Papillon is named after the Steve McQueen movie about a prisoner desperate to escape from Devil’s Island. The owners, four Irishmen, hit upon it one night while tossing around ideas at the White Horse Tavern next door. But its name no more describes this small, polished restaurant on Hudson Street in the West Village than, say, Bullitt or The Great Escape. Framed film stills near the bar depict McQueen as the convict with rotting teeth and a butterfly tattoo, a haggard but determined look on his face. But they’re the only reminder of this miserable movie–unless the cobalt menus make you think of the sea he gazed upon while plotting his freedom.
The restaurant has a long, narrow dining room and a spare decor: black banquettes along walls painted a blend of cherry and oxblood reds; dark, polished rosewood tables set with votive candles; and Art Deco sconces that cast a golden glow. On warm nights, the doors open onto the street. Sitting near them is quieter than in the middle of the dining room, where the noise builds as the place fills up, aided by a boisterous disco soundtrack. But the young, modish diners don’t mind it. In fact, the pretty brunette with burgundy fingernails at the adjacent table one Saturday probably would have been thrilled had someone actually turned up the volume. Her eyes glazed over as her date waxed ever more enthusiastic on the topic of insurance and the importance of “sustaining a business plan.” To sustain her, at least, there was chef Darren Walsh’s food.
For as soon the waiter sets down an amuse bouche from the kitchen–a sliver of escabèche of red mullet on a thin slice of pickled carrot sprinkled with an emerald green basil oil–you know you aren’t in yet another predictable Greenwich Village bistro.
Mr. Walsh previously worked in London at City Rhodes, Pied à Terre, Les Saveurs and La Tante Claire, which is a bit like surviving Devil’s Island. From what I’ve heard about those kitchens, where he slaved alongside such pugnacious celebrity chefs as Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, they make a stint on Devil’s Island with Dustin Hoffman as your only friend seem like a holiday at Club Med. So if, upon learning one night from an apologetic waiter that they were only serving four of the first courses because the sous chef had cut himself and had to go home “to rest,” you might be forgiven for wondering what lay in store…. (In fact, the poor man had to get 10 stitches after trying to catch a dropped knife, and Mr. Walsh ended up turning out food for 110 people all by himself.)
With Papillon, Mr. Walsh joins a small group of chefs in the Village who have turned away from overblown temples of haute cuisine to run their own places (see: Annisa, Blue Hill and Wallsé), which are comparatively modest in every way except the food. His cooking is full of surprises, with unexpected juxtapositions of flavor and texture, of sweet with sour and salty, and his plates are pleasing to the eye without being overwrought.
Mr. Walsh, like myself, is in love with red mullet. If I were marooned on an island and only allowed one fish, it would be this, with its firm, lean texture and nutty taste. (It would have to be a Mediterranean island, of course, since red mullet doesn’t exist over here.) The little red-mullet amuse we were served winsomely made its appearance again in the frivolité de la mer , a seafood trio that also included sea scallops and smoked salmon. Bits of smoked salmon lent the scallops an earthy, cured flavor, which was perked up with caramelized shallots, lemon and capers. The sheet of smoked salmon was wrapped around horseradish and dill and served on a scoop of black olive tapenade.
If I could bring only one soup to my island, it would be Mr. Walsh’s red mullet marinière, made with a heady, russet-colored broth of lobster and fish stocks infused with fennel, saffron, carrots, onions and basil. When you dip in your spoon, you hit buried treasure: a mound of mussels bound by celeriac purée. Red mullet bones are also used to make the stock for the civet of lobster, which is flavored with brandy and basil. The steamed lobster is soft and melting, as are the tender carrots, baby potatoes and pearl onions. I know a chef who, when he particularly likes a dish, says it “eats well.” This lobster stew eats well.
A couple of first courses were oddly flat. A Vietnamese-style spring roll made with a phyllo wrapper was interesting on paper–the pastry is rolled around a filling of crab and presented on a bed of mango chutney–but it needed more spices and coriander to bring it into focus. A ballantine of duck-leg confit was also bland, despite help from wild mushrooms, Parma ham and mustard dressing.
Order steamed whitefish and you get three delicate strips thinly coated with bread crumbs and reclining on thick slices of parsnip and celery root. When cut open, a baseball-size dome of cabbage revealed a steaming nest of diced cabbage, celery root and carrots studded with bacon lardons. Béarnaise sauce laced with green peppercorns stood in for tartar sauce in this haute version of fish and chips. Slices of sea bass, the skin seared to a crisp, arrived crisscrossed on mashed potatoes flavored with dill. Something gave the dish a smoky flavor, but this time it wasn’t bacon. The mystery ingredient was gravlax, little chunks dotting the creamy, brandy-spiked dill sauce.
Twice, waiters tried to steer me away from the lamb confit, saying it was dry. Perhaps they thought I was expecting rare roast lamb. The meat, which was wrapped in glazed caul fat, wasn’t dry for confit. Though a tad underseasoned, it was redeemed by a rich rosemary cream sauce and teamed with fava beans, smoked bacon and tomato. Juicy roast duck breast was seasoned with thyme and dressed up with a conical head of mashed potatoes, a prune perched on top like a jaunty beret. The flavors were deepened by the surrounding
Armagnac-wild mushroom sauce. Filet mignon was tender enough to eat with a fork, accompanied by a snowy potato cake that was tucked under a layer of melted Swiss cheese.
For dessert, we ordered plum tarte Tatin. The waiter set down two plates decorated with squiggles of plum glaze bearing two tiny almond tuiles filled with crème fraîche. They looked like the world’s smallest dessert. But he soon reappeared with a flawless puff-pastry tart topped with caramelized plums, which he divided between the two plates. Chocolate fondant pie was also great–dense and dark–and the tangy lemon tart was gussied up by a silvery nest of candied sugar cupping a scoop of lemon sorbet. Any of these desserts would have made Steve McQueen very happy.
575 Hudson Street (between West 11th and Bank Streets)
Dress: Casual but hip
Noise level: Quite high, with piped-in music
Wine list: Short, mostly French, moderately priced
Credit cards: American Express only
Price range: Main courses $16 to $23
Brunch: Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday 6 p.m. To 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight, Sunday 6 p.m. To 11 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor