“Turning the clock back 100 years to conjure the essence of Parisian society, Belzebù serves a bedeviling menu of French and Italian cuisine,” said the press release about the restaurant that opened in December on the Upper East Side. Despite the intriguing prospect of a bedeviling meal “amid the models, artists and businessmen of today’s end-of-century cafe society” (as the release went on to say), I might never have gone to Belzebù at all had I not noticed its connection with Boom.
Belzebù is owned by Edoardo Sorrenti, a former fashion designer who was one of the original investors in the very trendy Boom restaurant in SoHo (and who also owns Boom Bistro in the Hamptons). Boom has probably changed since I last went there, so I won’t go into the details of my experience five years ago. Let’s just say that when I walked into Belzebù for the first time, I fully expected to be kept waiting at least an hour at the bar for my table.
The Belzebù bar is a short flight of steps down from the street, at the front of a long, narrow red-and-yellow dining room. On the night in question, a bartender was busy at work, though not pouring drinks or ringing up bills but polishing glasses. There was no sign of today’s end-of-century cafe society; in fact, apart from the staff, not a soul was to be seen, either on the barstools or, indeed, in the entire restaurant.
“It’s quite early yet,” I said after we had checked our coats and taken our pick of the tables. “It’s only 8:30-and after all, it is Monday.”
The maître d’, an attractive young man with a goatee and the impeccable English accent of a well-educated upper-class Frenchman, brought over the wine list, and we ordered a bottle of Sancerre rouge. Edith Piaf was belting out “Milord” and I suddenly felt like a schoolgirl again, sitting in a darkened room with some pimply youth, “quietly sweating palm to palm.”
Normally, eating in an empty restaurant is rather depressing, but there was something about Belzebù that felt quite uplifting. The décor and ambiance in the dining room are delightful. It is warm and cozy, with mustard-colored walls that look as though they have been there since the 40’s and booths with lipstick-red banquettes covered in gold stars. It is the sort of look that will only get better as it acquires a patina of use.
“It reminds me of a funky bar in Montmartre,” said my husband. “One of those wonderful old dives that is always empty, with some dark-haired woman of indeterminate age behind the bar.”
He turned to look at the picture on the wall behind him, which looked like a reproduction of a Tahitian scene by Paul Gauguin. “Look, brushstrokes,” he exclaimed after a second. “It’s actually a painting. How bizarre.”
Overhearing him, the maître d’, who was standing by our table, explained that the artist who had executed this and all the other works in the room (an impressive Impressionist collection that includes Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet and more), was Riccardo Sorrenti, the brother of the owner.
Piaf was now emoting away to the tinkling strains of “Le vieux piano.” Our friendly waiter, whose black wiglike hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses projected a look that was definitely more St. Mark’s Place than Upper East Side, brought over a basket of bread and the menus.
The restaurant has two chefs, French and Italian, and the food is pretty evenly divided between the two cuisines. We began with tender sautéed squid in a vivid red bell-pepper broth, and snails, served not in their shells but fricasseed with tomatoes and mushrooms and stuffed inside a crisp pastry feuilletage. A crabcake appetizer was moist and flaky, and a salad of young spinach leaves tossed in a sesame and ginger dressing and topped with wakame seaweed was delicious.
Piaf the blind girl was singing as a couple slipped into one of the booths and our main courses arrived. (” T’es beau, tu sais … “) Roast duck marinated in honey and spices consisted of perfectly cooked pink slices with spinach and a delicate poached pear. Rare loin of venison with cranberry sauce was fine, too, as was the linguine with seafood in a garlicky tomato sauce and the grilled sea bass with fennel and tomato. We finished up with a terrific crème brûlée, a crispy apple tart with ice cream and the (for me) inevitable rich, molten chocolate cake.
Although there was nothing particularly original about this food, it was good, and we left feeling that we had made a discovery. Another night, when I came back with a friend, the place was busier, and we were seated back by the kitchen, out of which wafted the tantalizing smell of white truffles. Again Piaf was singing (” Les amants merveilleux, l’ecstase dans leurs yeux … “), but, alas, this time our experience was not so happy.
We should have had the truffles, for the food was not as tasty as before, beginning with a flavorless gravlax and a bland stuffed eggplant, and moving on to a thin, overcooked, sesame-crusted tuna steak and a dry, underseasoned red snapper. As we toyed with our main courses, “Milord” came on again.
“They really go in for Edith Piaf here, don’t they?” said my friend, who was still recovering from a recent dinner party where the hostess had played a three-volume collection of the chanteuse. “By the end of the evening, I was ready to tear my hair out.”
As if on cue, the music changed. “YMCA!” came the pulsing sound of the Village People. And our desserts-a creamy coconut flan and a warm apple tart-were delicious.
“I really like this place,” said my friend, finishing the last morsel of apple tart.
I do, too. The only bedeviling thing about Belzebù is the inconsistency of the food. But arrive on the right night, and you can’t help having a great time.
115 East 60th Street, between Lexington and Park Avenues
Noise level: So far, so good
Wine list: Short and reasonably priced
Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club
Price range: Lunch main courses $10 to $17.50, dinner $15 to $24
Brunch: Saturday 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M.
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 3:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 12:30 A.M.
* *: Very good
* * *: Excellent
* * * *: Outstanding
No star: Poor