaigrette, a tarragon-loaded omelet, an odd English snack of baked beans on toast crowned with a fried egg, and, pièce de résistance, the hamburger cheval ($9). It’s not made from horsemeat (a particular French favorite), but with a runny egg riding metaphorically atop its beefy mount.
For dessert several evenings there was the sight of a raven-haired Gwyneth Paltrow and a goateed Ben Affleck. Most other offerings were less delectable, with the exception of extravagantly toothsome crepes suzette saturated with Grand Marnier and butter. But by this time, your dashboard cholesterol light has probably flickered on. Leave before your engine seizes.