Hopelessly unhip since the late ’80s, the battle-scarred French bistro seems to be making a comeback. Returning to Gotham in triumph are such Gallic commonplaces as steak frites, moules frites, frisée salad, pork rillettes, steak tartare, and—of course—French onion soup swimming in gobs of gooey Gruyère. The bistro moderne makes us remember why New Yorkers loved these restaurants in the first place, for their sense of intimacy and coziness, instantly familiar menus, reduced volume levels that let you carry on a romantic conversation, and wine prices that encouraged you to think in terms of bottles rather than glasses.
Eschewing Manhattan, these new places first appeared in Brooklyn nabes like Park Slope, Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Finally, they seem to be seeping back into Manhattan. A decade of chefs trained in cooking schools has had its effect, and the menus aren’t quite the same collection of Parisian and regional French fare anymore. American and Italian dishes have been added—to great effect—while touching all the sustainably sourced and locavoric bases modern diners demand.
Goat Town is an example. At the very least, this East Village boîte has managed to give itself a memorable moniker. The name represents the original meaning of “Gotham,” a comically derisive term for NYC coined in 1807 by Washington Irving in Salmagundi, a satiric periodical. In contrast to the name—which conjures up images of stray farm animals rummaging through hills of trash—the restaurant is an affable and pleasant place. Goat Town’s arched ceiling is painted dusky yellow, as if stained from decades of Gauloise smoke, and the booths are separated by humps of white ceramic tile, suggesting that hygiene is a priority. My favorite part is the bathroom, approached by a pair of doors that look positively medieval. Ever peed in a dungeon?
The restaurant strives to reveal its inner goatiness by featuring a single goat dish at all times. At first, it was a trio of meatballs on a bed of white polenta, with nuts and dried fruit scattered around, making a strange but satisfying appetizer. Later, this was replaced by smoked goat knockwurst ($12) served with potato salad. Indeed, in the bistro’s opening months, the menu has been tinkered with constantly, in a scientific attempt to find just the right combination of dishes for a revamped downtown bistro.
French cuisine remains the bedrock, though. A gorgeous crimson heap of steak tartare ($12), ground on the fine side, is tendered with celery-root remoulade. A depression in the middle cradles an egg yolk, to be stirred in at your discretion for extra richness. This being 2011, the ovum is organic. There’s a bang-up moules steamed in beer with Berkshire bacon, marred only by melting icebergs of mayo floating by. (Mayo seems to be one of chef Joel Hough’s obsessions.) The dish is served with a toasted baguette; if you want the frites part of this Norman classic, you’ll have to order them separately. Sided with mayo, the fries ($5) are every bit as good as they must be for this to be called a bistro.
The steak frites ($21), however, is not quite up to snuff. The so-called flap steak seems a paltry thing, reminding us that a more solid and tastier sirloin was the standard here in days gone by. Instead, grab the wonderful hamburger ($14), which the menu assures us is made with “pasture-raised beef,” a bucolic image Irving would have loved to lampoon. In another modern gesture, the patty is furnished with pickled purple onions, Brooklyn-style dills, and—a stroke of genius—bitter frisée. Here, the homemade mayo is a boon, and this burger is made to seem like a French invention. Take that, Germany!
There’s a good pork chop served with tart stewed cabbage, a decent half-chicken that comes with roasted vegetables, and a fluke from Long Island (no, we’re not talking about Lindsay Lohan) done up Gallic-style with lemon, capers, and brown butter. The list of entrées is admirably short. What to wash it down with? The wine list is limited to nine bottles, of which the house red and house white are both deals at $27 apiece. But beer is the thing to drink at Goat Town, much of it made within a few hundred miles of Gotham. Knock back a Captain Lawrence Fairchester Pale Ale (made in Westchester), and consider how lucky you are to be eating Franco-Brooklyn food in Manhattan.