A Slice of Old Paris,
At Home in Old New York
Twelve years ago, I went for lunch at the original branch of Les Halles, the French brasserie on Park Avenue South. My son was 3. Having a child this age, my mother once said, was like living with a permanently drunk house guest. While my husband and I ate our steak frites and salad, he bounced up and down on the banquette, smeared ketchup on the table and knocked over his juice.
As the waiter was mopping up, a middle-aged man in business suit and tie entered the restaurant with two youths. One of them was dressed in a leather biker’s jacket, his face peppered with studs, his head shaved on one side. The other sported a pink jacket with the sleeves rolled up, and had moussed his hair stiffly forward so it looked like the prow of a ship. Musicians, I thought, with their manager.
They sat down at the next table, and the man in the business suit leaned over. “What a beautiful child!” he said, looking at my son. I beamed.
“But just you wait!” The man gestured toward the two youths sitting in front of him, who grinned back affectionately. “In a few years, this is what you’ll get!”
In a few years’ time, I found myself once again eating steak frites at Les Halles-this time at the downtown branch, which opened a year and a half ago in the financial district, a block from Ground Zero. Next to me on the banquette, eating a very rare hanger steak with shallot sauce and fries, was a husky-voiced teenager with a faint Ronald Coleman mustache. We were having dinner with a group of friends that included a 4-year-old who was busy filling every inch of the paper tablecloth with a detailed drawing that his mother later religiously tore off and took home.
Of all the brasseries and bistros in New York City, Les Halles Downtown feels the most authentic. The restaurant is owned by Philippe Lajaunie, who opened the popular Park Bistro in Murray Hill before going on to establish the original Les Halles across the street and then two more branches of the brasserie in Miami and Washington, D.C.
While other places may be picture-perfect to look at, with their old movie posters, polished brass and displays of fruits de mer, Les Halles Downtown more closely resembles the old-fashioned workers’ bistro it has fashioned itself after. The old New York décor is quite simple: a mahogany bar, white tile floor, pressed-tin ceiling, large mirrors and Art Deco light fixtures. It’s a laid-back and friendly place, with a staff dressed in jeans, blue workshirts and ties.
The food is straightforward-no fancy sushi or updated dishes for the hip and fashionable, but familiar French bistro cooking, exactly like that served in the uptown Les Halles, which was made famous by Anthony Bourdain in his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential . Les Halles Downtown is like one of those old-fashioned brasseries around the market district in Paris, with names like Au Pied de Cochon, where, late at night, you get all sorts, from workmen in their bleus de travail to partygoers having a bowl of onion soup in the hopes of avoiding a hangover.
Chef Jose de Meirelles, who was the founding chef at Les Halles uptown, stays firmly with the classics on his downtown menu. You can begin with an excellent, coarse, garlicky country pâté. Or try the snails, plump and juicy in garlicky, melted butter. Tartiflette is made with sliced potatoes baked in a casserole with loads of Robluchon cheese and chunks of bacon. It’s deliciously gooey, but a dish to be shared with others; if you ate the whole thing by yourself, you’d have to be wheeled out of the place. The barigoule of artichokes stewed in white wine with tomatoes and carrots is a lovely, delicate dish. And the salads are first-rate. The frisée is made with tender young, frilly leaves sprinkled with crisp lardons and Roquefort croutons. Fresh young leaves of arugula are topped with slivers of artichoke and thin slices of Serrano ham.
The choucroute consists of sauerkraut simmered in pinot d’Alsace with juniper berries (served with a spicy boudin blanc), smoked pork loin and breast, frankfurter and boiled potatoes. The price is right at $16.50. The steak tartare arrives already mixed, and comes with a portion of Les Halles’ excellent French fries and a tossed green salad. Steak au poivre has a good beefy flavor, and the roast chicken was juicy and had a crisp skin. You can get 10 different variations of mussels with French fries, from the classic marenière with white wine and garlic to the bele be with saffron cream and vermouth. A giant portion goes for $14.50.
But the food is uneven. A special of roast veal one evening was lukewarm and tough. The confit de canard was dry and chewy. And apart from the profiteroles, which were terrific, the desserts, which follow the bistro formula, were ordinary. The tarte Tatin was too sweet, the chocolate mousse was dull and the crème brûlée was run-of-the-mill, though it had a pleasant, crackling burnt-sugar topping.
The wine list is very good, with a selection of close to 100 bottles, all of them French and many from lesser-known smaller vineyards. In the middle range, the Château Redortier Gigondas is an excellent choice at $42 and is also sold by the glass. Unlike the $21 glasses of wine I’ve been offered recently, the range here is more manageable, from $6 to $12, and you can get a perfectly good glass of Saint Emilion for $7.75 or a Saint Veran for $6.
As we were winding up dinner and looking around the room, which was filled with customers dressed in jeans or in suits (ties removed and jackets flung steakhouse style over the back of the chair), I realized that something was wrong with the picture. Of course! Where was the smoke? What’s a brasserie without the Gitanes and the Gauloises casting a thick gray cloud over the place? It’s the one lapse of authenticity at Les Halles Downtown which stops you believing that you’re in a true workers’ bistro in Paris.