Artist’s Studio Turned Bistro: La Coupole in the Village

“Eat Well Everyday” it says in Art Deco letters engraved on the glass front doors of Village, a new bistro that has opened on West Ninth Street. Bondini, the Italian restaurant that formerly occupied the premises on this quiet tree-lined block did not, as far as I know, deliver on this promise, although it survived, untrumpeted by critics, for more than 25 years. Since I lived around the corner for many years, I often walked past the restaurant, but I went in only once. I failed to notice that the main dining room, which I remember as being red and murky, had a magnificent domed skylight, because it was completely covered over with black tar paper.

It isn’t any more. The new owners spent days painstakingly uncovering the skylight, which now opens like the inside of a giant centipede over one of the most attractive, understated dining rooms in New York. At the turn of the century, this was an artist’s studio. And what a studio! With 25-foot ceilings and a second story living loft–now a mezzanine set with tables along a black iron railing looking over the dining room–it must have been some place to work. (You would never guess from outside, but behind many of the plain brownstone facades on Ninth and 10th streets off Fifth Avenue are artists’ studios of equal magnificence. The largest and most beautiful was a New Orleans-style building on 10th Street that was torn down around the same time as Penn Station and replaced by a hideous modern apartment block that literally bricked up my bedroom window. So much for progress.)

Village is stunning in its scale and simplicity of design. And it’s comfortable, too. If you’re tired of cold, cavernous restaurants with overhead pinpoints of lighting and metal tabletops that you have to scream across to make yourself heard (not to mention celebrity chefs who are never in the kitchen) then this is the place for you. You walk into a room with a low tavern ceiling and a large, cozy mahogany bar. Opposite, a row of red booths lines a wall of dark stained wood. The dining room beyond has soaring, creamy yellow walls, mahogany paneling over the red-and-black banquettes and beveled mirrors like those of old New York or Paris bistros. Twenties Art Deco sconces create a flattering soft glow throughout the room and the tables are set with paper cloths. It reminds me in many ways of La Coupole, not the least because it has already established itself as the sort of place where you might see someone’s grandmother sitting next to Jean-Paul Belmondo (or today’s equivalent, such as Matt Dillon and Gwyneth Paltrow, who have already been to Village), with a couple of face-pierced musicians in jeans on the other side. It feels grown-up, elegant and up-to-the-minute at the same time.

So it should come as no surprise that the owners, chef Stephen Lyle and his partner Hafid Elbroji, who is maître d’, were at the Odeon for many years. The Odeon was a pivotal restaurant in New York dining, starting off superhip and cool, and evolving into an established restaurant, unfazed by the vagaries of fashion. And it has lasted for more than 20 years. Part of the reason was the Odeon’s consistent and unflashy food. Stephen Lyle, who also worked at Quatorze and Man Ray, became the Odeon’s chef in 1989. He then went on to open Independent in Tribeca in 1997.

His cooking is Mediterranean and French bistro, with some Mexican and Asian elements bringing it up to date. He is not about wowing the eater with strange combinations, but about giving people what they want to eat. I think he’s at his best with his straightforward bistro dishes, the ones he’s cooked for years, which are focused and well conceived. When he gets experimental he can also be very good. Who would think to put tuna sashimi in a grape leaf and serve it with horseradish and beets? It was delicious. So was his arugula salad with a tangy Bucheron goat cheese.

Frisée salad is on menus all over town, but Mr. Lyle’s has become one of my favorites. He got the dressing perfect, with just the amount of vinegar needed to cut the bacon fat without overwhelming, and tossed the frisée with chunky lardons, cloves of sweet roasted garlic and large croutons. In another salad, the anise taste and crunch of fennel provided a foil to the acidity of cherry tomatoes and to the soft white beans, topped with lots of parsley. He also gives old favorites a new twist: Caesar salad laced with chopped anchovies, red onion and cherry tomatoes, leeks not just marinated but also grilled. The smoked grilled crépinette, a sausage of pork cheeks wrapped in pig’s caul, was a masterpiece, with crisp bits on the outside and a creamy soft interior, served with celery root rémoulade and mustard sauce. The person ordering it had expected a crêpe. She got over it. The pan roast of oysters was also terrific, in a crème fraîche sauce perked up with chipotle chilis and laced with bits of corn cake.

Apart from the silky pillows of homemade veal ravioli, with a light sauce of crème fraîche infused with rosemary, the main courses that tried to be a little edgier weren’t as good. I’d have better liked the roast leg of lamb–which was nicely pink and juicy–had it come with white beans rather than with a brown mush of ful (dried fava beans) and vinegary artichokes. Grilled Louisiana shrimp with beet and chipotle vinaigrette were much too busy, overwrought with grapefruit, lime and lemon among other things. But the steak au poivre was stellar, a rosy charred piece of meat with lots of flavor and peppery cream sauce, and great French fries. The juicy hamburger with salsa was a good buy at $7.50. Seared rare tuna béarnaise was also fine, although I would have preferred plain French fries to those sprinkled with an ancho chile and cumin powder that came with the tuna.

Village has service. I don’t normally send wine back, but when none of us wished to drink past the first sip of a St. Emilion 1996 because it was as tight as an elastic band, it was gracefully exchanged.

Desserts included an ice-cream sundae that was a child’s dream with preserved cherries, thick chocolate sauce and crumbled brownies, as well as a Meyer lemon tart in a flaky pastry shell. The floating island of meringues adrift on a pool of custard sauce and topped with nuts scored highly, as did the smooth crème caramel and the financier (the sort of small toasted buttery almond cake you get for breakfast in Paris) with a compote of rhubarb and a tangerine sorbet.

With main courses priced between $14 and $22, and a $25 two-course prix fixe with a drink and coffee, Village offers very good value. It feels like a place that will last. Who knows, maybe it will even stick around for 25 years.


* *

62 West Ninth Street


Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine, although high in some parts of the room

Wine list: Mostly French,

Predictable, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $14 to $22 dinner: 6 p.m., To midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor Artist’s Studio Turned Bistro: La Coupole in the Village