Napoleon Complex: Why New York doesn't speak affordable French.
I’ve done the math. Cheap French could be done just as easily, and just as well—and it could succeed on the same level in Manhattan—as cheap Italian. All a restaurateur has to do is choose a light, Southern style to specialize in and employ a great sommelier. Extremely fresh seafood, first-rate herbs, organic vegetables and even local goat cheeses are all readily available here, and thanks to Manhattan’s abundant supply of stellar line cooks, the chef needn’t be an artist. You could pull off a little Mediterranean bistro menu with classic bistro prices.
There’s only one likely explanation as to why it isn’t done, and it’s disturbing: people wouldn’t go. New Yorkers are dopey about French cuisine, expressing with their dining habits an anxiety over sophistication that comes off, ironically, nothing short of provincial. The expectation seems to be that a French dinner should be pricey and more-or-less over one’s head. Excepting the top tier, Manhattan French restaurants seem to live and die by how well they live up to that expectation. In other words, craft and value are minuses.
Exhibit A for this argument could be Aix, a newish Provençal place on the Upper West Side. It’s doing great. When I walked in one recent weeknight, with a party of four and no reservation, the hostess looked at me like I’d mentioned the war. She got over it, though, and the wait turned out to be brief. Normal expectations—why would it be necessary to call for a table at Broadway and 88th St.?—had exposed a house secret.
Most of Aix’s entrees are above $25, and appetizers are $9 and up. That puts it in a price category just under Montrachet; dinner at Aix is more expensive than lunch at Chanterelle. Those are places where dining is an experience. Aix, on the other hand, feels like any other Upper West Side restaurant: the kind of room in which a whole lot of upper-middle-class professionals can relax and have a good time they won’t specifically remember. It’s an atmosphere perfect for Rosa Mexicano, where the guy makes guacamole from scratch at your table. Aix gets away with it because it’s crowd-pleasing too, in a perverse way.
We started with pistou. That’s what pesto is called in Nice. Aix’s menu describes it as "vegetable soup with sardine tartar," yet the dish is a bowl of pesto. Tremendously tasty pesto, in fact. It’s good enough to enjoy plain, and it’d complement about a thousand other foods. You wouldn’t think raw sardines would be among them, and you’d be right. But plenty of those were in Aix’s pistou. Raw sardines are fantastic—to eat them is to know how it would feel to devour immortal Poseidon’s very eyeballs. Of course that’s too strong for pesto. Our soup’s flavors competed so fiercely, it came off like some sort of evasive action to confuse the enemy. (Not to bring up the war.)
Crabmeat cannelloni in chili broth, with clams and celery root, also would have been better as a modest soup. Its red sauce tasted of peppers and thyme, and the crabmeat was as sweet and luscious as one could ask for. The noodle it was rolled into was more of a papery crepe. It must have been a presentation thing, or maybe an excuse to use an Italian code name.
A tomato tart with "green basil (specified, apparently, in deference to customers anticipating the purple Thai kind), parmesan coulis, yellow tomato sauce and green olives" turned out to be an open-faced vegetable sandwich on a puffed pastry. The latter was beyond buttery and of perfect texture. The tomatoes were unseasonably potent. But the pair didn’t blend and the rest was garnish.
Shrimp with basil brochette is Aix’s best appetizer. The never-been-frozen jumbos were herb-coated and almost blackened. With this dish, the restaurant’s needlessly supercilious routine plays out safely on the side, in the form of saffron mustard dressing on a radicchio and zucchini salad.
Aix does have the sort of up-and-coming sommelier a casual New York French restaurant should want to employ. He looks very young, but seems the type to work extra hard to make up for that. His list is well-balanced, and his recommendations (including a glass of full-bodied Cote du Luberon, and, from the bottle list, a soft red from Languedoc, Domaine Rimbert, that satisfied our party’s divergent tastes) proved perceptive. He takes his time and wears nice suits. The rest of Aix’s staff busts its collective hump in red smocks.
