It was still snowing lightly as I tramped along Houston Street, and it felt right to be going to a bistro. Earlier in the day, as we looked out at the storm, some friends had told me that Swiss fondue was back in fashion–just the ticket after a day on the slopes. But what I really craved, as I navigated the slush to Demarchelier Downtown, was an old-fashioned dish with more staying power than cheese melted over sterno, something like a classic boeuf bourguignon.
I was in luck. Boeuf bourguignon is Tuesday’s plat du jour at this bustling bistro-brasserie which opened recently on the northern tip of SoHo. It wasn’t long before I was tucking into a plate of Burgundian beef stew, accompanied by a glass of Médoc. With half a dozen oysters to start and apple tarte Tatin to end, doesn’t that sound like a nice dinner on a cold winter night?
It was. The boeuf bourguignon was dark and velvety, the meat tender enough to eat with a fork. The name of the dish conjures up not just bacon, red wine and onions, but also “large muscular housewives with broad red faces and cunning little eyes, excellent cooks, with placid temperaments and a subtle humor,” wrote Nicholas Freeling in The Cookbook . Despite its wan title, it is one of my favorite memoirs about food (in addition to writing his famous detective stories, Freeling was a professional cook): “Most of Renoir’s models, including his wife and a long line of famous servants ‘whose skin took the light well’ and were forever scrubbing the floor with no clothes on when not eating stew, were Burgundian, and the stew is just like them; marvelously tender, honest, beautiful, innocently sensualist.”
When Demarchelier serves a straightforward dish like this, the kitchen is on the right track. Not so, however when it tries to be trendy. When, for example, it takes a perfectly innocent tuna tartare on a giddy detour to Hawaii via Beirut, piling it on a slice of pineapple topped with tabbouleh. All you could taste was pineapple. The food here is best when at its simplest and most French, although dishes are often underseasoned.
The restaurant’s Houston Street neighborhood offers some pretty stiff competition when it comes to brasseries and bistros, with Balthazar, Raoul’s and Jean-Claude just a few blocks away. Eric and Jean-Christophe Demarchelier, the father-and-son team who have another eponymous restaurant on East 86th Street, and used to own Jean Lafitte and Le Select, have taken over the premises occupied by E.&O. and Harmony on the corner of Houston and Thompson streets.
Demarchelier Downtown is not an intimate neighborhood spot; it’s a fairly large space with a long bar that offers promise as a late-night scene. The big square room is comfortable and attractive, with huge mirrors tossing reflections of lipstick-red banquettes, soft globe lighting, potted palms, wine racks and tables set with white paper over linen cloths. Being a brasserie, the place is of course open for breakfast at 8 A.M. and goes all day through 1 A.M., when it would be a good time to drop in for something simple like their bowl of garlicky steamed mussels for $12.50 or the steak tartare for $14.50, both served with frites . (If you just want a drink, the downstairs lounge, open until 4 A.M., has a more contemporary look, with black leather couches.)
The wine list is almost entirely French, predictable, and moderately priced. It offers a good selection of the sort of reds that go well both with a hearty beef stew and with fish, such as the Larose-Trintaudon, a Médoc, which was a good buy at $32. For the same price, a bottle of chilled chablis is the perfect accompaniment for a plateau de fruits de mers ($19.50 per person which includes oysters, cockles, shrimp). We ordered half a dozen Wellfeets that were so briny and fresh, we ordered another round. There was also lobster served grilled, à l’armoricaine, or cold with mayonnaise, and one of my favorite winter dishes, codfish brandade, was smooth and satisfying (but fairly salty, so it was odd that the small green salad it came with was so heavily salted, too).
Herring (from Normandy, our waiter told us)–firm, plump fillets with a strong, assertive taste–had been pickled with carrots in olive oil and came served with a creamy potato salad that cut the oiliness. A good lighter dish to start with was the salade bergère, made with crumbled goat cheese and leaves of young spinach topped with thin rounds of green apple: simple and no-nonsense. The bread rolls, served with excellent unsalted butter, are like mini-baguettes with thick crusts and pointy ends. We had to ask the busboy not to bring round the basket anymore because they were so good.
The soupe de poisson , which arrived tepid, proved to be a rich and fragrant broth with a heady aroma (once it was reheated), served with a garlicky rouille and croutons, another perfect dish for a cold night.
The menu is heavy on fish and seafood, and surprisingly for a brasserie (or bistro), it offers only two steaks. I’d come back for the hanger steak, a juicy, charred strip served with french fries, but not for the filet mignon, which was tasteless. (It’s not a cut with a great deal of flavor, at the best of times.) The latter came with gratin dauphinois, sliced potatoes and cream topped with Swiss cheese.
Despite the larger selection, the fish dishes were also uneven. Salmon brochette with French lentils was bland. Codfish with a potato crust on a bed of spinach was dry. The Dover sole meunière was a better choice and was properly cooked, but, like all the fish, it lacked seasoning.
For a light dessert, you can’t do better here than the îles flottantes, pillows of meringue criss-crossed with caramelized sugar floating on a sea of custard sauce. But the chocolate pot de crème is hard to resist. The profiteroles are nothing special, nor is the selection of sorbets.
If you choose carefully, you can eat very well at Demarchelier Downtown. But most of all, it’s a charming place, friendly and relaxing–like being out, but feeling at home. Today, as I write this, it’s a Wednesday, and the special is pot au feu. I bet it’s delicious.
100 West Houston Street, between Thompson Street and West Broadway
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Mainly French, fairly priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $11.50 to $29.50
Hours: Daily 8 A.M. to 1 A.M., downstairs lounge to 4 A.M.
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor