Dip into the 1990 Zagat Guide—if you can find a copy—and you’ll discover that 70 percent of the restaurants that received scores of 26 or 27 for food were dyed-in-the-wool French. The list famously included Lutéce, La Cote Basque, and Lafayette, but by the 2008 edition, those old warhorses had been sent to the glue factory, and the proportion of top-tier French restaurants had dwindled to 30 percent. Many of the places that remained, such as Chanterelle, were cramming pan-Mediterranean elements onto their menus, while our most notorious French chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, often seemed more interested in Asian food.
Yet, in spite of the decline in big-ticket French restaurants, the humble bistro thrives. Though beset on all sides by trattorias and tapas bars, old-guard bistros persevere (La Ripaille, Jubilee, La Veau D’or), while newer ones in trendy neighborhoods enlist fresh converts (Juliette, Epicerie Café Charbon, iCi). How to account for this continued popularity? Maybe it’s because culinary schools still mainly teach French cooking, or, to be metacritical for a moment, because the majority of food words in English were originally French. But the most convincing reason is that New Yorkers have become utterly familiar with the bistro menu; as if we were French peasants, it is our comfort food. Here are a couple of great new places that demonstrate the bistro’s ongoing durability.
Located in the East Village, Belcourt sure looks like a bistro, with its acres of mirrors, tall windows that open onto the sidewalk, and walls painted a positively Parisian shade of green. A semicircular antique bar with bulbous beer pulls dominates the room, and only the strangely perforated and backlit banquettes, reminiscent of a Moroccan lantern, give a clue that the same owner is responsible for Nomad, the North African restaurant across Second Avenue.
The chef at Belcourt, Matt Hamilton, once worked at Prune, and the menu shows it. Redolent of country products, the document is quirky as hell, such as you might find in a real bistro in Montmartre or Montparnasse. Thus we have a delectable lamb burger with a hockey puck of goat cheese on top, a tangle of impossibly tender octopus tentacles poached in oil, and a roasted half-chicken agreeably planted in a celery purée ($15, $9, and $17, respectively). Sometimes the free-and-easy menu misses the mark: A dark heap of duck prosciutto rimmed with yellow fat was several shades too funky, while a pig-de-force of seared belly, plainish sausage, and compressed cheek was marred—but only slightly—by too many flavors on the plate. Homemade sauerkraut gave the entrée Alsatian cred, but you had to use your knife to slide the repulsive lavender-scented spaetzle off the plate.
Not long ago, many of France’s most dependable restaurants were located in railroad terminals. “Why not here?” I thought as I entered the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where a bistro named Metro Marché (“City Market”—dumb name!) has recently appeared. The bistro occupies a space that doesn’t look much like a bistro, but more like an antediluvian Irish bar, giving it a real New York air. The floor is a swirl of colors straight out of the ’60s, and the sight of commuters bustling past the windows bearing packages is appealing in a Joseph Mitchell sort of way.
While Belcourt creates dishes in a bistro vein according to the latest praxis, Metro Marché falls back on the standard menu of moules frites (four varieties!), frisée salad with lardons and Roquefort cheese, and, especially, a gooey and utterly flavorful French onion soup ($15.95, $8.95, and $6.95, respectively). While the crab cakes also proved exemplary, the roast chicken tasted mushy and reheated on one occasion. Not content merely to wail on the easy stuff, Metro Marché treads on more difficult terrain with a great duck and pork galantine, and—gee whiz!—a real bouillabaisse, sporting a brick-red broth, plenty of shellfish and monkfish, and rouille-smeared croutons ($21.95).
And, miracle of miracles, the place has a decently priced wine list, with great bottles under $30. Thus, one evening I wolfed down steak frites ($19.95)—a thick sirloin heaped with perfect fries—and washed it down with a crisp $26 bottle of Côtes du Rhône red. Just the thing you need before hopping a bus to, say, Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, I thought, smacking my lips.