I know butter is back. I took it in stride when my young cousin started eyeing my venerable fondue pot. Nonetheless, I was surprised when I was invited to a favorite new Midtown spot by a cutting-edge friend only to find him ensconced at a prime table sipping a hefty beaker of bourbon and, Lord help us, smoking! What I ate on my first visit to L’Actuel faded into my astonishment that the Euro invasion had sounded the tocsin for punitively restrictive smoking sections at some of Gotham’s finest eateries. I do remember that it was good enough for me to hanker to return.
Blinded by smoke on my first visit, on my second I looked, tasted, and learned. L’Actuel is the New York outpost of Jean-Yves Schillinger, the scion of a culinary dynasty first starred by Michelin in 1972. The restaurant also serves as an exceedingly grand in-house coffee shop and bar for the Kimberly Hotel. The smoking section follows the bar the length of the T-shaped room, with nonpuffers comfortably seated in the cross, well away from any offending haze. Both sections offer wood- and marble-topped tables spaced widely enough for conversation and curving banquettes that bracket the dining areas like so many parentheses. The retro atmosphere invites diners to linger after their meal for a chat—and in the front, a lungful.
The menu too offers some blasts from the past, but with twists as contemporary as the mortar of verdant olive oil complete with pestle and twin basil leaves for crushing that appears along with a basket of warm country bread. A different plate design for each dish and a fine hand with food styling transform each course into the unveiling of a work of edible art. A simple salad starter with a light vinaigrette ($9) appears in a square white porcelain bowl with its mix of picture-perfect lettuces augmented by a mound of minced cucumber, several rounds of ripe tomato, and snippets of chive. The meli-melo of potatoes and goat cheese ($9) is a fez of flaky, creamy tuber topped with a fluffy layer of chèvre, all atop a thicket of chicory. The slab of translucent glass on which it arrived was strewn with minced tomatoes and dotted with a zippy tomato sauce.
Mains are just as forcefully presented. A pinwheel of slices of pork filet mignon ($22) arrives on a triangular plate atop cooked shreds of red cabbage and garnished with turned pieces of apple, the sweet-tart combination a contemporary spin on the traditional accompaniments to the sainted swine. The massive 12-ounce steak frites ($28) is a classic rendition that evokes the days of the three-martini lunch. Choucroute garni ($24), offered daily as a nod to the chef’s Alsatian origins, buries three types of sausage, a smoked pork chop, an incongruous meat patty, and a boiled potato in a mound of mild, cumin- and coriander-infused sauerkraut. House wines in two sizes of carafe are excellent and reasonably priced, and if the impressive mains leave scant room for dessert, the caramelized apple tart ($8) divides nicely and offers a last sweet bite—before the final sip and the final drag signal that, for food lovers and smokers alike, happy days may be here again.