We could have been in Montmartre, circa 1950. The restaurant had exactly the right patina, from the pressed-tin ceiling to the yellow walls hung with faded mirrors, the brown leather banquettes and the small wooden tables. There were just two things wrong with the picture. Instead of wine, there were rows of Perrier bottles lined up along the wall. And no one was smoking.
In fact, this was Avenue B in the East Village, just down from Tompkins Square Park, which, although it seemed on the verge of gentrification a few years ago, now appears more or less as it always has: slightly seedy, yet languorous and inviting. The smallish restaurant was packed with good-looking people: beautiful young women in spaghetti-strap dresses, with kerchiefs over their hair, and men with day-old beards. (The trick is to shave just before you go to bed, not in the morning.)
Behind us, a birthday party was going full throttle at a long table. The birthday girl had a voice and laugh like Melanie Griffith on amphetamines; she wore something twisted around on her head that looked like a pair of white thong panties.
“More champagne!” she shrieked. “C’mon! Lift your glasses right now!”
“I need a drink,” said my husband. He called over the waitress. “Could you bring us the wine list?” He received the information that Casimir is awaiting its liquor license with the expression of a man upon hearing of the failure of his bank. But the waitress directed him to a liquor store nearby and he returned a few minutes later bearing a brown paper bag. “That was without question the most extraordinary liquor store I’ve ever seen,” he said, laughing. “All the wine was behind the counter, without prices, and the owner was a fat guy with a German shepherd who jumped up and snarled at me when I leaned over to try to get a glimpse of one of the labels.”
Still, Casimir is a find. Opened in February by Parisians Guillaume Blestel and chef Eric Lagrange, who formerly worked at Park Bistro and was chef and owner of Pigalle, it serves good food in a setting that seems no less authentically French than any of the places I was in last month in Paris. It belongs in a Jean-Pierre Melville movie: You expect to see the young Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg at the next table. The dining room is comfortable, if a bit noisy, and attractively lit (tiny lights are installed along the back of the banquettes like a row of pearls). And there is a garden in the back. Service is slow but friendly; besides, a more beautiful group of waitresses would be hard to find. And the food, by and large, recalls an era when most people didn’t care if what they were eating was high in cholesterol or low in calories, just that it was satisfying and tasted great. Boudin noir, duck confit, salade frisée au lardons, garlic sausage–there’s plenty of oil and fat, but nothing is greasy or overdone. And what’s more, with the exception of a $15 filet mignon and a $16 bouillabaisse, all the main courses cost $13.
The baguettes that are put on the table with fresh unsalted butter are first-rate. So are the salads, all at $7.50, made with very fresh ingredients and dressings containing a good, strongly flavored olive oil. They include arugula with roast garlic croutons and parmesan slivers, and a frisée salad tossed with lardons, croutons and melted brie. Small dishes (“paysan bites”) for $6.75 include thin slices of carpaccio with greens and parmesan, and salmon tartare with a sauce made from beets (chef Joseph Elorriaga makes free with the squeegee bottle for the sauces, decorating his plates in delicious dots and squiggles). You could make a meal from the garlic sausage, cooked with a crisp skin and served with a melting potato salad.
I can’t pass up pig’s feet when I see them on a menu (which I don’t often these days). At Casimir they are not served on the hoof but chopped up on a mound of potatoes mashed with celery root. They had a wonderful marrowy taste, gelatinous textures mixed with crispy bits. The steak frites was not only a bargain at $13, it had good beefy flavor, was well seasoned and served with hot, crisp fries.
One evening Matthew, a 10-year-old school friend of my son’s, joined us at Casimir for an early dinner. He is a true child of Grace Church School. “I always order duck breast,” he announced firmly as we sat down, and he was in luck. There was duck breast on the menu; it was cooked rare and served with open ravioli made with rutabaga on a large plate sprinkled with cinnamon. I asked him how he liked it. “Great,” he said, adding solemnly, “Duck breast is the tenderest part of the animal.”
The kitchen turns out good fish dishes, too. Cod arrived piled tower-high on mashed potatoes topped with fried leeks. On another occasion, a friend who was eating the bouillabaisse pronounced it even better than Balthazar’s. It was indeed delicious, with an intense broth, creamy mussels and croutons spread with garlicky rouille. The only dish that was not a success was the chicken pot pie, which had a watery filling under a soggy crust.
For dessert, there was a disappointing tarte Tatin, also made with a soggy crust, which was topped with overcooked apples. But the chocolate cake (pronounced “bliss” by my son as he demolished it) was rich and dark, and the peach melba went down in seconds.
When I called the restaurant a few days later I spoke to Mr. Blestel, and I was surprised to learn that it had been open for only six weeks. “I’m always amazed how New Yorkers immediately find the new places,” I said, remembering how packed with trendy people Casimir had been late on a Monday night. “How do they find out about it?”
There was an awkward pause. “I’m not sure quite how to say this,” he replied, “but if you lived downtown you would know that this area is very much happening.”
I live in SoHo, so what do I know?
103-105 Avenue B, between Sixth and Seventh Streets
Dress: Black, cotton headkerchiefs, day-old beards
Noise level: Can be high
Wine list: Liquor license pending
Credit cards: American Express
Price range: Main courses $13 to $16
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to midnight, Friday and
Saturday to 1 A.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor