Tribeca Original Montrachet Saves Seriousness for the Food

It’s a shock to walk down West Broadway in Tribeca at night. The empty sky where the Twin Towers used to stand is lit with an eerie glow, as though a spaceship had landed at ground zero. Meanwhile, many of the streets are as desolate as they were 16 years ago, when Montrachet first opened. But they’re coming back to life, and so are the restaurants-although the mood is, of course, different.

On a recent evening, business at Montrachet was brisk, but without the usual tables of young men in pinstriped suits discussing funds over foie gras and expensive wine. Instead, most of the customers were dressed as though they’d walked over from their lofts.

And that has always been the point at Montrachet. When Drew Nieporent’s first restaurant opened in 1985, it established the casual downtown style that has since been much imitated. Montrachet was a serious French restaurant, but it was a far cry from the sort of place you’d expect to find in midtown. The setting was a remodeled industrial space in a funky building, complete with original plaster ceilings and exposed pipes. And rather than hire a team of elderly French waitersinblacktie,Mr. Nieporent dressed his young staff all in black. He printed his menu in English instead of French, and the wine list, created by Daniel Johnnes, gave American vintages equal billing. The chef was an unknown named David Bouley.

My favorite place to sit, not the least for people-watching, is in the small front room. It has a long mahogany and onyx bar, burgundy banquettes, racks of wine and some abstract paintings that have been acquired over the years. The two back dining rooms are a little stark, despite the attempt to brighten them up with peach and teal walls. But Montrachet is not about decor, it’s about the food-and, as befits the name, wine. The remarkable list has many extraordinary bottles, and they aren’t all $300 burgundies.

Mr. Nieporent has consistently hired first-rate chefs. Harold Moore, who is currently heading the kitchen, came from Daniel, and before that worked at Jean Georges and Mercer Kitchen. He’s equally at home with bistro comfort food as he is with dishes that have a distinctly Asian influence. The menu moves back and forth between the styles. From his Japanese grandmother, he got the idea for a first course of sliced rare beef, marinated in soy, sherry and garlic and seared on one side before being sliced diagonally. When he was a boy, she used to serve it to him as a snack with soy sauce; at Montrachet, he’s added shiso, enoki mushrooms and truffle juice.

Paper-thin slices of sashimi-grade fluke arrived spread over the plate, lightly seasoned with fresh wasabi and a vinaigrette made with ginger juice and oyster liquor. It was topped with caviar, as were the poached oysters in champagne sauce, a classic that’s been on the menu for years, now trendily updated with froth.

A wonderful baby-arugula salad was tossed with radishes, leaves of watercress and little chunks of Roquefort. The oil-free dressing’s velvety smoothness comes from buttermilk, which is blended with shallots and red-wine vinegar. The soup of the day on one occasion was made with celery and celery root, with peeled apples added at the end. It was a brilliant combination of flavors, topped off with chunks of foie gras.

A crépinette stuffed with duck confit and pig’s trotters is a dish you’d expect to find around Les Halles in Paris. Mr. Moore’s version was a surprisingly light and elegant first course. The diced meats, seasoned with mustard, were melting under a crisp skin, and served on a bed of braised cabbage and turnips.

Mr. Moore used to make short ribs at Daniel. At Montrachet, he has turned his attention to beef cheeks, which are more gelatinous. He braises them in red wine and serves them with mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, bacon and pearl onions. It’s a blissful dish in a rich reduction sauce. Perfectly roast chicken with a crisp skin also comes with similar classic garnishes that change seasonally. It’s been on the menu since Montrachet opened. Every day there is a “plat classique,” and on one night it was the best coq au vin I’ve ever tasted, served in a dark, intensely reduced red-wine sauce the color of mahogany and as thick as glue. Red-wine risotto with marrow and chanterelles was a trifle bland, especially when compared with Mr. Moore’s other dishes, which are so boldly seasoned.

Desserts include those ubiquitous crowd-pleasers, warm chocolate cake with caramel ice cream and a truly great crème brûlée. There’s also a very rich ruffled chocolate “President’s cake” layered with nuts, as well as a fritter-like hot banana tart with vanilla ice cream.

Now especially, the lack of pretension, friendly staff and good food at Montrachet make me happy to return. After dinner we looked again at the awful glow above the World Trade Center site. But then we turned around, and there was the Empire State Building, all lit up.

Montrachet

***

239 West Broadway

(between Walker and White streets)

219-2777

Dress: Casual Noise level: Fine Wine list: Exceptional, with interesting choices at all prices Credit cards: All major Price range: Main courses, $24 to $28; prix-fixe three-course menus, $36 and $46; tasting menu, $76 Lunch: Friday, noon to 2:15 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 10:15 p.m.; Saturday to 10:45 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor