In 1973, what would become known as the Paris Peace Accords was signed after months of deliberation by Henry Kissinger, the shifty dark lord of U.S. foreign policy, and Lê Đuc Tho, who had spent years in a French colonial prison and represented the North Vietnamese government. The agreement ended American involvement in the war but effectively sold out the South Vietnamese to the ravenous North.
That same year, Tien Ho was born in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). He remembers it as a city “full of half-destroyed buildings, a country in complete chaos.” When he was 6, Mr. Ho’s father, who had been rescued by a U.S. naval ship during the war and had become an American citizen, moved the family to Sugar Land, Texas, an endlessly repeating subdivision outside Houston full of ticky-tacky houses.
Forty years, almost to the day, after Saigon fell, Mr. Ho, along with Gabriel Stulman, the shifty dark lord of New York restaurants, opened Montmartre, a Chelsea restaurant that assumes the form of a French bistro—but only for the purpose of gutting it, inside out, Frantz Fanon-style.
At its root, Montmartre is a post-colonial French bistro. Mr. Stulman, its owner, is a loud, swarthy Moroccan Jew from Virginia via Wisconsin. (His restaurant group is called Little Wisco.) Mr. Ho, its chef, is introverted and bespectacled. They’re like Lenin and Marx, respectively, or Laurel and Hardy, less respectfully. They’re an odd pair with little in common aside from the fact that both of their ancestral peoples were once terrorized by the French.
And as an homage to that nation’s cuisine, Montmartre is exactly as flawed and uneasy, as rich and vibrant, as complicated and perplexing as a love letter to a colonizing power could be.
Appropriately, Montmartre occupies the space that was formerly Gascogne, a desultory purveyor of French classics for the uninspired. It has since been Stulmanized. Gone are the wicker chairs, the chubby tourists, the Provençal color palate and the silly D’Artagnan mascot.
The walls are now white and heavy with hip contemporary art. Mos Def, for instance, contemplates diners from a large-format black-and-white portrait. The Wu-Tang Clan booms on the stereo. The waitress, businesslike, bare-shouldered and milkily erotic, might have been from Wisconsin. The waiter, tall, black and Francophone, was almost certainly not.
His accent was, however, the most overtly Gallic thing going. Little in Montmartre screams Vive la France! And in this age of restaurant-as-set—which commenced at the bazaar of Balthazar and is felt in the bones of Carbone—I count that as a good thing.
The menu is another matter. Mr. Ho began his career in the kitchen of The Belgian Restaurant, a well regarded, now-closed French joint in Austin, Texas. His life on the line—from Café Gray to Café Boulud to Momofuku Ssäm and finally Má Pêche—has been steeped in French technique. Verily has he mastered the language of the master. That fluency is amply demonstrated in the menu.
In some of Montmartre’s best dishes, you feel Tien Ho presiding over his food like a model-train enthusiast, at eye-level, but still looming over his landscape. Mr. Ho sets his flavors forth like villagers in a tiny village green with an obsessive’s painstaking care. The poached halibut ($32)—one of seven main courses—is poached in chamomile tea, an old Japanese technique perfectly executed. The halibut’s celestial seasoning is offset with a simple fennel puree and a not-so-simple artichoke barigoule, also flecked with chamomile. The flavors aren’t forced on each other or against each other. It’s the Shining Time Station of halibut, with Tien Ho as Mr. Conductor.
When Montmartre succeeds, it is with the argument that the minority voice—Mr. Ho’s voice—makes French cuisine infinitely more rich. No one else would have put scallions and sesame seeds on chicken liver ($9), seared and chopped up with shallots and miso, and yet everyone should. Mr. Ho offloads the garlickiness of escargots sauvage ($16) to a slab of sausage beneath them, and though the entire thing looks a little like Gericault’s Raft of Medusa awash in a sea of parsley, it tastes great. It succeeds because Mr. Ho, even in a city rife with cafes colonial, is the only man with the command, ambition and experience to coat a rabbit torchon in masago, a type of Japanese rice pearls, fry it and serve it with violet mustard—a shocking, rarely seen condiment of subtle and infinite delight—miner’s lettuce and tender carrots. It’s both a culinary joke (rabbit, carrots and lettuce, get it?) and a triumph.
But these triumphs are isolated and hampered by a muddled strategy. The restaurant has difficulties; even writing about the restaurant presents difficulties. And I can’t help but think the latter is a purposeful maneuver, designed to provide cover for the former.
Firstly, the menu is constantly shifting terrain. It’s always bobbin’ and weavin’, ducking for cover. When it first opened, Montmartre’s menu was meant to be bifurcated between French classics, intended to establish Tien Ho’s bona fides, and the chef’s own inventions, intended, I think, to showcase his talent. The results were not awesome.
About a month into the show, an appetizer of a salt cod brandade with chili jam was a crock of beige goop. It was cod-ish, true, but whatever hints of chili jam there were had been subsumed by a dissolute yet oppressive fishiness. The chicken à la reine was meant to contain foie gras, and I’m sure somewhere it did, but under a thick orange sauce, the chicken tenders or any tender flavor at all was lost in the fog of forgetting. Also, chicken tenders?
A few weeks after my first visit, I returned to Montmartre and the menu had largely turned over. There were still a few classics—the steak tartare (which was once an appetizer, then a special, and was now an entrée) and the hanger steak (topped with marrow, of course) are both tremendous—but much more territory fell under the command and control of Mr. Ho’s creativity. It was in this phase that the quail tunisienne first appeared, along with the crispy rabbit torchon and a fluke “mouclade,” a shellfish stew, which are the restaurant’s bright spots. The cod goop had made its way onto toast, with more chili paste.
Such churn, said Mr. Stulman, is to be expected. During one visit, he argued, quite forcefully, that restaurants reserve the right to five weeks of experimentation. He was furious that Jay Cheshes, who had panned Montmartre before riding into the bloated sunset with a valentine for Carbone, came a week after Montmartre opened and again after three. But business is business, and if one is charging customers, one must be held accountable for what one serves.
And I couldn’t help but feel that, at Montmartre, Mr. Stulman’s talk of evolution was actually evasion. Even as I appreciated the food, Mr. Stulman spoke excitedly of the changes yet to come. So though I write this now, by the time it goes to print, who knows what the menu will be? Will all criticism be irrelevant, salvos launched at an abandoned position?
A certain restless movement can be expected from Mr. Stulman. In the last two years alone, he’s opened five restaurants. Shifting terrain, striking and fading into the crowd, aggressive mobility—these are the hallmarks of a successful guerilla tactician. But in a restaurant, I’m not sure they’ll win the war, or even, for that matter, bring peace with honor.