South Meets West:
Provence Lights Up Broadway
The zaniest dessert on the menu at Aix is the licorice panna cotta, served with tangerines and bergamot sauce. “It tastes of cigarette butts,” said my husband. “But it’s actually very good.”
This strange comment came at the end of a meal that had included foie gras in a pistachio crust, pistou laced with diced raw sardines, and venison with cocoa-coffee sauce-not the sort of dishes you’d expect to find on the Upper West Side, where this modern French restaurant has become a smash hit.
Didier Virot was formerly executive chef at JoJo and Jean Georges and had a short-lived restaurant bearing his name in a midtown boutique hotel called the Dylan. I liked Virot’s food very much, but the dining room belonged in a provincial hotel in Bulgaria. At the door, a scraggly metal bird was perched on one leg near a stand of matchbooks printed with the restaurant’s name. As we waited for our table one evening, my husband, who had left his Roger Tory Peterson field guide at home, stared at the bird and the name on the matchbooks, trying to make the connection. ” Qu’est-ce que c’est q’un ‘virot ‘?” he asked the hostess at last.
” Un virot … ” she struggled for a moment before answering: ” C’est le nom du chef !”
Virot is a rare bird. Now extinct in midtown, it has found its niche in a neighborhood known more for lox and bagels and strollers parked by the table than far-out, cerebral cuisine. The three-level restaurant, designed by Etienne Coffinier, is decorated in bright Provençal red, orange and yellow. The tables in the center of the downstairs dining room, where the overhead lighting is as bright as an afternoon in Provence, are placed comfortably far apart. But it’s annoying, when you’ve booked three weeks in advance, to be marched straight to the back to a high-backed orange plastic booth that feels like the inside of a Tupperware bowl. Places had been laid at either end of our long table, and two in between on the same side, as though set for a stage. We were only four, and in order to have a conversation we had to huddle together in the corner.
Many of Mr. Virot’s dishes resemble works of art: The food is bright and colorful and is served on giant plates (some made from glass), or in gigantic bowls with orange and blue rims. The foie gras, which I first tasted at his last restaurant, still looks like a miniature furry bath mat, studded with pistachio and garnished with potato and quince crumble. The crispy outer coating provided an intriguing foil for the buttery foie gras, its richness cut with an apricot coulis and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Another dish consisted of thin slices of tuna sashimi set out on a glass platter with cucumber strips, coriander and a bite of a fresh horseradish and sheep’s milk yogurt sauce. Gnocchi-so often heavy and boring-were airy and delicate, and served with small wedges of Jerusalem artichokes in a black truffle cream. So far, so good.
Mr. Virot likes to create dishes that deliver a surprise, if not a shock. Where did he get the idea of serving pistou with a tartare of sardines? The soup itself was made with a good, thick vegetable broth, but it tasted as though someone had dropped in the day’s catch by mistake. Crabmeat cannelloni were also a disappointment, wrapped in a leathery dough, and the millet pancake served with the roast pork was as dry as a ship’s biscuit. Daurade, on the other hand, was a revelation: It arrived on a green pool of fennel sauce that was subtle but pervasive, and was garnished with slivered shiitake mushrooms and cooked radishes.
The chef’s sautéed venison loin is inspired, served with roast vegetable purée and a lovely, crisp quince beet strudel and a rich, dark cocoa-coffee sauce that brought out the flavor of the meat. Roast chicken-which my husband ordered with a martyred air, since the others at the table had already put in their choices and it was one of the few things left-was one of the best I’ve tasted anywhere. The crisp-skinned bird, which had a real farmyard flavor, was glazed with honey and star anise and came with mushrooms, artichokes and roasted fingerling potatoes.
Aix has a particularly good wine list-predominantly French, with over 300 selections, many of them from the Loire Valley, Alsace, Provence, Corsica and the Southwest. There are plenty of choices at the lower end, too.
Mr. Virot brought along his pastry chef, Jehangir Mehta, who previously worked at Jean Georges and Union Pacific. He is one of the most original pastry chefs I’ve come across in New York. Some of his creations taste like food from another planet. (I’ll never forget his astonishing caramel tapioca tart, which was seasoned with sea salt and served under a slippery layer of marinated mango. It was weird, all right-but I loved it.) His Provence salad is made with candied celery, slivers of melon and green tomato, no less, and topped with a dark green zeppelin made not with herbes de Provence, but mint. It’s interesting, even refreshing, but not as satisfying as the apple rosemary brioche, which comes with honey calvados sauce and a lovely citrus ice cream. The nut soufflé is first-rate, served with caramelized chestnuts and a delightful sauce that has the consistency of tar, while the roasted pineapple sorbet that comes with the pineapple ricotta cake is a revelation.
As for the licorice panna cotta, it got my husband thinking along similar lines as the chefs at Aix. “It makes me wonder why no one has developed a cuisine of cigarettes, something served with ‘an infusion of minted Gauloises’ or ‘smoked over a packet of Gitanes’-dishes you can enjoy in the smoking section of a restaurant,” he said. “Or, once Bloomberg’s law goes into effect, this could even be what passes for smoking.”
Aix is an odd restaurant with some fine food. You may not love everything on the menu, but you sure as hell won’t get bored.