Fab French Favorites
a cheery "bonsoir" greets everyone who strides through the front door of la mirabelle, an upper west side mainstay of classic french fare.
"i like to treat my customers like they are guests in my own home," explains annick la douarane, owner of the quarter-century-old bistro. with daughters, nephews, cousins and in-laws on staff, the place probably does feel like home to her.
though the patterned carpet and bland furniture suggests boring banquet hall rather than cozy dining room, sunlit oil paintings of the southern french landscape, courtesy of la douarane's best friend danielle ruperti, add an authentic flair to the two-story space. better yet is the bilingual service, an aspect of the experience that my mom, new york francophile that she is, received with glee.
the occasion for our visit was actually my 25th birthday, which put me a good three-and-a-half decades below the average diner's age. it came as no surprise then that the filet mignon, the plat du jour, was already gone at a quarter to eight. (seating seems to follow the time schedule of a south florida retirement community.) nonetheless, the ample menu boasts so many alluring french favorites that it took two baskets worth of baguettes before we could reach a consensus on what not to order.
the chance to indulge in organ meats galore led us toward the foie de volailles (chicken livers sautéed in shallots and raspberry vinegar, $7), which were too well done for dad's taste, but whose characteristic dirtiness on the tongue swiftly disappeared amidst the vibrant berry sauce. the paté de campagne (country paté, $9.50) was appropriately unrefined and called for liberal mustard baths before the salty punch of the accompanying cornichons. but both were outdone by the famously ubiquitous soupe a l'oignon gratinée (onion soup, $7.50), here sweetly perfected to the point where leaving even a drop is not an option.
with stomachs awaiting the meat of the meal, our first bottle of 2004 médoc from chateau greysac did not stay full for long. ready right when the cork comes out and good at any point during the night, this elegant yet easy left bank bordeaux is a well-priced ($34) option on a french-californian list that nudges north of $200 at its upper end. another full glass readied me for the arriving canard rôti (duckling with mirabelle plums, $25), a signature dish that lives up to the billing. it's a hefty portion of dark meat ringed with crispy fat that sits in a fruity pool of gravy, thanks to the namesake yellow plum, la mirabelle.
only next to the ris de veau (sweetbreads with lemon and capers, $25) did the duck not stand out. this glandular treat was warm and fuzzy, rich yet mild so that the capers couldn't hide. in another world altogether was the delicate but forceful foie de veau (calf's liver, $21.50), which begins to disintegrate in your mouth just when you think it won't. even the buttery vegetable cubes and broccoli-infused mashed potatoes found on most dishes added flavor to the mix.
clean plates were accompanied by clean tables-we had the balcony to ourselves by the time we dug into the crème brûlée ($7), one of the best i've ever had. its stained glass caramel crust covered the heavenly custard within, which, like the onion soup, left no trace of itself after being attacked by five spoons. only the charming rendition of "bon anniversaire" sung by our waitress remained, ringing in my ears.
even at the end of the night, annick, the seemingly tireless matron, engages each of us in conversation and bids us all adieu. oui madame, merci beaucoup.
102 w. 86th st., near columbus avenue
entrees: $18.50 to $35
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