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 stars

145 Charles Street352-1110

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