D’Artagnan is the last sort of restaurant you’d expect to find in this dour, businesslike part of town, right near Grand Central Terminal. It’s the kind of authentic bistro you picture in a French village, steeped in centuries of tradition, where no one in the kitchen has heard of a frothed sauce or fusion cuisine. In front there is a small bar and counter displaying little packages of pâté and terrines for sale, and an open kitchen with an enormous red, silver and gold rotisserie. When I walked in, a leg of lamb was turning on a spit, dripping its juices onto a pile of roasting potatoes. The maître d’ showed me up a flight of stairs to the main dining room, which has red-brick and stucco walls hung with crossed swords, movie posters from The Three Musketeers and a dripping candelabra that looks like the gnarled branches of a tree. One of my friends was already at the table, seated in an imposing red velour chair beneath an iron chandelier–the perfect setting for a brawl. But instead of a sword, he was brandishing a martini glass filled with a murky liquid that looked like dishwater. “Taste this!” he said. “It’s terrific.”
“It’s called a D’Artagnan,” said Ariane Daguin, the statuesque co-owner of the restaurant, who suddenly appeared as if by magic. She was dressed in the sort of floppy shirt favored by the Three Musketeers–only hers was embroidered with a line of tiny ducks across the chest. “The cocktail is made with Armagnac blanc, a little floc”–a sweet white wine from Gascony–”and a splash of cream of prune.”
D’Artagnan is not a restaurant for the faint-hearted.
A waiter in a white kerchief proceeded to set down a plate of prunes marinated in Armagnac and stuffed with foie gras (“a ‘French kiss’!”), and duck prosciutto layered with foie gras to go with our cocktails. I was beginning to enjoy the effects of a Richelieu, an appropriately lethal blood-red jewel of a drink made with, among other things, red Lillet and blue Curaçao, when my third guest arrived. “Try the Pousse Rapière!” exhorted Ms. Daguin. “We serve it in a glass with a sword. [We pour] liqueur of Armagnac to the tip of the sword and champagne up to the top of the sword.”
There was a short pause.
“Could I have an iced tea?” my friend asked.
H.M. Bateman, a British cartoonist in the 20′s, used to immortalize moments like this, when some poor soul would make a gaffe, the place would stop dead and all heads would swivel toward him in horror.
The Man Who Ordered Iced Tea at D’Artagnan survived the first round, but he ultimately lost the battle. For if just about every dish on the menu doesn’t have Armagnac in it, it surely has goose or duck fat.
Ms. Daguin is a partner in D’Artagnan, a New Jersey firm that supplies game and foie gras to restaurants and food shops in and around New York. Her father had a famous two-Michelin-star restaurant in Auch, a town in southwestern Gascony. Here, the food turned out by executive chef Marc Eymin Petot Tourtollet is in the same vein. One friend described it as “French comfort food,” but it’s much more than that. It’s generous, rustic and earthy, using the ingredients of Gascony–wild mushrooms, game, duck, foie gras and Armagnac–in inspired ways. The reasonably priced French wine list has some excellent selections from the Southwest, too, with robust reds such as Cahors, Buzet and Marcillac.
My friend had ordered a warm goat-cheese salad with apple slices to accompany his iced tea, but he was sandbagged by an extra dish sent out from the kitchen–”A salade frisée with leedle geezards ,” said the waiter. They were wicked: crunchy leedle nuggets fried in duck fat. A plate of charcuterie arrived: jambon de Bayonne, saucisson sec and country pâté, along with gherkins served in a jar with tongs. Then we tried smoked duck breast, duck prosciutto, duck leg confit and foie gras on mixed greens–a dish called “The Duck Stops Here.”
But the duck didn’t stop there. The rest of us had moved from D’Artagnan cocktails to a bottle of Mercuès, an earthy Cahors wine that was perfect with foie gras, especially the sensational, buttery, pan-seared version in a grape and floc reduction, served with apple. Then Ms. Daguin sent out some mugs of garbure, a soup made with duck leg confit, carrots, cabbage and potatoes. “At the end, in Gascony, it’s a tradition to pour some red wine into it,” she said. By now we were well into the swing of things, so we did.
The Man Who Ordered Iced Tea at D’Artagnan had chosen quail as his main course. They arrived with their feet still on, looking long and rangy, like birds drawn by Ronald Searle. But they were tender and juicy, garnished with grapes, in an Armagnac sauce accompanied by an Armagnac-soaked prune. “Everything here seems soaked in Armagnac,” he said in an understatement as he scraped the last mouthful of sauce from his plate.
The rotisserie, which was bought from David Bouley, does a magnificent job. The organic chicken, roasted to a burnished gold, had the sort of taste you don’t find far from the farm these days. The skin of the duck leg confit was as crisp as a roll of parchment, the flesh silky underneath. I’ve never had better. The spit-roasted rack of lamb was nicely charred and rosy inside, but the Jamison leg was surprisingly chewy, although it came with great, thick ratatouille swirled with oil. Magret was properly pink but a bit fatty.
For dessert, there was a lovely, risotto-like rice pudding (“My grandmother’s recipe”) with caramel butter, and a crème Catalane in a terra cotta dish topped with a burnt sugar glaze. The flaky apple croustade, made with pastry flown in from France, melted in your mouth, just as Ms. Daguin promised. But my two favorites were a prune mousse sundae (loaded with Armagnac) and a baba, “drowned,” as the menu said, in Armagnac instead of the usual rum.
I began to wonder if the Armagnac was taking its toll when, in the bathroom, I could distinctly hear roosters crowing. It was, in fact, a soundtrack, but the message was clear: If you don’t eat, you’ll be taken out back and force-fed like one of the ducks.
As dinner wound to a close, Ms. Daguin began pacing the dining room brandishing an Armagnac bottle, like a nurse about to administer an eagerly awaited dose. It was Armagnac blanc, which tastes like a cross between marc de Bourgogne and grappa. She poured it into stemless glasses, so there was no choice but to drink up. I took a small swig (it was delicious) and cunningly poured the remains into my empty water glass. We paid the bill and, as we got up to leave, I picked up the glass, thinking it contained water, and drained it in one gulp.
The next morning, nevertheless, I felt fine. The Man Who Ordered Iced Tea at D’Artagnan felt even better. “That was a great restaurant. I’d love to drop in at lunch time one of these days and try their foie gras burger at the bar.”
D’Artangnan, The Rotisserie
* * *
152 East 46th Street
Noise level: Low
Wine list: French, reasonably priced, with interesting selections from the Southwest
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch prix fixe $20, main courses $15.95 to $19; dinner main courses $19 to $26
Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor