BISTRO CLASSICS WITH THOUGHTFUL FLAIR
tom valenti has been dishing out high-minded comfort food for several years now at ouest, on broadway near west 84th street, and he recently brought a slightly more downscale culinary vision to west branch, a new eatery a few blocks south at west 77th street. the pun-ny name doesn't scare diners away though, as the residents of the still culinary-starved neighborhood seem to pack the restaurant consistently.
while the friendly staff tries to keep up, lag times between courses vary wildly, and the increasingly harried waiters have a tendency to knock into your table or chair on multiple occasions without ever offering an apology. or maybe they do, and you just can't hear them: noise levels are imposingly loud for such an older-leaning crowd.
the establishment's namesake cocktail, a blend of hendrick's gin, lemon and blood orange bitters, is excellently floral and packs a powerful punch when made correctly. but bartenders seem to be operating from two different recipes, as the drink often arrives with enough juice to make it taste like a fruity mixed cocktail and not the martini it intends to be. other cocktails rang from a bland seasonal old fashioned ($12) to the oddly sublime zapotec ($10), an alluring mix of tequila, habanero-laced coffee syrup and lime.
blinis ($12) are perfect, though gougeres ($8) seem unnecessary after complimentary bread crusted generously with cheese. mushroom arancini ($10) are light and have a nice funk to them, but are under-seasoned-even a dash of salt would do wonders. salads are crisp and fresh, if slightly overdressed across the board; the nicely acidic haricots verts salad ($10) stands out as particularly pleasing.
honoring modern tastes and his own italian and french flourishes, pasta joins american bistro classics like the solid caesar salad ($10) and moules frites on the menu here: the butternut squash tortelli ($23) is the only one i've tried, and it employs maple and a smack of ham to tantalizing effect. the other bistro classic, a burger and fries ($16), is fine here: the inch-thick burger is nicely seasoned and has a bite i can't quite pinpoint, but is ultimately outshone by the addictive french fries.
while entrée prices ranging from about $16 to $27 are still recession friendly, the whole menu seems to have jumped a few dollars in price since the fall. this causes a few dishes like the excellent trout ($25) with a creamy lemon caper sauce to seem a bit overpriced, especially since most dishes do not come with sides like the super-creamy polenta ($6) or fine braised cabbage ($7). crispy fried quail ($18), a delicious twist on southern fried chicken, is worth it no matter what the price: served atop a vinegary, warm potato salad studded with lardoons and finished with greens and a drizzle of buttermilk dressing; it's homey, heartening and unique.
desserts dishes like apple pie and a custardy tarte basque ($9) seem uninspired; surprising, considering valenti's background as a pastry chef. a chocolate pot de crème with peanut butter cookies is not particularly inspired either, but does do the trick in ending the meal on a pleasantly sweet note. personally, the zapotec makes a far better finale: coffee, dessert and liquid comfort all in one glass over ice: simple, straightforward solace, with a kiss of heat to warm your insides.
at 77th street
entrees: to $16 to $27
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