Scenes From an Assignation at SoHo’s Nicest New Bistro

How long should you wait for someone in a restaurant before you decide you’ve been stood up? I was early for dinner the other night at Bistro les Amis in SoHo and as I settled into my seat, I noticed an attractive middle-aged woman sitting alone at the next table. Every time the front door opened, she began to quiver with expectation. But always it was just the owner again, oblivious of the effect his frequent comings and goings were having on one of his customers. She sat with red-rimmed eyes, toying with the dregs of a glass of red wine. Wearing her expensive gold jewelry and well-tailored black suit, she looked more Park Avenue than SoHo. But she fit right in, especially since Bistro les Amis, which opened just a few weeks ago on the corner of Thompson and Spring streets, feels in many ways as though it is on the Upper East Side.

This new restaurant is discreet, welcoming and understated, with white stucco walls hung with black-and-white prints, dark paneling, a mirrored mahogany bar and 70’s music. The clientele already seems at home there, perhaps partly because the owner, Roy Ibrahim (who previously managed Manhattan Bistro and the Independent), treats them with such disarming friendliness. When I pointed out to my husband the signature “Ibrahim ’98” above our banquette, on the corner of the stucco which had been plastered over the previous tenant’s dreary murals, Mr. Ibrahim overheard and stopped to chat. “My wife and father-in-law and I closed the doors one morning, and we painted over them in a day,” he said. “We couldn’t resist signing our work.”

The Park Avenue woman asked the waiter if there was a telephone and, perhaps aware of her distress, he let her use the one at the bar instead of sending her out to the pay phone. She came back looking even more dejected and sat twisting an enormous diamond ring on her wedding finger. Was she going to order another glass of wine or ask for the bill? Meanwhile, the place was filling up with an unostentatious, rather laid-back crowd, mostly in their 30’s or 40’s. I began to watch the front door, too, keeping a lookout among the newcomers for a silver-haired businessman in a pinstriped suit.

If the woman had asked to see a menu, it would have provided a temporary diversion, at least. For a small SoHo bistro, the food is certainly ambitious, with a net cast far and wide for exotic, up-to-the-minute ingredients and unusual combinations (it is not overly expensive, either). The chef, Francis LaCatena, previously worked at La Galerie and the Box Tree, and his plates are brightly decorated like paintings with squiggles and lines of sauces, and garnished with sprigs of fresh herbs.

As a first course, “petit gris snails & onion tart, rendered kielbasa, wilted parsley & roasted garlic bechemal [sic]” had quite the Roald Dahl ring to it. (“The tale of the rendered kielbasa and the little gray snail,” commented a friend.) Alas, the dish was on the overwrought side, although nicely put together; I would have preferred the snails as God intended them, in their shells with garlic and parsley.

The Maryland crabcake was a better choice, a generous portion served with a crunchy jicama slaw, curried carrots and a “roasted garlic saffron aioli.” The horseradish-cured gravlax was delicious, too (apart from the tooth-cracking slices of pumpernickel toast that came with it), as was a salad of field greens garnished with poached pears and pecans in a not-too-sweet honey vinaigrette. I was unimpressed with the baked whole tomato, as flavor-free as you’d expect at this time of year around its creamy cheese filling, but it came with beautiful sliced portobello mushrooms. Gnocchi made with parsnips and sage were also good, paired with watercress salad topped with duck confit.

But even with all this good food, I did not forget to keep my eye out for the fellow who was causing our neighbor such distress. I nearly choked on my gravlax, then, when the person who finally made his way to her table was no Wall Street banker, but a short, muscular young fellow with full, pouty lips, a black T-shirt, black leather jacket, a brush cut and black-rimmed Philip Johnson glasses. He removed the glasses and held her hand as he began his apologies. “Sweetbreads?” asked the waiter, holding out a plate in front of me. I had ordered these without guilt since they were labeled, somewhat obscurely, “farm-raised” and they were pleasant, although served in rather a heavy Madeira sauce. The lamb shank (with wild mushroom fricassee and “natural fond”) was excellent-and a steal at $15, as was the “cognac-crusted” tenderloin of beef, with pommes dauphinoise, onions and béarnaise sauce. I had no complaints about the duck, either, pink juicy slices with delicious chestnut purée and quenelles of butternut squash. Even monkfish, about which I don’t normally enthuse, was nicely prepared-rolled around a green pepper mousse and served with eggplant purée, crispy curried onions, the whole dish perked up with a sharp, acidic cilantro beurre blanc.

But our desserts had barely been placed before us when the woman at the nearby table got up to leave. Her tardy friend took her arm and escorted her from the restaurant, strolling by our table with an insolent, proprietary bounce. If I had been on the aisle, I would have stuck my foot out.

I turned my attention to the chocolate marquise. It was disappointingly dry and heavy. Coconut custard was not much better, either, and a napoleon with bananas had pastry thick enough to have been made from Bisquick. The apple tarte tatin, however, was terrific.

I’ll probably never know what happened to the woman with the diamond ring and the black suit. But maybe I’ll see her again at Bistro les Amis. I think it will be around a lot longer than the young man in the black leather jacket.

Bistro les Amis

* 1/2

180 Spring Street

226-8645

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Short but reasonably priced, with some good choices

Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express

Price range: Lunch main courses $7 to $14, dinner $12 to $21

Lunch: Daily 11:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.

Dinner: Sunday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 1 A.M.

*: Good

* *: Very good

* * *: Excellent

* * * *: Outstanding

No star: Poor

Scenes From an Assignation at SoHo’s Nicest New Bistro