It’s an old punch line: the answering machine that pranks callers into believing they’re speaking to an actual person instead of a recording. After he closed Pulino’s, the noisiest little trattoria on the Bowery, in January, I assumed vaunted restaurateur Keith McNally (Balthazar, et al.) was in no mood for jokes. But there’s a ringing in my ears as I call his newest venture, and then the line clicks. “Thank you for calling Cherche Midi,” (282 Bowery, 212-226-3055) an ostensibly French woman beams over the phone, followed by a pause long enough to precipitate a shameful, stuttered counter-greeting from me, during which the convincing, thickly accented hostess continues her salutation, interrupting my request for a prime-time table.
The real joke turned out to be my dream of securing a table at an agreeable hour. The most commonly available reservations are at 5:30 and 10:30 p.m., with the gracious options of 6 and 9 p.m. offered during the middle of the week. Fancy a spot at the bar? Because that’s where you’ll be sitting, unless you feel like being quoted at least an hour-long wait as a walk-in. (Though upon our return from a shopping sojourn one night, a table had opened up after 30 minutes.)
A lion of downtown dining, McNally has forfeited only one restaurant concept in his nearly 35-year career: the aforementioned Pulino’s, which cycled through several course corrections until he put it down last January. It reopened as Cherche Midi in June, with Balthazar chef Shane McBride and ex-Minetta Tavern sous chef Daniel Parilla in charge. A cream-toned sibling for those who favor a bit of Losaida flavor over the mall-like atmosphere of Soho, Cherche Midi even sports a splash of graffiti on its Houston Street wall. You’d be hard-pressed to find any tags (other than the price variety) around Balthazar.
McNally’s restaurants are nothing if not consistent; hallmarks include fastidious front-of-house training, a keenly cultivated atmosphere that’s both approachable and upscale, and a clientele that’s likely familiar with using the word “summer” as a verb (I believe I even overheard one diner use it as a preposition). Another signature move, when it comes to the man’s French restaurants, has been a pointedly Anglicized approach to that country’s cuisine: Think Balthazar’s duck shepherd’s pie. (McNally is British.)
Surely that explains yuzu-zapped hamachi crudo, and a shyly seasoned heirloom tomato salad that highlights the love apple at its peak of ripeness but ultimately fails to jell owing to a lack of substantive acid. The pairing of lightly scrambled Parmesan custard and salty anchovy toasts proved too aggressive, though the dish is a signature of British chef Rowley Leigh, a pioneer of London’s bistro scene. Pleasant separately, the combination veers toward overkill. Something from Cherche Midi’s brief cider list or a glass of riesling should help in that regard. (It’s worth noting that several bottles dip to the mid-$30s — a forgiving decision when entrées top out at nearly $50.) Cocktails, like the chartreuse and rhum blanc-soaked “Cherchez la Femme,” are ambitious, though a bit of quality control would be welcome — as a watered-down drink made it to our table unchecked.
McBride still oversees the kitchen at Balthazar, but on our visits to Cherche Midi the brawny, fair-haired chef was a commanding presence, expediting orders and visiting the occasional table for an impromptu progress report. He’s no stranger to high marks, first under Tom Colicchio at Colicchio & Sons, then with McNally. His frog legs are a strong first course, the knobby, fried, amphibious drumsticks sitting in an intensely vegetal green garlic velouté. Roasted foie gras is equally successful — hardly a surprise when the accompaniment is tart rhubarb compote.
A mess of bouchot mussels in a timid basil broth feels unfinished with its topping of broccolini and confit lemon, but a wing of bone-in skate meuniére is as meltingly soft as the fennel and onion soubise it sits above. The roast chicken, that universal benchmark of good cooking, is here rendered earthy and deep with leeks and morels. There’s steak frites on the menu, and a filet, and while McBride’s bacon marmalade-topped prime rib burger is an excellent way to satisfy your aged-beef requirement, the actual prime rib — traditionally a British cut — is positively paleo-rific. Aged for 45 days, the rosy, marbled hunk comes with cider-braised onions and the airy, greasy puffed potatoes called pommes soufflés. After your palate is suitably coated in fat, the kitchen is kind enough to send out, in Francophilic fashion, a palate-cleansing salad.
Before the word “dessert” so much as crosses your server’s lips, cheeses materialize on a decorated platform, evenly spread among domestic and European dairy. Sweets skew traditional: Hello, ile flottante, my old friend, and a sticky pineapple tarte Tatin. In these days of puddings and cookie plates, though, it’s downright exciting to see proper soufflés — chocolate or raspberry, in this case.
I never did meet the mysterious woman behind the voicemail greeting — in fact, I don’t think anyone I interacted with at Cherche Midi spoke French natively. That’s not a gripe. This is New York, not Paris. As far as the menu’s concerned, however, stick to French and you’ll be the one making jokes, perhaps over a glass of pastis.