There are times when you’re not in the mood to cook, but you don’t feel like making a production of eating out, either. You want to set forth in the same clothes you were wearing when you decided to go to a restaurant, and you want to relax over a bottle of wine in a setting where you don’t have to think too much about what is on your plate. Food that is familiar and a scene that’s fun. This is what you’ll find at Lucien.
Lucien is a typical East Village restaurant; in other words, it’s like a Left Bank bistro in the 50’s. The tiny, narrow storefront, on First Avenue just above Houston Street, has both style and character, with an old mosaic marble floor, wooden benches, beveled mirrors and tables topped with paper cloths. The faded yellow of the pressed-tin ceiling and walls gives the place just the right patina, as though it got that way from decades of smoke from unfiltered Gauloises. A friendly, bustling bar divides the front room from the back, where a long communal table sits beneath an oversize print of Cézanne’s card players. It could be the setting for discussions with strangers over the merits of Nathalie Sarraute or Roland Barthes, perhaps, were it not for the salsa music going full blast.
On a recent night, everyone was squeezed in tightly, passing the salt and pepper and exchanging bread like the occupants of a boarding house. The pepper mill they kept passing around the table was empty, however, a fact that escaped the cheerful waiter (who was already on a first-name basis even with new customers), and he kept helpfully passing it back and forth for fruitless grindings until a busboy took it away at last.
On another occasion, I was seated at one of the small tables in the front of the restaurant. By the window were two women, flanked by their musical instruments, a cello and a violin. They looked as though they’d just stepped off the set of Hilary and Jackie (the film about Jacqueline du Pré and her sister) and stopped in at Lucien for a quick steak frites.
“Are the sardines fresh?” my husband glanced up from the menu and asked the waitress, a pretty, gamine French woman with a dyed blond crewcut and high black boots.
“Yes, they’re fresh,” she replied. “And your waitress is fresh, too,” she added saucily.
Lucien is the first venture of Lucien Bahaj, who has cooked at Odeon, Mr. Chow, Indochine, La Goulue, Mad. 61, “44” and the Elephant before opening his own restaurant. He was born in Morocco and raised in the south of France, and his menu is based on classic peasant dishes from Provence such as salade Niçoise, oysters, bouillabaisse and marinated and grilled bavette (flank steak).
The wine list is French and extremely reasonable, including choices that go well with bistro food.
We ordered a bottle of Gigondas, and my husband tried to make up his mind between the moules marinière and the cuisses de grenouilles to start. “Which do you recommend?” he asked the waitress. “The cuisses are more sophisticate [sic],” she replied.
Frogs’ legs are pretty sophisticated (and on old menus they even have a sophisticated name– cuisses de nymphes à l’aurore , nymphs’ thighs at dawn). I love them, but I have never been able to contemplate them quite the same way since I saw a New Yorker cartoon showing legless frogs wheeling themselves out of a restaurant that had a sign in the window: “Today’s special: frogs’ legs.” That evening, the legs were plump as the thighs of a Rubens model, redolent of garlic, butter and parsley, squirted with the same balsamic vinegar sauce that was squirted on the three equally plump, very fresh grilled sardines that were set before me.
The snails are good at Lucien too; they arrive sizzling in a crock, liberally seasoned with garlic. There is also a raw bar and foie gras on toast (the latter our waitress’ favorite). A lighter start to the meal is the salad of endive with blue cheese or the sprightly frisée with Roquefort and lardons.
Duck is done two ways: half crisp confit and half rare magret, with candied turnips and figs. (I would have preferred the figs warm.) Rabbit was falling off the bone in a creamy Dijon mustard sauce flavored with rosemary, served on a bed of fresh noodles (some of which were gummed together, having not been separated properly before they were cooked). The bouillabaisse was quite spicy, with a good, rich seafood broth and served in the traditional way with a garlicky rouille.
Lucien also produces a fine steak frites and filet mignon au poivre, but, on this particular night, I decided on chicken. (I was just back from England, where the tabloids were full of righteous indignation now that it turns out the French, who continue to refuse to sell British beef after the mad-cow disease scare, have been feeding their livestock with human sewage. Whatever will these guys think of next?) The litmus test of a good bistro kitchen, which Lucien’s passed, is its roast chicken: golden brown and juicy, with mashed potatoes and sweet roasted garlic.
For dessert, I was unimpressed by the soggy tarte Tatin made with overcooked apples. (I even wondered if it had been put in the microwave.) A passion fruit tart, sprinkled with a snowstorm of powdered sugar, had a leaden crust. The crème brûlée, however, was light and creamy under a delicate sugar topping.
After dinner, a young woman in black leather pants emerged from the bathroom, which is painted a sponged siena, lit with candles and decorated with dried roses. “What a delight this bathroom is, what a beautiful place!” she exclaimed rhapsodically to no one in particular.
“I know, I made it myself,” replied a handsome guy who happened to be walking past. He had a thick French accent.
Her eyes widened. “You did?”
“No!” He laughed.
I’m still not sure whether he was telling the truth.
14 First Avenue, at First Street
Noise level: High
Wine list: Inexpensive French
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $14.75 to $22
Dinner: Monday to Friday 5 P.M. to 2 A.M., Saturday and Sunday 11 A.M. to 2 A.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor