Chez Brigitte Might Be the Best Restaurant in Manhattan

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Chez Ta Grand-maman
Over the course of the last few months, I have eaten at Chez Brigitte, the hole-in-the-wall West Village French bistro, more than any restaurant. For me, this is typical: When it comes to decent, affordable establishments, I binge. The odd thing is, for most of my time in New York, I'd been a complete stranger to Chez Brigitte, which has been around since 1958. Then, last autumn, while I was in the neighborhood for some reason I can't now recall, I ducked in and sat down to eat a plate of chicken fricassee. And I was greatly unimpressed. This is what all the fuss is about? I muttered to myself on the way out, once again briefly pondering the many framed paeans to Chez Brigitte's indispensability posted in the tiny joint's front window. I vowed to express my bafflement the next time Chez Brigitte came up in conversation. That place is all reputation, I'd huff. Just like the rest of the West Village.

This might seem like one of those irritatingly contrarian restaurant-writing tactics?on a par with claiming that your favorite hamburger joint delivers a higher level of gustatory pleasure than some overpriced celebrity-chefed attitude trough?but here it is: Chez Brigitte kicks Alain Ducasse's ass.

Because what are you going to do? Found a lifetime of eating?eating, not dining?on the specious premise that restaurants ought to wow you on each and every visit? Can't happen, no matter how good the place is supposed to be. But as far as I can tell, it's getting to that point around town. Expectations are exceeding the ability to consistently deliver. All due to this mad proliferation of eateries, which has got people believing that grand repasts can be gained whenever a fork is hefted. Honest to God, what a dimwitted notion! The history of great cuisine is a history of special occasions. New Yorkers circa the year '00 must be some of the first humans in the history of civilization to have convinced themselves that an immense culinary apparatus will be daily mobilized to cater to every whim and waver of their capricious appetites. I mean, why consume good food when the promise of great food hovers, dusk to dawn, at the threshold of expectation, at the doorstep of entitlement? Here's why: because there are, and there must be, limits. We shouldn't be allowed to believe that sushi and souffles can be punched up in response to ephemeral synaptic flickers. We should eat duller.

Or at least more predictably. Enter Chez Brigitte, a minor shrine to glories of dining dullness. I counted 11 entrees on the current menu, plus five rotating daily specials and two weekend specials. There is a lineup of omelets and sandwiches. There is dessert. There are sides. And that is all there is. Just as the cooks at Chez Brigitte are deftly familiar with the menu, so, too, can patrons be. I had it effectively memorized in six weeks, including the specials.

The restaurant itself is devoutly unthrilling, a cubbyhole on Greenwich Ave., just off 7th Ave. Right across the street from the facility in which St. Vincent's Hospital disposes of its medical waste. Squeezed in between the Greenwich Cafe and Artepasta, both of which have failed to follow Chez Brigitte's sensible lead, of some 40 years, and instead set up sidewalk tables right across the street from the facility in which St. Vincent's Hospital disposes of its medical waste. More reason to praise Chez Brigitte: they know when to keep the doors closed. By now, I'm sure much of lower Manhattan is acquainted with Chez Brigitte's slogan, which is: "Chez Brigitte will serve 250 persons 11 at a time," a reference to the 11 stools upon which customers may perch. Some locals will even have picked up a takeout menu and learned the rather touching Chez Brigitte story, in a nutshell that the original owner, Brigitte Catapano, who hailed from Marseilles, opened for business in '58 and stuck with it until she retired, 25 years later, leaving the restaurant in the hands of one of her employees, Rosa Santos. Then, before her death in 1994, Catapano turned the restaurant over to Santos. Whenever I drop by, there is the same pair of Hispanic guys working the stoves, cooking from muscle memory, autopilot cuisine, free to banter with the patrons. The place is locked in time?a sort of perpetual 1974 or so?but nonetheless exudes a vibrancy that one usually finds in restaurants that do a bustling business. No one cares about the cruddy old crap on the walls or the beleaguered yellow countertop. A pang of melancholy is not provoked by the listing dessert cabinet. The battered pots and pans do not disturb. Instead, the environment induces calm, repose, relaxation. Cheer. Virtue. You can tell. A large mirror on the back wall permits you to eyeball your arrival; you can watch yourself while you eat. You can examine the evidence of your own soothing. Best of all, there's a tv. And that, friends, is oh, so modern. A lot of us gobble down dinner in front of SportsCenter. A lot of us do. I slip into Chez Brigitte, I want to catch me a little tube. Makes me happy, makes me feel right.

As does the chow. For my money, the $8 beef bourguignonne is just about the best I've ever tasted: tender chunks of slightly stringy, perfectly seasoned beef stewed in red wine, with carrots, served up with roasted potatoes, pasta shells and Chez Brigitte's ubiquitous overcooked peas. Charming, those peas. They taste like they came from a can. There's a strong chance that they did come from a can. I don't generally go for peas that come from a can. But I do at Chez Brigitte. For whatever reason, the degreened, decidedly unfresh peas work for me, in this context.

More: Veal stew is also wonderful. Roast chicken, served with brown gravy?fabulous, robust, hearty. Chicken cutlets with sauteed mushrooms, or veal cutlets, similarly prepared?perfect alternatives to the stews, on less chilly nights. The filet of sole meuniere is the entree I've sampled the most often, and it's addictive, sauteed with mushrooms and wine to form a glaze that lends some oomph to the fish, a gently mineral tang. Vegetarian? "Assiette de Legumes," the vegetables properly cooked rather than forced at you, in contemporary fashion, all bright and half raw. As for the daily specials, my picks are the roast leg of lamb (Monday) and the blanquette de veau (Friday), the latter a onetime staple of old-school French restaurants in America, now sadly vanished, or scarce, due to the creamy, heart-attack-inducing sauce. Otherwise, there are omelets in numerous satisfying styles, ample sandwiches on adequate bread and, topping it all off, homemade desserts. The most expensive items on the menu are $9, and everything is served with a pair of starches?potatoes and rice, which, in this case, actually works, an exception to the never-double-the-starches rule.

From one end of the Manhattan island to the other, from river to river and extending out across bridges and through tunnels, to the restaurant-addled pockets of Brooklyn and Queens, you'll plunk down $15 for an inexcusably mediocre bowl of limp, oversauced penne. At Chez Brigitte, you'll be gracefully fed and leave in that blissful state of culinary contentment delivered only by French food. Your wallet fat, your heart fat, your belly full, your soul full. Unfortunately, they don't have wine.

Which brings me to the only gambit regarding Chez Brigitte I can encourage, one that would necessarily require you to move into the restaurant's neighborhood?or at least within striking distance of its delivery cyclist. Here's how I see it: I like to eat in something like three nights per week. Eat out two. Cook two. I don't live in the Chez Brigitte vicinity. In fact, there's water between us. But if I did live nearby, I'd do this: I'd eat in, and eat Chez Brigitte, on my three eat-in nights. I'd surf up and down the menu. I'd do what I've been doing lately, which is fetch myself a bottle of French Minervois, a sturdy yet youthfully accessible red from France's largest wine-growing region, Languedoc, where the wines traditionally have been built for speedy quaffing, but where lately some greater quality is developing. Forget about quality for a second, though?I'll be drinking the $10 stuff with my plate of Chez Brigitte's delicious, aromatic and foolproof beef bourguignonne. I will dine in front of the tube?something about German pocket battleships or the senior PGA tour. Once I have devoured each moist morsel from the steaming takeout tin, sopping up the rusty-brown wine sauce with softly buttered bread, I will do as they do over there in Europe: I will remove the lid from the paper coffee cup that has come with my entree and, into the now-scoured-clean takeout tin, I will dump my stunning colorful and fresh green salad. And I will eat that, after the main meal, just like they say you're supposed to. When it's all over, I will nurse my second glass of Minervois and, in my fateful bachelorhood, in my grim surroundings (there are unshaven, pockmarked and sallow retirees inhabiting double-wides in central Florida who live better than I do), I will gaze, contentedly, at the glowing box. Digestion will begin, naturally spurred by the ideal balance of a French meal. And there's reassurance in that, because regardless of whether you've dropped $300 on a feast whipped up by pricey, jetsetting talent or a fraction of that on a batch of grub that (true to Chez Brigitte's legend) your grandmother might have lovingly spooned forth, it's still French. And that's reason enough to keep Chez Brigitte around for another 40 years. The lingering Francophilia of the local character, what's left of it, says so.

Chez Brigitte, 77 Greenwich Ave. (7th Ave. S.), 929-6736.

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