The Upper West Side's Left Bank
What if one of the most stylish restaurants in Paris were an elaborate simulacrum of a generically American eatery?
Maybe a Left Bank approximation of a Memphis barbecue place, complete with pulled pork sandwiches and Dixie beer on tap. Also plywood-paneled walls cluttered with phony VFW banners, George Wallace posters, Vols pennants, scuffed-up license plates, photographs salvaged from estate auctions of possum-country sheriffs, crewcutted local high school hoops stars, beauty pageant queens, rib-gobbling chubby guys pushing back at eating contests and touring bluesmen. Also a soundtrack comprising nothing but jump-blues and floral-bosomed gospel belters. And also the French waitstaff's smeared with blackface, wears padding underneath its Sonia Rykiel-designed barbecue-waiters' smocks in approximation of middle-American heft and hangs out by the bar, smoking Kools and trying to get their French mouths around their imitative waitstaff spiels, practicing their down-home shuffles and American dialects in insulting mimicry of the imperious old men at that great Memphis barbecue institution the Rendezvous?Nawwww suh, in Memphus, we eats ah poke drah, wif the sauce on'a sahd... An American would smirk at the place.
The French don't tend to perpetrate such cultural misdemeanors (for objectionableness on that level you'd have to visit Eastern Europe). But Americans certainly do. And what's a restaurant like Balthazar but a real-life analogy to that theoretical Memphis-Parisian barbecue place? I love Balthazar?but I'm an American, and a vulgar one. I'd love to hear what a smart French person had to say about Balthazar; love to see how he responded to that wonderfully luxurious piece of fin-de-siecle Parisian bistro/brasserie trompe l'oeil that dominates the corner of Crosby and Spring Sts., so exhilaratingly complete in its baffling of reality that even the paint looks as if it's been smoke-stained from a million cigarettes over the course of God knows how many governments. (It's as if they passed a blowtorch over every inch of the paint job, in the same way a food designer chars the top of a creme brulee.)
Up here in Morningside Heights, where I've got occasion to visit once in a while, I'm sitting in a newish restaurant called Le Monde?its owned by the same people who run downtown's good, cheap French Roast eateries, as well as L'Express?and orienting myself. Le Monde's a sub-Balthazarian restaurant. It's an imitation of an imitation, and one the conception of which hasn't been informed by Keith McNally's bankroll. There's a huge brasserie-style dining room; a pastry counter in the middle of the room and a bit off to your right when you walk through the door; a high ceiling; burgundy banquettes; vast expanses of square footage, with fin-de-siecle appointments, like French advertising placards, framed and tacked up on the walls.
We're way uptown here, in a neighborhood that caters to college students and corporate beginners. Anna Wintour's got nothing to do with this. And so Le Monde's gone halfway when it comes to the pastiche glamour. The floor's brown contemporary tile, and the sweet college-girl waitresses are as yet unacquainted with the seamless professionalism of a Parisian waitress (or for that matter of a waiter or waitress at Balthazar). Ours, for example, cheerfully lays the dessert card on us right after the busboy's cleared our appetizer plates. A copy of a copy.
Meanwhile, our dinner there was an expression of midweek, late-summer lassitude. Man?this surreal gray season called September that's neither here nor there, but that's suspended between life and death. The trees in Riverside Park bow over the paths with a tremendous weariness, as if they're looking to get on with it already?they just want to pass. So a restaurant with a halfway-worked-through identity (even the name's vague) in a neighborhood north of 110th St. that neither has yet been thoroughly colonized by moneyed refugees from the south, nor remains quite the fun, gross student slum and old smoke's shot-and-a-beer paradise that it was 10 years ago. A fine, large dark-wooded bar on the far side of the vast room; a darkling plain of tables lit by votive candles so that you're looking into indigo distances speckled with flames that gutter from the wet, rain-scented air drifting in through the thrown-open front doors. Since the place is so spacious, people are always moving across it. Humans passing through time: There's the romantic, forlorn atmosphere of Grand Central Station at the straggling end of a wet, autumn day. Rooms branch off in dark directions from the corners back here where we're sitting?holding, I guess, secret banquettes and places where things would happen, if in fact this were the sort of place in which hopeless assignations, minor tragedies, things in general, happened, instead of a serviceable restaurant for college kids and their visiting parents. Elements from the Parisian bistro pastiche decor insinuate themselves through this rosy-dark murk: French signs for tonics and juices, half-seen on walls on the other side of the room; the glass pastry counter aglow like a cruise liner against a black sea; framed covers of old French newspapers...
The food's not bad for the prices they're charging: student-neighborhood prices here, with all of the entrees under 20 dollars, and many in the low-to-mid teens. We eat an underflavored, though huge, piece of beef slathered in a pepper sauce the color of liver and more creamy than peppery. Three silly molded mashed-potato bulbs accompany the steak?three oblong, more-or-less football-shaped sculptures in starch. A starter steak, for a starter neighborhood in which freshmen squire girls for their first dinners out. Our six escargot in parsley butter?an appetizer?were baked to the point where the tiny shards of parsley that turned the melted butter a deep green, like a river-water green, had browned?caramelized?around the edges of the six concave snail cups the escargot were served in. The snails themselves were shrunken and desiccated from the heat, and tasted less like fresh seafood than like a bar snack, like popcorn shrimp?bits of protein comprehensible only as vehicles to which garlic and salt can adhere.
A potato-and-goat-cheese cake was more reasonable. It consisted of chunks of potato, each about the size of your thumbnail and stuck together to form a squat cylinder a little bigger than a hockey puck, and topped with a layer of white cheese with the consistency of that half-dried paint you find on the underside of a paint-can lid. But the cheese crumbled into appealing, moist crumbs at the fork's pressure, and it tasted fine: its creaminess buffered the potatoes' faint vinegar flavor.
Our cod entree was lousy with chives, just as that little cake was. But that was fine, because a chunk of cod's generally an elemental, fulsomely alabaster hunk of protein?so wide-grained that looking at it can turn you off?and it needs a little estheticizing, a bit of prettying up around the edges, before you want to eat it. All stringy and vast, this chunk of cod sat atop a mound of olive mashed potatoes that could have used some of those snails' garlic?or maybe more salted butter. There was just too much heavy, white, underflavored food on that plate, despite the inconclusive puddle of tomato coulis that surrounded the potatoes.
Like other restaurants in places that exist to one extent or another out of the flow of New York sophistication?and the Upper West Side is one of those places?Le Monde relies a bit on gimmicks. There is, for example, a long list naming the sorts of foreign beers served in goblets. Midlevel restaurants spring beer lists like this one on you when they want to distract you, soften you up some?after all, it's easier to create a beer list than a really good cod dish. There's also a nice, large wine list with a whole bunch of bottles in the mid 20s and low 30s.
And the whole retro-bistro thing is a gimmick, too. It's a facade that shows its seams. Eating at Le Monde is like seeing the sweat on a stage actor's brow; there isn't the sophistication, the money, the perfection, to make the ambience unforced and seamless. Actually, I'm surprised they bothered with the frippery, given that the same ownership's French Roast restaurants are such straightahead models of quality at their price level.
But I'm still glad Le Monde is there. It's possible that it's the best restaurant on the upper end of the Upper West Side (excepting of course the Terrace, which you don't just walk into). That's a respectable, useful thing to be, and no one should think anything different.
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Summer in the City