I had in mind the sort of casual place I used to frequent in the Village: doors folded back onto the street, a few tables under the awning, relaxed and quiet on a warm summer night, a place where you could linger over a bottle of wine. Fillip’s, a small French restaurant in Chelsea, sounded like just the thing.
The aroma of rosemary wafted from bushes that had been placed outside to create a small dining area under an awning. A couple of friends I hadn’t seen for a while happened to be eating there, and I joined them briefly for a glass of wine before going inside. The view, across a rather grungy strip of Seventh Avenue, was of a locksmith’s shop, a Chinese take-out place and a nail parlor.
“If it weren’t for that, I could almost imagine I was in Paris,” I said.
My friend shrugged. “If you were in Paris, that’s probably what you would be looking out at.”
My dinner guests arrived, and the restaurant’s lone waiter, formally dressed in black tie, seated us inside at a table near the small bar by the entrance. The long, narrow dining room, lined with banquettes, is painted yellow, and the walls are hung with mirrors and Edward Hopper prints. Other than our party, there was just one couple, at the far end of the restaurant. It was blissfully quiet.
After one of my companions got over the fact that he couldn’t have the Scotch he’d been looking forward to all day (only wine and beer are available), we ordered a bottle of Chablis. It’s an odd wine list, mainly French and quite expensive. The menu is classic French cuisine, from vichyssoise and sweetbreads to côte de boeuf and crème brûlée.
Fillip Billan, the owner, used to have an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant here, but last spring he decided to upgrade the place, putting cloths and candles on the tables and decorating the room with giant flower arrangements. He brought in a young chef, Brian Bieler, who recently worked at Compass, and reopened two and half months ago as a French restaurant.
“What’s good?” I asked the waiter.
“It’s all good,” he replied with a smile.
But the tough dinner rolls were not very good, nor was the “gift from the kitchen,” a clump of overdressed spinach salad decorated with a twee baton of bacon. Another night, it consisted of two tiny yellow and red tomato halves and a dollop of goat cheese mousse on a crouton. I’ve never been much of a fan of the soi-disant “amuse-gueules,” those small bites supposed to tickle the taste buds before the meal begins in earnest. They’ve become as common as the “palate-cleansing” sorbets that arrive halfway through dinner in pretentious restaurants. But if a chef does insist on sending an amuse-gueule out, it had better be worth it.
There are two soups on the menu, vichyssoise and white asparagus infused with lemongrass. One of my companion’s eyes lit up at the prospect of the latter. “I love white asparagus,” she said, and when her soup was delivered, she fell upon it eagerly. But with the first taste she bolted upright, as though she’d just had an electric shock. The soup was truly awful. Washed up somewhere in the middle of a pallid, watery broth was a grilled scallop. This dish is an experiment that should never have left the kitchen.
But before I had time to fling my napkin down in disgust and ask for the check, I tasted the vichyssoise. This 50’s throwback, made with leeks and potato, was wonderful, thick and creamy, seasoned with a touch of nutmeg, a few drops of olive oil glinting on the surface.
The meal continued to seesaw. On the down side: doughy soft-shell-crab tempura and a clunky, characterless first course of wild arugula with strips of duck confit and apple that was big enough for a main course. Cucumber salad, one-third the size of the arugula salad, consisted of two long strips of cucumber wrapped around a pile of greens with radish and balsamic vinegar. Strange. On the up side: delicious seared scallops, lightly browned and juicy, with Meyer lemon adding a delicate citrusy note, and a garnish of baby leeks and mâche.
Eating here can be a frustrating experience. Mr. Bieler has mastered the classic French techniques, serving up good food made with the best and freshest farmers’ market ingredients, but many of his dishes are unfocused and lack a personal style.
Long Island duck was one of the successes. Tender and pink, it came with a golden raisin and eggplant purée and baby bok choy. The rack of lamb seasoned with chervil was also very good, served with a creamy parsnip purée and Swiss chard. Atlantic cod was beautifully cooked, crispy on one side, and accompanied by a delicate purée of celery root, spinach and a light citrus beurre blanc. But the butterfish, also known as black cod, seared with a crisp skin, needed more than the acidity of sliced baby tomatoes to cut its oiliness. A rib eye for two, charred rare, with baby leeks and asparagus, was pleasant but not memorable.
For dessert, the molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and blueberries was state-of-the-art. So was the crème brûlée under a glassy sheen of caramelized sugar. There is also a selection of half a dozen nicely ripened and interesting artisanal cheeses.
With a few tweaks here and there and some sharper focus, the food at Fillip’s could move up to another level. And after all the raucous restaurants I’ve been to lately, the quiet was a treat all its own.