Let’s start with desserts for a change. Oddly, the best is a salad. Pinwheeled on a plate, the jumbo segments of painfully pink grapefruit are sealed in a transparent sugar glaze, so that each tart bite begins with a crunch. In the center is a scoop of grapefruit sorbet. The spectacular juxtaposition of sweet and sour, warm and cold—and the illusion of healthiness—makes this a candidate for most enjoyable dessert of the year. It’ll set you back $6.75.
Belleville—named after a raffish hilltop Paris neighborhood, beloved of François Villon, Edith Piaf, and the 19th-century Parisian Communards, but now being overwhelmed by tasteless concrete apartment buildings—is one of those theme bistros that seeks to re-create a time and place far removed from its modern locale. In service of this illusion, the stamped tin ceiling crawls down the walls, swabbed an agreeable shade of cream. Thankfully, in opposition to its East Village counterparts, Belleville’s de rigueur busts of Tintin, red-horned La Vache Qui Rit (“The Laughing Cow”), and the ruffle-collared Pierrot Gourmand clown are penned inside a tall glass case near the door, rather than crowded on the walls like a fever dream of your French vacation. Though clatteringly loud, the dining room is quite pleasant, so that after a first meal, I eagerly anticipated repeat visits.
Our backward meal continues with the entrées. In an effort to please diners of every inclination and appetite, the menu is divided into eight parts. Of these, the sections marked Specialties, From the Rotisserie, Les Pâtes (“pastas”), and (duh!) Main Courses may be considered main courses. The latter contains an excellent daube ($15.50), a hearty beef stew fortified with red wine. Often associated with Provence, the stew is so rich that carrots are the only vegetable flavorful enough to provide companionship for the meat. Expanding the same regional theme, a Provençale roast chicken ($14.75) is pride of the rotisserie, an herb-crusted bird that comes with a choice of substantial sides. Pick the chive-dusted mashed potatoes or the haricots verts—slender French green beans that arrive topped with a melting pat of high-fat butter. Among the Specialties, the steak tartare is a powerful lure, dressed with mustard vinaigrette and tangy capers, surmounted by a raw egg yolk prettily displayed in its shell. Though a cold entrée might not be what you had in mind as the Gowanus Canal wind whips up the slope, this defect is partly redressed by an accompanying bucket of well-browned fries.
Lastly, we have the starters. Though you may be tempted to reach into the Specialties for the fondue au fromage, on the grounds that such a molten dish could readily appetize on a wintry evening—don’t. It’s a thin and grainy concoction, served with vegetables for dipping rather than the conventional toasts. My Corsican friend turned up her nose, exclaiming, “This is really raclette.” Much more impressive is something called “petatou de fromage” ($8.50), a warm salad of goat cheese and potatoes compressed into a plug and served with a black olive relish. I can still taste it. Another worthy choice is the assiette de charcuterie, which flaunts Serrano ham, garlicky salami, and a wonderful slice of crumbly and rosemary-laced pâté. We might dub it: Triplets of Belleville.
Since this is a backward review, this is where we walk in the door.