It’s an amusing idea. At Le Zinc, those who can’t afford Chanterelle’s stratospheric prices can eat the food David Waltuck has been dishing up for that restaurant’s staff for the past two decades (known in the business as “the family meal”). His new Tribeca bistro, which he co-owns with his wife Karen, is like the second wine of a big château–the Pavillion Rouge to Château Margaux. It’s casual and easy-going: stews, soups and pot roasts; no caviar, no foie gras and no tablecloths. In fact, you almost expect the waiter to ask you to hold on to your knife and fork between courses.
Le Zinc is named for its predecessor, an 80’s bistro that served decent but dull food. The Waltucks did not set out to create the sort of meticulous reproduction of a Paris or Brussels bistro that has been invading spaces up- and downtown. Nor did they go for the restrained elegance of Chanterelle. (The only detail in common is Ms. Waltuck’s signature flower arrangement, an imposing display that presides over the end of the bar like a monolithic sculpture.) The restaurant, over a year in the making, is simple, pared-down and unpretentious. The long, narrow, dimly lit room has no fancy brasswork or etched glass, just a tunnel-shaped ceiling and hardwood floors. The cream-colored walls are hung with film, art and photography posters (and even one from an ancient Gore campaign) and lined with gray banquettes lit from behind. At one end is a giant tilted mirror that reflects the heads of the diners. At dinner time, the zinc bar is manned by an overworked bartender desperately trying to take care of the droves of customers waiting for tables. (I highly recommend the house cosmopolitan, made with aquavit. It’s a pleasant little fruit cocktail that goes down as smoothly as your morning glass of juice and will help to take the edge off your impatience.)
For in its goal to be a casual neighborhood place, Le Zinc doesn’t take reservations, and you may stand at the bar for 45 minutes. If you come on the late side, after the Wall Street people have gone home, you will find a more artistic crowd, like the one that used to frequent Chanterelle when it first opened on Grand and Greene–a section of Soho that was so remote in those days that taxi drivers didn’t know how to get there. And if you come well after the dinner hour (it’s open until 4 a.m.), you will see chefs, which is always a good sign–and you won’t have to wait.
It’s been 21 years since the Waltucks opened Chanterelle in a corner storefront, a startlingly original restaurant with inventive New American cuisine that set the standard for others to follow. It was such a success that 10 years ago, Chanterelle moved into larger premises in Tribeca’s Mercantile Exchange building on Harrison Street, where it drew a loyal clientele from Wall Street to the Upper East Side. When Mr. Waltuck first started cooking his staff meals, he was serving six; today, it’s around 25. He has just come out with a book, Staff Meals from Chanterelle (Workman Press), that contains recipes for such dishes as braised brisket, pork goulash, potato latkes and Dominican chicken with rice. (I made the chicken recently and loved it.) Le Zinc’s menu is based on French classics, including terrines and other charcuterie, but there are also old family recipes from Eastern Europe and Asian-inspired dishes gleaned from trips to nearby Chinatown.
It’s all in the details, beginning with the great crusty peasant bread from Tom Cat Bakery and creamy unsalted butter the waiter brings to the table when you sit down. A satiny, fennel-cured gravlax came with a small salad of sliced potatoes that had been given just the right shot of vinegar to cut the richness of the fish. The salmon was wonderful, but the vinegar brought the dish together.
I’ve never tasted better onion fritters than at Le Zinc. They were sweet and melting under a burnished batter that was as light as tempura. They were dipped into a spicy tamarind sauce that was good enough to eat with a spoon. Also extraordinary was a crispy cannoli filled with a delicate mixture of curried crab meat, a clever contrast of textures and flavors. Mussels trying to be snails, served on the half shell with garlic butter, did not achieve their goal, however; they were dry and chewy (albeit not as leathery as snails when they go wrong). But the lamb sausage (merguez) grilled in grape leaves had a lovely, smoky flavor and was given a Middle Eastern touch with garlicky yogurt dipping sauce. Even a simple salad made with chunks of roasted beets, goat cheese and greens had what the French call goût du terrain , made as it was with fresh, impeccable ingredients.
Chef Michael Sullivan, a Chanterelle alum, uses the cheaper cuts of meat and less expensive fish–which often have more flavor. Snow peas seem to garnish every dish, but that’s fair enough considering that nothing on the menu is over $19. The pot roast with carrots was beautifully cooked, but it needed a dash of horseradish. The pork filling in the Hungarian stuffed cabbage could have been more tender, but the flavor was there–and the full, round spice of paprika. The liver, sautéed in a mustard crust, was perfect–pink and tender, served on a heap of mashed potatoes with a red wine, bacon and shallot sauce.
Grilled swordfish was a bit overcooked, although nicely seasoned with garlic in a fines-herbes marinade. But the fried catfish could have been crisper, and the coconut-jasmine rice and ginger-scallion sauce seemed a bit elaborate for this simple fish. My favorite–on a level with the liver–was the skate, topped with a nutty brown butter and capers.
Pastry chef Kate Zuckerman’s desserts are not elaborate pieces of architecture, but simple and satisfying. The apple and quince tart’s light pastry shell was just a tiny bit burned on the bottom, which for some reason made it phenomenal. Lemon curd tart with whipped cream was also very good, but the flourless chocolate cake with milk-chocolate whipped cream was a triumph. As for the maple crème caramel, “I don’t deserve to be in the same room as this,” a friend commented rather overheatedly one evening as she finished the last spoonful. “It’s a miracle.”
Next thing you know, she’ll be applying for a job at Chanterelle.
139 Duane Street
Noise level: High
Wine list: Mostly French and inexpensive, many selections by the glass
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses brunch $5.50 to $12, lunch $9 to $15, dinner $11 to $19
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Daily, 5 p.m. to 4 a.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor