Keep Your Eyes on the Fries: Dressed Up Diner Food at Midway

Three years ago, Belgian food suddenly swung into fashion. Restaurants sprung up in smart downtown neighborhoods, introducing trendy audiences to moules marinière, French fries dipped in mayonnaise and obscure beers brewed by Trappist monks. But it wasn’t long before their customers moved on to the next big thing, and Belgian restaurants met their … Waterloo. In the East Village, Belgo Nieuw York closed its doors, and Mesopotamia (serving Belgo-Turkish food, believe it or not) has become Belmondo, a French bistro. And in March, the owners of Waterloo Brasserie in the West Village closed the space, redecorated it and emerged a couple of months later as Midway, offering an all-American menu.

“I like it better now,” said a beautiful young Japanese woman in a brightly clashing Dolce & Gabbana dress one evening. “It’s not as pretentious as Waterloo.” She was standing at the bar with her date, a nerdy, besotted young man who looked every bit the nice Jewish boy from the Upper West Side. She was clutching a bouquet of small, expensive shopping bags in one hand and a small, expensive leather purse in the other. Moments later, another equally stunning Japanese woman, all in black, walked in through the glass doors, also laden with small shopping bags and trailed by yet another nerdy-looking fellow. The four of them proceeded to a booth, where they stacked up their bags and ordered cocktails.

Were they aware, I wondered, that, like its predecessor, Midway is also named after a battle? And one that was fought, if not within their parents’ lifetime, certainly within that of their grandparents? Midway took place in the Pacific during World War II, with kamikaze pilots pitched against the Marines. (The movie, which is on video, stars Charlton Heston.)

Midway is also the name of that stretch at a country fair along which you stroll between shooting galleries and hot-dog stands. The restaurant’s proprietors (who also own the nearby Le Zoo, a hip bistro) have redone it to look like a 50’s diner-an impression belied by the smell of truffle oil wafting over the dining room during our visit. Despite the diner motif, Midway feels oddly anonymous and deracinated. Sitting here with a glass of wine, you feel you could be in a fashionable restaurant in Hamburg, London or Milan. The minimalist décor consists of plain white brick walls with an aluminum panel at the back, globe lights, orange booths and chairs, and tables set with white cloths. There is a long mirrored bar by the entrance, which fills up as night presses on and the music gets louder. Large picture windows in the front open onto a deli and a low apartment complex that backs onto Westbeth. (The restaurant’s also a few doors down from a former police station, where a friend and I were once shown a basement courtyard “luxury studio”-with a gentrified four-figure rent-that was formerly a holding cell.)

Midway has retained chef and partner Bill Schutz, who also cooked at Waterloo, and who previously worked at Bouley. Now he’s turning out accessible American food, with a wine list of mostly American vintages to go with it. Instead of waterzooi, you can begin with light and frothy sweet garlic soup, a bit like a warm vichyssoise, laced with pieces of artichoke. In place of mussels in white wine, he serves a Manhattan clam chowder made with littlenecks, white beans and, for something new, coriander. Mr. Schutz takes the sort of dishes you might come across in a diner and gives them an esoteric twist, such as his juicy and tender pork tenderloin, which arrives with glazed Savoy cabbage perked up with fennel seed and garlic, and applesauce spiked with cardamom.

Mr. Shutz gives new life to the ubiquitous tuna tartare, set upon a layer of diced tomato and avocado, with an apricot-mustard dressing that adds a sweetly spicy note (though the dish could use salt). Beef “sashimi” (a.k.a. carpaccio) is first-rate, with a peppery dandelion salad and a toasted-sesame and soy dressing. Brook trout has wonderful flavor, further emphasized by the garnish of fennel purée, capers, red onion and 20-year-old balsamic.

But other dishes are dull. A shrimp and asparagus terrine dressed with cucumber-dill crème fraîche is a beautiful mosaic. It has just a touch-too tentative, alas-of Japanese horseradish, leaving it bland. So is the wild salmon with grilled fennel, glazed pineapple and a red pepper reduction-quite a coterie of ingredients, but it reads better than it tastes. Monkfish with baby carrots simmered with sweet spices is boring, even with an herb and watercress sauce.

Sturgeon is a fish that always grabs my attention, but it often fails to live up to expectations. Here it’s no exception, although the accompaniments-roast parsnips, celery root and a cranberry-port reduction-are imaginative. Chicken, served with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, shiitakes and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, has a nice crisp skin, but the dish, although perfectly pleasant, is not memorable.

Two dishes do stand out, however: meaty slices of Long Island duck breast with wild rice and grilled peaches, and a well-charred hanger steak, served rare, with spinach and French fries. I would come back just for those fries, which are also available as a side order. They are perfect: hot and slightly floury beneath a golden exterior, served with mayonnaise. Belgian food!

There are just four desserts on the menu-all good-plus a fruit plate (for those who wish to keep wearing Dolce & Gabbana). They include a soft, chewy chocolate-pecan brownie, a creamy bread pudding laced with rum-marinated raisins, and a warm cinnamon-apple tart with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. The platter of perfectly ripened American cheeses is excellent.

The trouble with much of the cooking at Midway is that it lacks an individual stamp. It’s fine, but it’s a reflection of the décor: You could be eating this food anywhere from Edinburgh to Copenhagen. It’s transnational, trying to please everyone. But there is one dish “qui vaut le voyage,” as the Michelin Guide says about far-flung restaurants. That’s Midway’s great French (or should I say Belgian?) fries.

MIDWAY

1 1/2 *

145 Charles Street

352-1110

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Quite high, background disco music

Wine list: Mostly domestic, interesting and fairly priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Dinner, main courses $11 to $24

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday until 2 a.m.

* Good

* * Very good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No star: Poor