French bistros have taken a bashing in New York over the last decade, nowhere more so than in Greenwich Village. Nearly every storefront that used to be a small Gallic restaurant has turned into a wine bar, cevicheria, or revisionist pizza parlor. Gone are the days when every interloper from Rye or Parsippany had a secret French hideaway on a side street, and whispered the address only to close friends with the admonition, “Keep it under your hat!”
But the tide may be turning. The wildfire popularity of Minetta Tavern reminded us that, when an elegant and grease-intensive meal is desired, there’s no better cuisine than French, and it’s not hard to predict that the dining public will soon tire of paying through the nose for tapas and tiny slivers of raw fish. Enter Joseph Leonard, just down the street from the fabled corner of Waverly and Waverly. The restaurant name was created out of the conjoined first names of the founder’s grandfathers, and photos of those two gentlemen decorate the walls. The view through the front window is of the long-closed Northern Dispensary, where Edgar Allan Poe was famously treated for a headache in 1837.
That founder is Gabriel Stulman, who managed the front of the house at Little Owl and Market Table. His experience shows: The service at Joseph Leonard is good, though sometimes a bit giddy, with waiters displaying a notable lack of attitude while maneuvering in the cramped space. Seating is in a pair of rooms, at an L-shaped bar, and along a mini-counter that looks into the kitchen, where, amazingly, six cooks play Twister in a space no larger than a walk-in closet.
The food they produce is often spectacular. Let’s begin with the bistro classics: A frisée aux lardons salad ($9) has been stylishly deconstructed, so that the poached egg perches on a brioche crouton of exactly the same size—like an Egg McMuffin, only edible. The savory mixture of potatoes and salt-cod known as brandade ($8) arrives in a Mason jar with a sweet-pepper relish on top. (Don’t worry, sustainable seafood enthusiasts—it’s really salt pollock.) The eight-ounce serving constitutes way more than two can eat, and your server readily replenishes the toasts that accompany it. The best entrée is arctic char seared in brown butter ($17), but only on the skin side, in the Parisian manner. It comes scattered with crunchy almonds and yellow wax beans, looking like a lingering late-summer sunset.
The menu also slings such obligatory standards as coarse-textured country pâté, creamy duck rillettes, beef tartar [sic], cauliflower gratin, and, every night, a selection of three East Coast oysters served with mignonette, rather than vile cocktail sauce. Oui, oui! The menu bombs, though, on one particular French classic. Invented by Parisian chef Casimir Moisson as a tribute to the opera composer, Tournedos Rossini usually refers to a sliced beef tenderloin mounted on toast, garnished with warm foie gras, and glazed with Madeira. The Joseph Leonard version ($25) substitutes sirloin, stone-cold foie gras, and no apparent glaze, making for a rather cheerless-but-chewy entrée.
A bistro wouldn’t be a bistro without flukes, and this place has plenty. In France, they often derive from the region of France that the proprietors came from. At Joseph Leonard, they’re more likely to be borrowed from other restaurants. The simple, perfectly cooked omelet was resuscitated recently by Minetta Tavern and caused quite a stir. Joseph Leonard chef Jim McDuffee does it one better by filling the omelet with goat cheese and topping it with sautéed mushrooms. There’s nothing better for a light supper, with a generous glass of Grüner Veltliner or Orvieto ($7 and $8, respectively).
We’ve been encountering Carolina shrimp ‘n’ grits around town lately, most notably at Cobble Hill’s Watty & Meg. McDuffee sends it back to France by substituting demi-glace for cream gravy, while still using superb Ansonia Mills grits. Hell, you could put rat shit on those grits and they’d still be first-rate. Predictably, there’s also a moules frites, with the bivalves steamed in fennel and white wine, a bargain at $16.
One remarkable dish, though, is a pure invention on the part of McDuffee—a peach salad ($8) that, counterintuitively, matches the stone fruit with bread, arugula, and toasted sunflower seeds. As if that weren’t enough, cheddar cheese is added, but in such small tidbits that it merely ramps up the rich, salty flavor of the salad, permitting the sweet, firm, cool peaches to shine. Cured of his headache, Poe would have approved.