It Looks a Bit Ordinary, But Pitchoune Is Great

Pitchoune, a French bistro on lower Third Avenue, doesn’t look like much. The plain décor-yellow walls, cherrywood bar, and small, cramped tables set with votive candles but no cloths-suggests just another neighborhood place. One evening recently, I arrived to find a friend of mine already ensconced on a banquette, drinking a glass of red wine. She had been reading Michael Arlen’s Green Hat , the 20’s novel set in London after the First World War. “What a line,” she said. “‘It is usual for one to expect one’s husband to be mean to one.'”

At that moment, one’s (in this case her) husband appeared, carrying a small bottle in a brown paper bag, like a wino. He took the bottle, which was not Thunderbird but Scotch, out of the bag and put it on the table with a flourish.

“Don’t you think you should keep the bottle in the bag?” my husband asked dryly.

My friend laughed and poured himself a drink. “They don’t have a license to serve hard liquor here,” he explained. “All they have is wine and I’m jet-lagged. I need a real drink.”

Although you might not guess from looking in at the window, the food at Pitchoune is wonderful. The chef, David McKenty, was formerly at Park Avenue Cafe, Kokachin and Leda, and his cooking is a combination of classical Provençal and contemporary French American. Traditional dishes, such as steak, sweetbreads and rabbit, are given new dimension, and the emphasis is on lighter preparations and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Pitchoune has one of those menus that makes you keep changing your mind about what to order because everything sounds so good.

One of Mr. McKenty’s signature dishes is his version of sweetbreads. They were cut into chunks, fried until crisp with toasted almonds and served with a thick onion marmalade and an arugula salad. The dish was not in the least cloying or heavy, but remarkable in its clever contrast of textures and tastes.

I can never resist fresh sardines when they are on a menu, and those at Pitchoune were exceptional, wrapped in vine leaves, grilled and served with fennel chutney and a caramelized honey red pepper. Mr. McKenty served snails on top of pissaladière, the traditional Niçoise onion and olive tart, which he made with red onions and chives on a flaky pastry shell. It was a terrific combination. His Provençal fish soup tasted like the real thing, too, with a good, garlicky rouille and croutons topped with Gruyère cheese. I also loved the charred, smoky tentacles of grilled pulpo with waxy baby potatoes, olives and basil in a roasted yellow tomato vinaigrette.

My friend’s husband squinted into the mirror on the wall, which dimly reflected the bar behind him. “That’s odd,” he said. “Have you noticed that the bar has no stools?”

Indeed, a couple of tables for two were squeezed in where the barstools should have been. We pondered this surreal image for a while until our waitress told us that the bar had been built in anticipation of a liquor license. (Someone here clearly has more faith in state agencies than I do.) Once they get the full license-and they are hoping it will be within a couple of weeks-they are going to open an oyster bar and will also serve French-style tapas with cocktails.

Mr. McKenty prepares skate fish not in the familiar (but admittedly wonderful) artery-clogging bistro style, with black butter and capers, but in a much healthier version that isn’t in the least dull, with artichokes, oven-dried tomatoes and barigoule vinaigrette. A pristine piece of cod was enlivened by a vinaigrette seasoned with five spices and mashed potatoes mixed with black olives. Grilled chicken was good too, given a Provençal touch with lavender and served with a ragout of cèpes and spinach and a subtle sauce made with mustard and Sauternes. Avoid the rabbit if you don’t like garlic (I do); whole cloves were in the sauce with wild mushrooms, perfect for mashing into the polenta. Rabbit can be dry, but the braised loin was juicy and the leg made into confit. There was nothing wrong with the grilled skirt steak, either, with chive-mashed potatoes, roasted shiitakes and a juniper sauce that brought out the taste of the meat.

The only dish that didn’t get my unqualified enthusiasm was the sea scallops, albeit prettily presented with white truffle and sage gnocchi on endive leaves arranged like points of a star. They had been coated with toasted coriander seeds, which were rather gritty.

Pastry chef Richard Chirrol’s desserts are not only beautiful to look at, they are delicious. Molten chocolate cake (what self-respecting French restaurant would be without it these days?) is wonderful, dark, oozing and rich. Vanilla strawberry custard was creamy under its sugar crust, with orange madeleines on the side. A poached pear with pear ice cream looked like a creation out of Green Hat under its fabulous veil of spun sugar, as did the apple tart of the day, topped with a golden halo.

One thing that surprised me about Pitchoune (which, incidentally, means, like the French word benjamin , the smallest child in the family) was how different the service was from one evening to another. On my first visit, every table was taken and people were waiting. But the service was friendly and fast, and two of us didn’t mind switching tables when a party of four arrived. On my second visit, it was a slow night, but perversely, the food seemed to take forever. Our waitress seemed irritated when after we had waited for an hour, we asked her what had happened.

But it was worth the wait. “If you were served this meal in four-star surroundings, everything would be great,” said my friend as she finished the last scrap of a sublime pear ice cream. Do we need those surroundings? The other night, I had a simple dinner with the cheapest bottle of wine on the list in a fancy midtown restaurant. It cost more than $200. At Pitchoune, four of us ate every bit as well for just under that price.

Pitchoune **

226 Third Avenue, at 19th Street 614-8641

DRESS : Casual

NOISE LEVEL : Fine

WINE LIST : Reasonable, with good selections from southern France

CREDIT CARDS : Mastercard, Visa

PRICE RANGE : Dinner main courses $12 to $17

DINNER : Daily 6 P.M. to 11:30 P.M.

BRUNCH : Sunday 11:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.

* good

** very good

*** excellent

**** outstanding

no star poor