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 stars
145 Charles Street352-1110
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.
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