Greenwich Village Charmer
Takes Its Ingredients Seriously
I was stumped. I had ordered octopus “carpaccio.” It was cut in thin slivers that filled the entire plate and was dressed with olive oil, fleur de sel, caper berries and a dollop of crème fraïche. Most important, it had also been sprinkled with a special dry red pepper imported from Spain. I decided to keep things simple. You can’t go wrong with basic black.
At first I thought A.O.C. Bedford, a tiny restaurant on a tree-lined side street in Greenwich Village, was going to be pretentious. The name put me off: It sounds more like a military outpost than a restaurant, but the initials stand for the French Appéllation d’Origine Contrôlée , the strict regulation that ensures that wine, cheese and other foods meet government standards of quality and guarantees that they come from the specified region. The name is telling you that the restaurant’s chef, Herbert Robertson, takes his ingredients seriously. For no one believes any more the myth that a brilliant cook can make a great meal from third-rate foodstuffs. (My favorite dish in this category is “Eggs Maledict”: hard-boiled eggs on Wonder Bread with mayonnaise and Spam).
Mr. Robertson makes his paella with D.O. ( denominación de origen , the Spanish equivalent of A.O.C.) Calasparra rice; D.O. Modena vinegar comes with the D.O. serrano ham; and the duck terrine is A.O.C. (Just the thing for the C.O. on weekend furlough in the village with his A.D.C.)
But, in fact, this restaurant is not the least bit pretentious. It’s quite the opposite; it’s relaxed, friendly and even romantic. The low-ceilinged, brick-walled dining room has a small bar and large windows that open onto the street on warm nights. There’s dim, flattering lighting and candles on the tables. It’s the way the Village used to be, and it’s the sort of place that’s perfect for a date.
The front-of-house staff consists of a charming French manager, a pretty blond waitress and the enthusiastic pepper-mill-wielding busboy. When you arrive, he brings you crusty loaves of bread that he says are made in the restaurant’s basement, and he sets down small bowls of first-rate butter and olive oil.
There’s a retro feeling about eating here, starting with the menu that arrives on parchment paper in a heavy leather binder. On my first visit, the special of the evening was lobster thermidor. It was terrific-they should put it on the menu. The dish was made famous at Delmonico’s in New York, and Julia Child has a recipe for it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking . To start, you “plunge the point of the knife between the eyes or sever the spinal cord by making a small incision in the back of the shell at the juncture of the chest and the tail.” I am happy to leave this to Mr. Robertson. The lobster comes to the table back in its shell, tossed in a subtle creamy mustard sauce. The meat is silken and tender, not the least bit stringy, and it comes with new potatoes to sop up the sauce.
The paella for two is also good. The short-grain Calasparra rice is served nicely al dente and is generously laced with scallops, shrimp and mussels. I felt the broth, however, could have had more flavor. Certainly the two giant head-on grilled shrimp that are served as a first course aren’t lacking flavor. They taste like the kind of shrimp you get served when you’re sitting on a Mediterranean beach, and come with a sprightly herb and parsley salad and a passion fruit vinaigrette.
Slivered artichokes-which come both raw and cooked-are served atop an arugula salad with shards of manchego, and make another good first course. But the serrano ham was my favorite, heaped generously on the plate in dark red chewy slices. (“Prosciutto for grown-ups,” said our waitress.) The ham has a rich, salty taste and comes with a melting house-made confit of tomatoes sprinkled with balsamic vinegar (the real thing, of course, from Modena). This, as they say in the Guide Michelin , ” vaut le voyage .”
If the dorade hadn’t been overcooked one evening, it would have been very nice. Free-range herb-crusted boneless rack of lamb arrives in thick, rare rounds, with garlic mashed potatoes (the garlic has been crushed in a mortar and pestle). And the veal chop is flawless, with sautéed potatoes and natural juices.
The wine list is short, with a small but interesting selection of A.O.C. French, Italian, Spanish and American wines. There’s also a cheese trolley with properly ripened and well-kept cheeses.
There’s no written dessert menu. But one day there was a miraculous flan, delicate and smooth under an intense glaze. And a so-called brownie was more like a perfect dark chocolate cake. But the pièce de résistance is the crêpes suzette.
You can tell people love them by the number of times during the evening the room is enlivened by a whoosh of flame. The manager prepares them the old-fashioned way, tableside in a copper pan. The smell of butter, oranges and brandy fills the dining room. They are O.T.T. (over the top). And like this restaurant, they can’t fail to charm.