On a recent snowy evening, I had just heard the worst news of the day: Le French Diner (188 Orchard Street, 212-777-1577) was out of stuffed duck neck — damn!
But anatine letdowns aside, the evening was quickly turning into one of the finer dining experiences in recent memory. My girlfriend and I had found this place on a tip from a chef, and we’d booked one of three small tables in the ultra-cozy, and ultra-fantastic, restaurant. That night, we sat on orange metal chairs as the sounds of vintage reggae played above, and the French and very handsome waiter (imagine Gael García Bernal’s younger brother) explained the menu, written only on the large chalkboard hanging on the wall.
Le French diner is the type of restaurant everyone wishes they had just down the street: it’s comforting, delicious, and unique. The menu offers a mix of classic French staples and inventive takes on Escoffier classics, all served in an unpretentious manner.
You may have heard of this restaurant, which used to be known as Zucco Le French Diner. Four years ago, the eccentric and goateed Frenchman Zucco passed away after having a heart attack just outside the place, which was then passed on to his son and business partner, who sold it to friends and longtime restaurant vets Pierre Moulin, Burcu Aydeniz, and Artur Boisset. The new proprietors updated the inside slightly, and completely changed the menu — which once had 50 dishes ranging from risotto to frites — to focus on their own French-inspired favorites.
You’ll find Aydeniz sandwiched between the wooden bar and the small kitchen almost every night; she was born in Turkey and came to New York to study economics at NYU and later work in finance. One night, she met Moulin at the bar where he was working; they eventually married. They were both on temporary visas at the time, and the day of the wedding was the same day Aydeniz hit the Turkish visa lottery, allowing them both to become citizens overnight. “It was a good day, a very good day,” says Moulin.
Soon after, Aydeniz quit her job and moved to France, learning the local customs of four-hour lunches and enrolling in cooking school. After a stint as a sous chef at a one-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, she returned to New York and started working at John Dory Oyster Bar in the Ace Hotel, rising to executive sous chef and staying there for over three years.
After six years of marriage, Aydeniz and Moulin separated, but they remained close friends, knowing they would eventually open a place of their own. “We always knew this would happen,” said Moulin. “It was the goal.”
And now they have Le French Diner. New York needs more restaurants like it.
It has an easy vibe: “Can I sit here?” I asked on my first visit, pointing to the only table that seats more than three people.
“Of course,” said Boisset, “and if a table of four comes in, we will move you.”
I was soon eating the brandade, a creamy and salty cod akin to the best mashed potatoes I’ve had this winter. The fish soup, dark brown in color and containing no fish shells or actual chunks of fish, was simple, classic, and easy. So were the escargots, dotted with parsley and soaked in butter. The duck breast entree, slowly rendered until the fat slightly separated, was so good my date quipped, “I would just eat the fat.” The skin was an amusement park of texture and flavor.
The wine list is short and it won’t blow you away. Le French Diner doesn’t have a liquor license, though the few beers available are good.
Le French Diner gets my vote for the hippest romantic spot in town.