Our entrees kept pace with the disappointing starters. To be fair, I should stress that the quality of raw materials Aix is working with is rare in any American city. And there’s no obvious shortage of skill in the restaurant’s kitchen. The problem as I see it is that the chef is deliberately perpetrating a charade. That Upper West Siders are happy to play along doesn’t detract from the dishonesty.
Take the chicken, for example. It’s baked with star anise and a touch of honey. The flavoring isn’t subtle at all—every bite of meat tastes of herbal licorice. The chicken’s skin is golden and sticky. What comes on the side is also assertively earthy: a medley of sauteed mushrooms with artichoke and potato. This is all how it should be. It’s what you call a bistro plate. So how does it get to be $24?
Pork loin was a superb cut diminished by a caramel ginger sauce. Though the tender meat was edible, its flavoring was intrusive to the point of wackiness. This is the kind of thing the market demands: pork roasted with Chinese candy. It meets uniformed diners’ qualifications for nouvelle cuisine.
A daurade filet in olive oil was another fine Mediterranean bistro plate, black truffles and all. It came with some tomato gnocchi and cost $28.
Savory roasted lamb was marred by overkill, but not as much as the pork. This time the exquisite meat was left alone. The showpiece was a giant ravioli filled with braised, minced shank meat. Pointless.
A dessert Aix calls provençal salad was the most impressive dish we tried, if only because it exceeded the sum of its ingredients. Its slices of sweet heirloom tomato with honeydew and some candied celery (think sour-patch veggie), served with a scoop of fresh mint sorbet. These combined to elicit a single, unique sensation. I don’t know how provençal it was, but the "salad" conveyed the sort of rustic technology it makes sense to expect from the region.
All of Aix’s appetizers are available in the restaurant’s front bar, which is a busy after-work spot. There are also a couple of entrees that are served only in the bar, among them Aix’s cheeseburger. I never tasted it, but I can say it looked better and better as the night wore on.
Aix, 2398 Broadway (at 88th St.), 212-874-7400.
Model International Restaurant is a Haitian family joint near Brooklyn College. It draws a mixture of students and Flatbush locals, both of whom seem a bit more inclined to order grilled takeout chicken than to sit down. Top Grill Chicken is the name of the takeout operation—it has its own menu.
Model proper is white-tiled, bright and mirrored, with plastic tablecloths and pop radio playing loud. It’s my experience that many of the best meals in the boroughs are to be had in such tacky, no-frills settings.
We started with acra, which are deep-fried root-vegetable fritters. They tasted like fryer oil. A vegetable plate with creamed spinach and plantains was also sorely lacking. The best thing on the platter was a gargantuan portion of bland, so-called creole rice and beans.
Grillot—nuggets of fried pork—arrived absolutely desiccated. If it’s supposed to be that dry, grillot must take some getting used to. Poisson Gros Sel, billed as fish Model’s style, was better. It was a whole red snapper, steamed and bathed in what the waiter called a white sauce. That turned out to be a lemon/butter deal, only with cloves and some habańero pepper. It held my attention, even though the fish had a tinge of fishy odor, which fresh snapper doesn’t.
You can’t find great neighborhood restaurants without taking bum trips now and again. It’s the part of the process you don’t usually hear about—riding all the way out to the end of a subway line, friends in tow, to try a restaurant that wouldn’t be worth a visit if it were within walking distance.
Before we’d wasted too much appetite at Model, one of my companions abruptly stopped eating and announced his intention to lead us 20 more blocks, this time into Midwood, where we could get pizza at DiFara’s. That place is a true, deep-Brooklyn gem, over-discovered as it is. Eating out isn’t like horseback riding, though. You should never risk more than one spill per day. So to Midwood we trudged. If you know where to get good Haitian, please clue me in.
Model International Restaurant, 2925 Ave. H (betw. Nostrand Ave. & Hillel Pl.), Brooklyn, 718-859-8817.
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