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Those who ate at Minetta Tavern decades ago will recognize the new version. Surmounted by brass rails, the red circumferential banquettes have been retained, as has the dark tongue-and-groove paneling. The bar, too, possesses a clubby air, and the cocktail swillers who stand five-deep waiting impatiently for tables barely notice the charcoal sketches that cover the walls like sticking plasters over old wounds. You won’t recognize any of these Greenwich Village celebrities, either, unless you watched TV comedian Soupy Sales when you were very young, or have heard of Maxie Bodenheim, an early-20th-century poet who preferred sleeping in Washington Square to living in an actual apartment. (You probably know someone just like him.)
While the layout and accoutrements preserve the original aura, the menu couldn’t be more different. Here we see the hand of Keith McNally, whose restaurants evoke brasseries with a soupçon of his native Brit thrown in. Thus, the mainly French menu at Pastis offers a few facetious ringers, such as canned beans on toast, which a French national would never touch. At the old Minetta Tavern, the menu ran from spaghetti with plain tomato sauce to massive veal chops, and when I ate there several years ago as the guest of a publisher, it wasn’t very good. The new menu might be termed “transgressional cuisine,” since it undermines everything nutritionists (and Mayor Bloomberg) have been telling you. It does this by delivering the greasiest and most vegetable-free bistro standards it can find, repackaged as hip comfort food. In doing so, it channels English chef Heston Blumenthal—who makes a fetish of organ meats—even more than French bistros.
Consider the roasted bone marrow appetizer ($13)—a cow shin bisected lengthwise to reveal its quaking, gelatinous contents. The appetizer comes with a plenitude of toasts, a pot of mustard, and a minuscule lentil salad. The act of preparing your own toasts has never been sweeter. Among entrées, find the alliterative pied de porc pane ($19), a reconfigured pig-foot torpedo fried crisp on the outside to conceal reservoirs of fat. Finish it if you dare. There’s also the usual foie gras pâté, which has not caused lines of shrieking demonstrators to form outside.
Transgressing further, the appetizer menu (styled “Hors d’oeuvres”) offers a trio of tartares ($18), as if no one had read the salmonella warnings printed on supermarket ground-beef packages. The quenelle-shaped beef, veal, and lamb are flavored with black truffles and yellow raisins, and each is excellent in its own way. If I had to deliver an award for the highest fat content achieved by a single plate, it would go to the steak frites ($21)—a wallet-size sirloin cooked to a bloody medium-rare that melts in your mouth. A pat of herbed butter the size of a sewer cap sits on top, and when it melts over the smoking meat, dragging red juices down with it to form a soup, your adipose fate is sealed. Dip the perfect, crisp fries in the juices and find yourself turned into a puddle of pleasure.
Did I tell you the bread is superb? How could it be otherwise, with Balthazar Bakery turning out the narrow crusty loaves? There are also three fish entrées, and on a recent evening, half the diners seemed to be digging into the dourade fillet with romesco sauce (a Catalan purée of peppers and garlic) to compensate for the pig foot their companions were recklessly sliding into their mouths. There are a few landmines, too. Two hamburgers are offered at $16 and $26 “price points.” Ostensibly made with prime beef and topped with caramelized onions, the expensive one isn’t worth the extra $10. The cheapest entrée on the menu—the $13 pasta zsa zsa, presumably named for Zsa Zsa Gabor—glistens with lard from the lardons dotting the noodles, and is further lubricated with a runny egg. Though the homemade noodles are properly al dente, the dish is a big yawn.
The wine list is annoying in its expensiveness, with the cheapest red being a Beaujolais Villages from Domaine du Bel Aire ($32) that tastes sour and thin. Better off to drink wine by the glass, whereby the pours are generous, and you can get a great and unusual glass of a Corsican rosso made with Grenache grapes for $9. And there’s nothing better to cut the fat and leave your lips coated with a protective layer of tannins.