La Lunchonette: Friendly, But No Counter Service

When Paul Bocuse visited New York several years ago, he went to breakfast at Bigelow Pharmacy in the Village. The kid who manned the store’s luncheonette slid a mug of coffee across the counter and asked Mr. Bocuse how he wanted his eggs.

“As the chef desires,” replied Mr. Bocuse.

Mr. Bocuse would perhaps have been more at home at La Lunchonette, which opened on Essex Street on the Lower East Side around the time Bigelow’s counter closed. Here the fellow slapping the food onto the plates was not a young Puerto Rican but a burly Frenchman who was at times as irascible as Mr. Bocuse himself. Instead of eggs “over easy,” he was cooking up cervelles au beurre noir, steak au poivre and foie de veau Lyonnaise. The place was crowded, chaotic and noisy, filled with artists and dealers, but it was fun and the food, if a little erratic at times, was good. Before long, however, La Lunchonette had disappeared from the neighborhood, along with half the art galleries. The other night, I rediscovered it in the center of the new art scene: Chelsea.

La Lunchonette is in a long, low yellow building dating from the mid-19th century on the corner of 10th Avenue and West 18th Street. From the outside, it looks like an old mafia club in Little Italy (perhaps because of the plaster statue of a Madonna in the window by the entrance). The restaurant consists of two dining rooms–separated by an open kitchen–one with a linoleum floor, the other with cracked, worn mosaic tile. It is dark, funky and romantic. The walls are open-brick or painted a deep red, the windows hung with nice bourgeois lace curtains, and paper cloths are rolled out onto the tables, which are lit with red candles in the evening. A huge display of blossoming mountain laurel stands on the long wooden bar (there is no lunch counter) next to a pile of guides to the galleries in the neighborhood. It is a cosy, friendly place, whether you go very late (as I did one night after the theater) or for lunch on a weekday when it is not crowded. The chef and owner of La Lunchonette is Jean-François Fraysse, a former actor and theater director from Carennac, in southwestern France (which explains the many wines on the list from the region, including one of my favorites, Cahors). For dinner, we began with two typical bistro dishes, warm goat cheese in a light puff pastry on a bed of greens and braised leeks on a lentil salad. This was followed by skate with capers, and juicy, slightly spicy grilled lamb sausages with sautéed apples. It all went down very well with a bottle of Brouilly that was brought chilled, just as we wanted it.

A few days later, I came with my son Alexander and his friend Ian for lunch after their fifth-grade graduation (after lunch they were heading not for art galleries, but for a bowling party at Chelsea Piers). As soon as we sat down, the children took out pencils and began drawing monsters on the paper tablecloth. Melva Max, co-owner and wife of the chef, brought over menus and bread and perched a blackboard chalked with the dishes of the day on a nearby chair. I read them out. “Cervelles au beurre noir. That’s brains.”

“Brains!” Ian’s father is a brain surgeon. “Are you going to eat them?”

“My mom eats anything,” said Alexander.

“Do you know when my mom was growing up in Montreal, her mother made her eat cow tongue!” said Ian.

“They also have sweetbreads, which come from the cow’s neck,” I added. (A few months ago, at the Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen in Amsterdam, I asked the waiter if there was any dish on their hideously overwrought menu that a child might like, and he had suggested sweetbreads. “I suppose he thought they were sweet,” commented my mother afterward.)

“Why don’t you order the brains?” said Ian to Alexander.

“I think I’ll have the linguine with pesto,” he replied, “but I want someone here to get the brains.”

“I’ll get them,” I said.

For our first course, we ordered asparagus, which came in a creamy vinaigrette dressing; a rich, deep, well-flavored lobster bisque; a fine beet salad with greens; and a delicious terrine de foie gras made with creamy chunks of duck liver and served with toasted peasant bread. As we waited for our main courses to arrive, the children continued to draw, inventing complicated board games with rules that changed as you went along.

My plate of brains arrived tossed in black butter and sprinkled with capers. The son of the brain surgeon was appalled. “Those brains are cooked!”

They were indeed, but unfortunately they were underseasoned. So was the linguine with pesto, which was rather tasteless. But the chicken salad my husband had ordered was very good, served warm with greens. The steak au poivre and the steak Bordelaise were both perfect, full of flavor and served with creamy gratinée potatoes.

“Ew! My steak has silver inside it,” said Ian, looking at the meat, which glistened in a rather silver way in the sunlight streaming through the window onto his plate.

“Every cow has a silver lining,” said my husband.

“Dad, don’t laugh at your own jokes,” said Alexander.

For dessert there was blood orange sorbet, a large profiterole filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce, crème caramel, a dense fudgy chocolate cake and a wonderful caramelized tarte Tatin, all of which were demolished.

When La Lunchonette first opened 10 years ago, their local customers were not artists but truckers. They must have been every bit as surprised by what arrived on their plates as Mr. Bocuse was when he had breakfast at Bigelow.

La Lunchonette

1 1/2 stars

130 10th Avenue (entrance on 18th Street)

675-0342

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Short, French and reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Lunch main courses $9.50 to $17.50, dinner $11.50 to $21.50

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.

Lunch: Daily noon to 3:30 P.M.

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

1 star: Good

2 stars: Very good

3 stars: Excellent

4 stars: Outstanding

No star: Poor