“I read on Grub Street that this restaurant was once a loading dock behind a Woolworth’s on 14th Street,” my companion observed, chewing on the last delectable bite of port-poached pear. “What’s Woolworth’s?” I joked.
The pear was the topper on what had been a nearly flawless meal at Le Midi Bistro. When it first hit the table, the fruit stood statuesquely next to a glistening scoop of coconut ice cream, its purplish shape a splash of bright color against the grayness of the restaurant’s poured-concrete interior. The space had recently been a Korean tapas bar and karaoke spot. “I can remember singing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ downstairs at a Christmas office party,” my fellow diner blushed.
It was a Festivus miracle we made it to dessert at all. Le Midi (the nickname given Provence by the French) is one of those old-school bistros where the food skews rich and salty, olive oil flows like tap water, and the portions make you think twice about ordering dessert. Our favorite entrée was a Riesling-braised chicken ($21). The extensively stewed yardbird nested on a bed of spaetzle in a cream sauce dotted with cocktail onions and mushrooms, a lumpy welter of white. Until the bright woodsy flavors kicked in, the lack of color was daunting, like a blanket of snow on a hilly landscape.
“Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a Provençal restaurant?” I’d remarked when the waitress carried the chicken from the kitchen. “That avian looks positively Alsatian.”
“I think they wanted to pick a name that was evocative of the sunny Mediterranean,” my friend had replied.
“At least there are a couple of southern French dishes on the menu. Consider the hare,” I’d said, pointing at the remains of the entrée that had arrived moments before, now nearly demolished. Served in a ragu of fennel and ripe red tomato, the minced rabbit did seem like something that had hopped across the Franco-Italian border somewhere near the town of Menton. It was utterly delicious.
As we’d first begun chewing on it, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal flickered on the wall behind the bar in black-and-white, soundless and subtitled. We’d just gotten to the scene in which Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with Death, which lent a funereal pall to the rabbit, causing us to apologize profusely to its corpse as we shoveled like enthusiastic grave diggers.
Before that, when the busboy cleared the table of apps, he noted with some concern that we hadn’t made a dent in our calamari. Was something wrong? Put on the spot, I responded, “Well, we expected something a little more interesting.” This squid was too much like pub grub, competently fried but ultimately boring, with a bland tomato dipping sauce that could double as a sleeping potion. We’d licked clean the other starters, though, including a frisée salad with crisp, smoky lardons the size of fingers and a vinaigrette that left us mopping the extra with the homemade rolls, served warm and in profusion throughout the meal.
The French onion soup rocked, too. This usually tired bistro standard has been revamped with a sweet broth that tastes as much like beef as caramelized onions. And as the Gruyère oozes and flows in gooey waves over the sides of the ample crouton, you don’t so much eat the cheese as outwit it.
We’d decided to go with red wines from the by-the-glass list. Soon after being seated in the secluded rear of the hangar-like room, we’d ordered two reds: a Côtes de Bordeaux (brittle and bright) and a California zin (saturated and mellow). Priced at $11 each, the pours were generous, and we agreed that, in this case, the glasses were a better value than the bottles.
Earlier, on the way to that night’s Japandroids show, my companion and I had stood before the restaurant and its strange concrete ramp, wondering if we should go in. “I’ve been here a couple of times before, and they’ve got a killer coq au vin, a great squash salad, and an amazing grilled octopus served with fingerling potatoes,” I’d wheedled, hyperbolizing only slightly.
“This is 2012—who wants to go to a French bistro?” was the reply. “The food is too greasy and old hat.” But, I argued, it was my turn to pick.
Well, it worked—because we were soon inside and handing the greeter our coats.