Though they play at seriousness, restaurants are just as vulnerable to irrational trends as fashion is. Remember the Belgian pommes frites craze? Towering food? Churrascaria? Reassuringly overpriced comfort food? Communal dining tables?
By no means am I saying I haven't been prey to the same follies. I was right there with the rest of New York, pointing to a huge stack of broiled meat on a spear at Riodizio on Lafayette while trying to pronounce "caipiriña." But there are some things you don't realize are a trend until they're gone, like knee-length skirts. Such is the case with French bistros. One day you wake up and Le Zinc has vamoosed, La Jumelle est disparu, Balthazar and Pastis are overrun with tourists, and Anthony Bourdain has definitely left the Les Halles building.
At least there's a little neighborhood French bistro, Le Petit Marché, in Brooklyn Heights, if not in Manhattan. And when better to try it than Brooklyn Restaurant Week, which runs now through March 30th?
Aside from a long aluminum ventilation tube running down the middle of the room, Le Petit Marché is a good-looking place with all the trappings of a turn-of-the-20th-century bistro. The barstools are appropriately clad in oxblood leather, the tin on the ceiling may even possibly be original to the brownstone building, and the ornate flower arrangement on the bar reaches dizzying Daniel-esque heights.
The cocktail menu was reassuringly French. My Brooklyn friend and I tried an excellent, not-too-sweet kir royale, which Le Petit Marché garnishes with raspberries, and an intriguing fizzy Lillet, which was a mix of champagne and the famous French apertif. We eyed the elaborate flower arrangement. My Brooklyn friend recounted a dinner party thrown by her ex-pat friend, now enviably stationed in Paris, at which all the Parisian guests arrived with flowers, not in the deli wrapping that's the norm in New York, but in oddly neat little bundles, completely pruned of all thorns and leaves. "The French are really anal about flowers," the ex-pat explained.
The appetizers arrived. I can hardly ever find a good pork country paté in this post-bistro era. (Alas, Le Zinc's was my favorite.) Le Petit Marché's was the real thing, presented with two types of mustard, a handful of greens, toast, and cornichons. It could have used some more oomph, but the pistachios embedded in the meat were a creative country touch.
The chef's name is Robert Weiner, more Brooklyn than French, but we'll give him a break. After all, he studied under Christian Delouvrier at the grand old Maurice at Le Parker Meridien.
What stood out with the duck confit salad and all the meats and seafoods was freshness. Even in a confit state, the duck didn't taste at all gamey, but pure and meaty. This was a welcome relief. As the crowds and chef talent have slowly retreated from Manhattan bistros, the quality of the ingredients has gone down, so that I've started to approach certain menu items with a distinct feeling of trepidation. You can dive fearlessly into the menu at Le Petit Marché.
One thing that seemed quintessentially French was Weiner's skill with lentils and beans. The smoky, earthy, garlicky lentils, finished with a slight tang of vinegar or citrus, nearly stole the show from the duck they accompanied. Equally as rich as the lamb shank entree, pictured here, was the accompanying white bean ragout, which was overlaid with flavors of tomato, herbs, and shallot. Like the duck, the lamb was not gamey but tender to the point of falling off the bone.
I hesitated before digging into the escargots, and not just because they were piping hot. Would these be the canned sort that plagued inferior bistros? Those hard little lumps that serve only as a carrier for butter and garlic? Mais non! These escargots were fresh and plump, broiled just to the point of doneness and not a second more. The sauce was predictably buttery and garlicky. The moules frites too were just what they were supposed to be, cooked perfectly, bathed in a white wine sauce and speckled with flecks of garlic.
For dessert we tried the tarte tatin. This was the traditional French dessert, but with an edge: the soft chunks of apple, served with creamy cinnamon ice cream, were caramelized nearly to the point of burntness. The dish pushed the envelope but stayed firmly in French territory.
Which was exactly what I wanted. When a French bistro opened in Manhattan about a year and a half ago, it sent me into a rage. Why? Because they have buffalo wings on the menu. Ce n'est pas français! My only hope for finding authentic French bistro fare in a new setting had been dashed. It was the kind of frustration you feel when searching endlessly for the most basic item of clothing, like a black turtleneck sweater, only to find that it's no longer sold by any store, because it's only a basic.
When you tire of the latest trends, head to Le Petit Marché, where authenticity is always in stock.
Le Petit Marché
46 Henry Street, between Cranberry and Middagh Streets
For borough-phobes. How to get there: Get in a cab and say: Henry and Cranberry Streets in Brooklyn Heights - it's spitting distance from the Brooklyn Bridge. Or take the A/C to High Street or the 2/3 to Clark Street.