The artichoke ($11) is steamed an intriguing shade of green, one that will never appear in fashion forecasts. The innermost leaves and furzy parts have been weed-whacked, leaving a deep well for the fever-yellow sauce, a mustard vinaigrette so thick that when the leaves are torn off and dipped, it coats them without dribbling. When the outer bits are exhausted, the heart remains. Carved into a perfect circle and gobbed with oregano, this small green puck is so perfect that other diners may distract you by pointing at the weird metal frieze hanging over the entrance as they try to snatch the morsel from your plate.
The frieze shows a buck-naked guy sprawled on his back, still managing to pour water from an amphora as two art deco ducks speed by overhead, fleeing his streamlined hideousness. The frieze is the most prominent feature of an L-shaped dining room that, via the restaurant’s name, pays tribute to Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, an art deco designer active during the early 20th century. But while the acres of dark wood, brass-railed burgundy banquettes, and ungainly light fixtures that look like fin de siécle flying saucers manage to evoke a real Parisian brasserie, they don’t do much for poor Ruhlmann. My guess is that the restaurateurs were not permitted much latitude in altering space in the landmarked building. Anyway, most customers prefer to sit on the terrace, watching the evening’s flotilla of garbage trucks roar by.
Under the semi-watchful eye of chef Laurent Tourondel—who’s been spreading himself thin lately with BLT Fish and BLT Steak—Brasserie Ruhlmann is the latest attempt to create a facsimile Parisian brasserie in New York. All the anticipated standards grace the menu, many improved with unexpected elements. A case in point is saucisson lyonnais ($15), three rounds of aggressive garlic sausage planted in a bed of bumpy French lentils and decorated with a few curls of raw purple shallot, like a punk baby’s first growth of hair. But what lies underneath? A thin coating of Dijon mustard, perfecting the appetizers as it muddles bites of lentil and sausage.
There’s an onion soup ($10) with a seemingly limitless supply of caramelized onions lurking in its depth, and a gruyére topper that’s thicker and creamier than usual. In addition to a pristine oyster presentation featuring a kinky cracked-pepper vinaigrette, Tourondel’s little joke is oysters Rockefeller, a dish that doesn’t belong in the brasserie canon—unless the brasserie happens to be in Rockefeller Center, of course. No one loves bunnies—or mustard—more than Tourondel. Lapin à la moutarde ($26) comes festively deposited in a red Creuset casserole. As the lid is doffed, you spy a haunch odalisque on a bed of fresh pappardelle. Yum! A dull half-chicken is a bargain at $20, I guess, but a much better choice is skate grenobloise ($19), a huge ray fillet made doubly tart with capers and a lemon dice. Skip the woodsy (and woody) leg of lamb.
Service can be annoying. In execution of the brasserie theme, the staff seems to have been instructed to speak French, or at least fake a French accent. As the Latin busboy removed my demolished artichoke, he nodded deferentially, saying, “Are you finished, monsieur?” I had no choice but to reply enthusiastically, “Si.”