Ever been to a place where the food knocks your eyes out, but when you taste it—blech! Such was the case at Plein Sud, a new French restaurant at the corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway attached to the ritzy new Smyth Hotel.
Take Plein Sud’s pissaladière ($13), for example. An oblong flatbread of impressive dimensions, it arrived criss-crossed with shiny anchovies and punctuated with oily black olives, while the traditional focus of this Provençal tart—caramelized onions—was relegated to the backseat. Nevertheless, my date and I could barely contain our enthusiasm as we commenced to hack the shimmering flatbread into pieces. Alas, the moment knife hit pie, we knew something was terribly wrong. The bread was thick and dry, more mealy than flaky, and when we took a bite, the anchovies displayed a jaw-aching sweetness that made the whole thing slightly repulsive.
The poisson cru ($14) also presented a camera-ready picture: opaque white tiles of fish playing hide-and-seek among baby Bibb lettuce, red radish slices, avocado shards, and shaved fennel, with a few rings of fresh green chilies dancing around on the plate. Unfortunately, the raw fish was limp and warm, begging to be compared unfavorably with the yellowtail sashimi we’d eaten a few days earlier at a Japanese restaurant in Murray Hill, where it was sliced thick and the flesh was cool and firm. An unfair assessment? Not really—coaxing the best out of any piece of fish is why restaurants have chefs.
Plein Sud’s chef Ed Cotton is a journeyman, a veteran of Todd English’s empire, but he has also labored in the Laurent Tourondel and Daniel Boulud stables, bouncing back and forth between New York, Boston, and Vegas like a beach ball. This season, he’s a pink-cheeked contestant on Top Chef, where he has cultivated an affable, teddy-bearish demeanor, but proven to be rather pissy in the clenches. Food that merely looks great is the objective of the show—since the home audience can’t taste anything—and it seems as if a lot of that attitude has rubbed off on Plein Sud.
The restaurant is L-shaped, with a wildly popular bar on one leg—which includes some nice walk-in tables. On the other, a dining room designed by the famous AvroKo team is configured with large circular banquettes, which are exceptionally comfortable, and if you dine at twilight, the space suffuses with a golden glow that reproduces the chiaroscuro of Renaissance paintings. Man, nobody looks bad in that light. But the more often you dine there, the more you’re likely to be annoyed by design details: how much half the ceiling looks like the Coney Island Boardwalk, while the other resembles a Dutch bathroom. Or how the little pouches of plastic herbs seem to be growing on the walls, as if real plants were too much trouble.
“Plein Sud” means “Far South” or “Facing South” and refers to the region of Provence, whose cooking is the ostensible theme of restaurant. Regrettably, the menu is a grab bag of dishes from all over France, as if you, the diner, had no idea what Provençal food really was. Nowhere to be found are bouillabaisse, salt-cod brandade, grilled sardines, or the chickpea cakes called socca—though there’s a side of ratatouille available, the sainted tomatoey and garlicky eggplant mélange. But beware! On Episode 5, Cotton and a cohort stuffed a beef loin with it, which constitutes a crime against both beef and purple vegetable.
The failed pissaladière comes from a section of flatbreads that can be shared as appetizers, and indeed there is one excellent choice among them: tarte flambé, an Alsatian creation topped with bacon and cheese. In this case, at least, the pastry is flaky and thin. Washed down with a cold glass of white Bordeaux, it can make you very happy. A couple of other things that were enjoyable, from a menu that hopscotches across nine sections without ever establishing a point of view, included a beef bavette (skirt steak) expertly cooked, tangled on the plate with raw, thin-sliced zucchini, and a bucket of Thai-flavored moules frites awash in coconut milk, though the accompanying fries had been coated with starch, Burger King–style.
The worst dish was an alleged beef bourguignon configured as a dense puck of meat, bathed in what tasted like artificial-smoke-laced barbecue sauce—not one whit Provençal or even French. The best was a simple side of poached leeks with some egg crumbled on top. It presented in shorthand form the simple, sunny promise of real Provençal cooking. But this is just the sort of thing that would never win a Quickfire on Top Chef: Like a contestant with no spiky haircut, its appearance would never appeal to the TV audience.