The slogan for French bistro food should be, “Why change it when we got it right the first time?” Indeed, no matter where you go, the menu choices are always the same and probably identical to dishes served 50 years ago. Maybe a hundred. This is not a bad thing, either, since the cult of the new so sways today’s food culture. Sometimes you simply want the good old standbys.
And luckily the classics really shine at L’Artiste, a recently opened French restaurant in Astoria. You won’t mistake the restaurant as being in Paris—the windows in the intimate space look out onto the row houses and squat brick apartment buildings emblematic of Queens. Yet a crock of French onion soup ($8), under a heavy shroud of oozing cheese pocked dark brown, is as good as any version in France.
The Eiffel Tower stenciled onto the wall overlooking the dozen or so tables and the classic chanteuses (Piaf and friends) on the iPod may seem like bistro excess. But the escargots ($10), which can so often resemble niblets of rubber molested by garlic cloves, were some of the best I’ve had in recent memory, tender morsels bathing in a pool of warm butter, tinted green from minced parsley. And what’s a bistro without its beef? The New York strip ($22), topped with thinly sliced mushrooms and served with a light pepper sauce, comes with a square of potato gratin and is a good contender for one of Astoria’s standout steaks. Lamb chops, thick and meaty, are also lovely and served with bean ragout, parsnip purée, and olive currant sauce. Any more flourishes and it would have been overkill, but it worked.
Things get dicier, however, when chef Tuhin Dutta strays from the conventional, and we begin to see what I call “cruise ship embellishments.” Alfalfa sprouts garnish more than half the dishes, doing nothing to enhance flavor and even less for visual appeal (at least use parsley or a micro-herb that’s not a wan greenish-white). Plates come drizzled, swooshed, dotted, and swirled with sauces that simply distract the eye from the food.
Some dishes struck me as failed attempts at creativity. The scallops ($12) are grilled, losing their flavor to char, and are oddly paired with cauliflower and a creamy Mornay sauce. A very fried crab cake ($12) is loaded with green peppers and seems out of place. (You never hear of Paris being the Baltimore of Europe, do you?) And while the duck breast ($21) is succulent, the accompanying squash purée and orange beurre noisette sauce (plus three green beans and a random sprinkling of pine nuts) resembled duck à l’orange in a culinary school cooking contest.
Desserts are more conservative. The best is the profiteroles ($8). Simplicity is key here, and with a nice pâte à choux dough, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce, you don’t want anything more. Although more cakey than gooey, the chocolate fondant ($8) was satisfying, judiciously served with crème anglaise.
The service, efficient and courteous (even better than in France!), nicely balances attention and distance. Welcome touches abound, too, like a changing complimentary amuse bouche and fresh tapenade for the bread basket. One annoyance, though, is the lack of a printed wine list. They recently got their liquor license, so I can sympathize to some degree, but, really, is it that hard to churn out a Word document listing producers and prices? Mais non!
L’Artiste is a good restaurant, an exceptional one for the area. Does it rival the city’s best bistros? No, not yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t once it learns some self-restraint. They say art knows no boundaries, but in this case, maybe it should.