Cozy French Cuisine off Madison Avenue

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Table d'Hôte is your standard neighborhood spot-if your neighborhood spoke French One of the great joys of city life is the neighborhood restaurant. They're friendly, comfortable, conveniently located-usually on a quiet side street-and the food is good but not complicated, skillful but not demanding. They're the kind of place you can return to several times in a week without feeling like a foie gras goose, overstuffed and greasy. New Yorkers know these spots well. We tend to forget, though, in that special worldview that reduces much of the rest of the world to "OK to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there," that we're not the only ones. In Barcelona, every few blocks has its own cafe for seafood a la plancha. Seattle has more retro-styled locavore comfort food than you can shake a stick at. And Paris has a bistro on every corner with a prix fixe menu that starts with pâté de campagne and ends with crême carame. Ex-pats can spend a lifetime bemoaning their loss, seeking out every Spanish restaurant in L.A. only to find not one of them can make pan con tomate properly. For those French in New York performing that desperate search, there is light on East 92nd Street. On a quiet corner, with a barely existent awning and an unassuming entrance, is Table d'Hôte (44 E. 92nd St., betw. Park & Madison Aves.,, a neighborhood restaurant that manages to be both local spot and Parisian vacation. Stepping through the glass-fronted door is like taking a trip straight to the 13th Arrondissement, faster than the Concorde and not nearly as pricey. There has been a restaurant in this location for some 30 years; when chef-owner William Knapp bought it from the original owners last year, he knew he had to keep much the same so as not to alienate those who had grown reliant on their own neighborhood spot. But while the chairs and chalkboards are the same, the approach is brand-new. Knapp's CIA training and years in the belly of New York's fine dining beast, including time served under Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern and then Craft, have given him a mastery of traditional techniques and preparations as well as an easy hand with seasonality and creative interpretation based on what's available this minute. Impossibly crispy-skinned salmon with gently cooked, still red flesh comes with new green peas and their shoots today; in two months, it will almost certainly have a dog days of summer accompaniment. The short menu is stacked with comfortable (not comfort food-an important distinction) dishes that would be at home on any residential rue-a substantial, meltingly tender leg of duck confit, steamed mussels with saffron and the aforementioned pâté de campagne.American touches like the crab cake with cucumber salad remind you not to break out your high school language skills with the waitress, but even that could be found in some of the cooler quartiers (have you heard Brooklyn is the next big trend in Paris?). According to Knapp, he's forbidden from swapping many of these off the menu in favor of new ideas; customers, as one does at one's neighborhood spot, become set in their "usual" and have staged uprisings when a beloved Sunday night meal goes missing. So he makes the most of the daily specials, recently offering refreshingly light salmon rillettes as a counterpoint to the more autumnal pâté. Desserts move up the sophistication ladder a rung or two-the chocolate tart is spiked with a smoky Earl Grey tea essence and the hazelnut brittle that accompanies the mocha semifreddo is shockingly blond, spiked with macadamia nuts that amplify the buttery toffee; the candy is somehow both lighter and more decadent than crunchier, more caramel-colored renditions. Acknowledging his own limitations, Knapp wisely recruited Elishia Richards, former executive pastry chef at Esca, to design a short but versatile dessert menu to mirror his approach to the mains. They end the meal on a high note that doesn't overwhelm or leave you waddling out the door. Working with a kitchen barely big enough for two and the practical concerns of taking over an established restaurant ("I was going to put in banquettes, make it look a little more modern," he said, "but the chairs that were here are perfectly good-why waste the money?"), Knapp has made his Table d'Hôte the sort of instant classic Parisians demand and New Yorkers didn't know they could have.

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