Jumpin’ Jazz Age Speakeasy
Now Serving Gallic Classics
In Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief , the notorious cat burglar played by Cary Grant invites insurance agent H.H. Hughson (John Williams) to lunch on the terrace of his villa overlooking the Riviera. “Quiche Lorraine!” exclaims Hughson. “Now I’ve always wanted to try that.”
Quiche Lorraine, of course, is on the menu at Bistro Cassis, a new French restaurant opened recently by Ciro Santoro, who was a manager at Balthazar for many years. Reading Cassis’ menu, I felt myself floating in time back to my stained, well-thumbed volume of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the wrecked kitchen that I always wound up with after trying her recipes, which required the use of every pot and pan I owned. Julia Child introduced me, and a whole generation of Americans, to canard a l’orange, boeuf bourguignon, navarin d’agneau and skate with capers-all of which are offered at Bistro Cassis.
“This is what food used to be when it had a clear national identity,” said my companion, who had ordered snails to start with, along with a first-rate bottle of Gigondas recommended by Mr. Santoro. “It’s a relief, after everything that’s happened in America in the last 15 years.”
Indeed, while others are looking around the world for inspiration-”Tonight’s special is pizza with foie gras, black truffles and pecorino cheese” goes the refrain-the chef here, Pierre Landert (originally from Toulouse), sticks to the classics.
My friend was quite overcome by the snails, which were plump and voluptuous, properly loaded with melted butter, garlic and parsley and, unlike other restaurants, served not so piping hot that you’d burn your mouth on them. As my friend extracted another one from its shell, soaking up the remains of the butter with a piece of baguette, he proclaimed, “This is food for all eternity!”
For all eternity or not, Bistro Cassis is a friendly, intimate, unpretentious place-a welcome respite from the hectic mega-restaurants a few blocks away in the meatpacking district. The dining room is on the ground floor of an 1850′s brownstone that once housed a speakeasy called the Tough Club. It was one of Jimmy Walker’s favorite hangouts. Outside the restaurant, which you get to by descending a short flight of steps, chairs and tables are shielded from the street by a wall of herbs-rosemary, mint, and oregano. The fragrant scents gently waft over your table.
Inside, the dining room has a mosaic tile floor, mahogany beams, a pink ceiling and a long bar at the back. The original carved mahogany wainscoting extends over one wall, which is lined with red banquettes. Some of the panels are actually narrow doors. In the old speakeasy days, when there was a police raid, you could unlatch a panel and make your way through an escape hatch that led into a narrow passageway. Good to know if you can’t pay the bill.
But Bistro Cassis is not expensive. The short wine list is mostly French, put together by Mr. Santoro, with vintages from little-known vineyards at very reasonable prices as well as bargains from his personal cellar.
You can make a meal of the mussels ($12), which are served in huge, round copper pots. When the waiter opens the pot (the attached lid serves as a container for your shells), the smell of garlic and white wine rises up. The mussels are plump and juicy, and also come with chorizo and flageolet, or just sautéed with Pernod. Steak tartare costs $12 and roast chicken for two is $32.
Brandade de morue ($8) is excellent, served like a potato pancake, sautéed crisp on the outside with a creamy center. A traditional onion tart ($9) comes with goat cheese, tomatoes and black olives. A generous salad made with baby arugula, beets and walnuts is topped with a slice of ripe fourme d’ambert cheese.
Our young waiter, who sent waves of Gallic charm through the restaurant, set down our main courses, canard a l’orange and the steak. A few minutes later, he returned.
“Is it good, or do I have to take the plates back?” he asked. Before I had time to reply he added, “If I take these back, I’ll eat them myself.”
He didn’t get the chance. The duck was superb, with a crackling glazed skin worthy of a Chinese restaurant and a melting flesh underneath, served with wild rice and an orange sauce that was not too sweet. The steak was a little tough, but it came with a delicious green peppercorn sauce and potato gratin. Another night, I enjoyed the skate with capers and white wine, piled in a crispy heap on a bed of spinach and surrounded by small boiled potatoes that had been browned on one side.
Given the name of the restaurant, there has to be something on the menu using cassis; it came in the sauce to go with the magret de canard, which was also accompanied by a mushroom gratin and a rather chewy confit leg. One of the best dishes I tasted was the carré d’agneau, four dainty pink chops served with baked tomatoes topped with bread crumbs. (Now that’s a throwback!)
Desserts include profiteroles with lashings of chocolate sauce, a fine lemon tart and chocolate mousse. The crepes suzettes are terrific. They’re not flambéed at the table; instead, they arrive topped with vanilla ice cream and berries-not authentic, I’m afraid, and more American than French. But they go down very well with a chilled glass of Muscat, especially when it’s offered on the house by Mr. Santoro.