Friday, October 26, 2007


GrasGuy is a fan of Anthony Bourdain. I've admitted it before, and will do so again. I've read the books, enjoyed the shows, but I'm ashamed to say I haven't eaten the food. So, after passing by Les Halles dozens of times on my way to one of the newer, hotter restaurants in the Park Avenue South/Madison Square neighborhood - many of which are already out of business while Les Halles soldiers on - I finally decided to drop in for a bite. It's the least I could do for the man who penned the most honest and reasoned defense of Foie Gras ever put to paper (or, more likely, to computer screen.)

If nothing else, Les Halles lives up to its name. Belying the Manhattan-standard postage stamp-sized sidewalk cafe out front, the capacious interior that confronts you upon entering hits like a tidal wave of open space. There's actually room to stride between the tables without ever having to say 'excuse me' as you bump into yet another handbag hanging off the back of a chair. Still, you can't help thinking they could probably squeeze in another 10 or 15 two-tops if they filled it to the brim like most restaurants in NYC. It smacks of a business with a very old, relatively cheap lease that will come up sooner or later and force them to sell out to a billion-dollar chain like Starbucks or UniQlo. Then again, Les Halles is itself a chainlette, with locations in Washington, DC and Miami, and as long as Tony's star power keeps driving celebrity-chef suckers like me to the restaurant, they can probably fend off the certain doom of Big Apple real estate for a few more years, at least.

OK, enough with the business analysis from someone owns nothing but a set of Henkels knives and an out-of-tune guitar that's been unused only slightly longer than the cutlery.

Bourdain often extols the virtues of straightforward, honest food, and his writing - when not off on some hyperbolic tangent about exploring deepest darkest wherever or in the midst of some passive aggressive assertion of what defines good cooking - follows this mantra as well. This fact was obvious as soon as I was led to my table and seated on a banquette upholstered with torn brown vinyl that was repaired with brown duct tape - clearly the product of a restaurant held together by System D, Bourdain's beloved catch-all term for the mysterious methods restaurants use to fix things without actually fixing them. Who even knew brown duct tape existed? Nevertheless, take one star off for ambiance, but award one happy face for ingenuity.

On the other hand, Les Halles' lunch menu flies in the face of the simplicity Bourdain often espouses, and would give Gordon Ramsay a true kitchen nightmare if he were confronted by it on his show of the same name. There are no less than 50 dishes listed, not counting the separate Brunch menu also available on weekends, but which any reader of Bourdain's would steer clear from if his warnings about the original fourth meal are to be believed. It's hard to imagine any chef turning out this many different plates with any consistency on a Saturday afternoon, but this is the home of Anthony Bourdain, a man who's never been on Iron Chef, nor really claims that his stuff is all that great, so there you go.

Of course, my first instinct was to order the Foie Gras Sauteed with Apple, Walnuts and Calvados Sauce and follow it up with a nice Cassoulet Toulousain, and be done with it. But as I began to put down the menu, my gaze was caught by the intriguingly-named Hamburger Rossini. Who is this Rossini? And how dare he serve a burger with Foie Gras Terrine Melting on Top and a Black Truffle and Red Wine Sauce on the side!

Damn, and I really was in the mood for Cassoulet, but for $19.50 I really had to find out.

Charting this new course, and imagining a thick slice of terrine the size of that bun McDonalds puts between the two burgers in a Big Mac, but made in house with creamy D'Artagnan Foie Gras, I backtracked on the appetizer and went with the Fresh Wild Mushrooms and Salsifis in Puff Pastry instead, fearing an afternoon Foie Gras overdose and feeling a need to continue my exploration of salsify at French brasseries. I'm glad that I did.

Besides being a surprisingly large plate for an appetizer, fitting of the surroundings, the pastry was perfectly done and the filling very flavorful in a home cooked kind of way. As the usually white salsify was as deep brown as the mushroom sauce, this had clearly been stewing for sometime, and the entire dish was infused with all of the underground goodness of it's ingredients. Delicate? No, but why should it be?

Unfortunately the Nicoise Salad my wife ordered wasn't nearly as successful. A nice dressing undone by some big, sloppy red leaf lettuce and an overambitous, oversized, and overcooked piece of tuna that wouldn't have seemed out of place in an Astoria diner. Thankfully, the Hamburger Rossini would.

No, my vision of the ultimately decadent Foie Gras-laden sandwich was not to be, the melted terrine in reality only a small schmear on top of the beef patty - but oh what a schmear. Offering just enough Foie Gras flavor to stand up and be noticed over the perfectly-cooked meat and truffled wine sauce, the Foie Gras makes this a burger to be reckoned with in a neighborhood known for it's burgers. No, Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, down the block in Madison Square Park, doesn't need to worry about the competition - they play to different audiences - but the latest Best Burger In New York at Resto, a Belgian Beer pub just around the corner, is easily bested by Rossini's creation, although, even in this town, $19.50 feels a little steep. Sadly for Bourdain, despite his incessant claim that Les Halles makes the finest Pommes Frites in the world, the Flemish Walloon crowd at Resto do a better job. There's nothing wrong with the frites at Les Halles, they're as good as any, just not the kind you find yourself daydreaming about weeks later. I'm thinking of Resto's right now.

If a restaurant is truly a reflection of it's chef, then it's obvious that Anthony Bourdain must be more than merely a titular executive toque at Les Halles. Like his writing, it's a little rough around the edges and a bit uneven, but entertaining overall. Yes, I'll return one day for that Foie Gras and Cassoulet, but I'll still pass on brunch.

I'm sure Tony will understand.

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