For weeks after chef-owners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson opened Frenchette this spring, getting to the host stand required besting a daunting gauntlet of New York’s well-dressed and well-heeled. Reservations were all but impossible to come by, waits could be taxing, and even early birds hoping to preempt the crowds were met with a queue of fellow hungry hopefuls spilling out from the vestibule entrance onto West Broadway. Though maddening at times, it was pretty nice to see people lining up for crunchy, gelatinous pig’s-foot croquettes and light-as-air fried anchovies.
Frenchette’s torrential popularity was a foregone conclusion. Nasr and Hanson, who met working at Daniel Boulud’s Upper East Side flagship, spent years delighting the masses in tandem as part of Keith McNally’s empire, opening Balthazar with the prolific restaurateur in 1997 and heading up legendary nocturnal haunts like Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, and Minetta Tavern. Their reputation precedes them the way lightning does thunder. Frenchette, named for David Johansen’s 1978 song, is their long-awaited stand-alone debut. Auspiciously, it joins a recent surge of nouveau French cooking that runs the gamut from ultra-luxe Le Coucou and La Mercerie to tiny, ambitious MIMI, and safe bets like Lafayette and Augustine. To Nasr and Hanson’s credit, they’ve found a sweet spot that sits comfortably at the nexus of all three styles.
Rocking since April, the duo have clearly picked a few things up from their former boss about how to design and run an irresistibly likable restaurant. In fact, under the glow of some very Schiller’s-esque, tubular-in-all-senses-of-the-word light fixtures, dinner here almost approaches the carefree joie de vivre of another Johansen tune: his cover, as Buster Poindexter, of Eighties earworm “Hot Hot Hot.”
Marvel at how two groups of would-be diners become comrades in waiting, toasting one another with $16 Armagnac cocktails and $14 spritzes before being ferried to opposite ends of the clubby front lounge’s parade of snug auburn banquettes. Nearby, one of the bartenders stirs two drinks simultaneously while discussing dessert options with the double date that just polished off a $134 côte de boeuf. Join the ranks huddled around the splashy, meandering zinc countertop and she might offer to send sommelier Jorge Riera your way to chat about whether the Slovakian pét-nat you’ve been eyeing goes with your order of sea snails ($14) accompanied by a ramekin of ruddy, saffron-kissed rouille. (It does.) A natural-wine whisperer, Riera previously ran the show at Wildair and Contra, and his deep but approachable list magnanimously includes several bottles in the $40–$50 range.
Free to flex their creativity and clearly eager to do so, Nasr and Hanson oversee an ambitious, oft-changing menu of cleverly edited bistro fare that rewards risk-takers and traditionalists alike. And it’s not a strictly Gallic affair, either. There are borrowed standards, like the terrific wedges of tortilla española festooned with golden smoked trout roe ($9), as well as purely seasonal gambits such as a fluke tartare buzzing with shiso, salty sea beans, and tiny, coveted tristar strawberries ($18).
A classic guinea hen terrine ($20), here served with toast and celery remoulade, is streaked with so much gamey schmaltz it looks and tastes like bird Wagyu. The duck frites ($35), with its crunchy fries and textbook béarnaise, features equally impressive poultry prowess, the judiciously seared breast rosy throughout and capped with a burnished, crackly skin. For brouillade ($22), eggs are scrambled with an obscene amount of butter for fifteen minutes until they become a lush porridge, to which the kitchen adds a quartet of garlic butter–sloshed escargots raised on Long Island. Nearly as rich is a shareable spit-roasted lobster ($52) splayed down the middle and drenched in curry butter, its heaviness balanced by a salad of raw radishes and fennel.
Robust and edging on custardy, Nasr and Hanson’s wondrously, defiantly summery blood sausage is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. The paunchy slab of boudin noir ($24) arrived on a pan-fried corn cake surrounded by fresh raspberries and pickled mushrooms, draped with stylish pink chicory leaves and gossamer-thin ribbons of guanciale — a bitter, sour, fruity moshpit of ferric meatiness. You should also cross your fingers for blowfish tails ($16) coated in spiced breadcrumbs and espelette pepper butter, like the buffalo wings of the sea, though a main course of skate wing, similarly prepared, is a fine substitution. Portions can skew excessively generous: The gnocchi parisienne ($12), flecked with chives, is an entrée masquerading among the side dishes. Make sure the toasted cylinders of pate a choux dough, loaded with ham and smothered in melted Comté, find their way to your table.
Meals end on a high note thanks to pastry chef Michelle Palazzo’s mostly traditional desserts. Peak-season fruit tarts ($14–$16) are especially dependable, made with buckwheat and shortbread crusts and layered respectively with pastry cream and fromage blanc, a fresh, yogurt-like cheese. To really match Frenchette’s party vibe, however, look to shareable sweets like perfectly cakey cherry clafoutis ($16) and a pastry called the Paris-Brest ($16) that’s named for a bicycle race but ends up looking more like the wheel of a monster truck once Palazzo is done piping in twirls of Sicilian-pistachio buttercream.
241 West Broadway
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 17, 2018