For 30 years this space hummed along as Café de Bruxelles, occupying a West Village building shaped like a wedge of brie. Back then, the interior was stark white, decorated with jagged Constructivist artworks. Lace curtains hung in the windows, allowing customers at the bar to see a filmy version of passersby while downing a Duvel and savoring what was the restaurant’s most profound contribution to the neighborhood: the city’s best french fries. Served with homemade aioli and not quite crisp, they glistened in a shiny metal cone lined with white filter paper. The restaurant probably sold more of those wonderful fries than all the rest of the menu combined.
The short-lived Lyon Bouchon Moderne bistro followed in its footsteps, and now just one year later another tenant has arrived. Quelle surprise! The menu is again mainly Parisian, but with modernist Yankee tweaks. I approached Cole’s Greenwich Village with trepidation. Would the fries be as good?
I found a premises much changed from the original. The flatiron space still divides into three rooms, featuring a narrow bar with little standing room at the pointy end, a comfy central chamber with spacious booths, and a larger room with small tables jammed together before a long banquette, which creates the effect of a crowded railroad dining car in a Miss Marple movie (it’s all too easy to dash your neighbor’s food to the floor). Only the abstract art serves as a reminder that you’re in the Village of Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler.
First, the fries. Not quite as good as Bruxelles’s, these are thicker and browner, but taste powerfully of potato, and come in a shiny dimpled cylinder instead of a cone. Now that’s progress. You might want to order them as an appetizer, but why not ramp up the enjoyment with the bistro’s excellent cheeseburger ($18), to which a glistening skullcap of pale white cheddar clings.
As at many bistros in this price range—where guests ordering entrées is a given, but the starters need to be sold a bit more—the appetizers outclass the main courses, and are more thoughtfully conceived, too. Topped with microgreens and resting in a buttery sauce dotted with salty ricotta salata, the kabocha squash ravioli ($11) are shaped like smashed colonial tricorn hats, with a thick noodle wrapper that accentuates the orange sweetness of the vegetable. The bistro standard of potato-leek soup has a welcome charge of chervil and smooth creaminess, but the lentils lurking in its depths only annoy. Most compelling are the pair of skin-on sardine fillets, perfectly sauteed and served on a bumpy carpet of tiny potatoes and split green grapes—though they may leave you wondering why you paid $15 for only three or four bites. Even the apple crostini, topped with two types of local apples and slathered with apple butter, succeeds by contrasting its overweening sweetness with the bite of strong blue cheese.
But then come the entrées: Despite being cooked crisp and brown and concealed in a thicket of mizuna, the plancha crisped chicken ($25) possesses fluffy alabaster flesh but little flavor; a special of duck breast one evening lacked seasoning and a proper sear. By contrast, a skin-on plank of salmon arrived nicely pink in the middle and perfectly cooked, though the mélange of beans and greens underneath provoked a yawn. Best among the entrées was a plate of strozzapreti, or “priest-stranglers,” from Calabria that immersed the long, twisted pasta tubes in a rich pork broth with spinach and slivers of pancetta ($21).
The wine list, mainly from Italy, California, and France, is pricey, with nearly all bottles of red over $45. However, there’s a very nice white Gravina Bianco blend from Puglia in southern Italy, near where the priest-stranglers originated. Dry and tasting faintly of peaches, it’s a bargain at $33. If you’re intent on red, a Côtes du Rhône from La Montagnette is offered by the glass with a generous pour for $9. But maybe you’d rather sit at the bar with a serving of fries, downing a Duvel and dreaming of the French bistro you’d open in this location.