Dining With Moira Hodgson

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Soothes the Savage Breast

“Why don’t you take reservations?” I asked the hostess irritably. She was taking names at the front desk, and the wait for a table was 45 minutes.

“Would you rather call up and be told you could only come at 5:30 or 11 o’clock?”

Yes, actually, I would. Then I’d go somewhere else.

But here we were, and I hadn’t been able to reserve over the telephone, so the four of us crammed ourselves around Landmarc’s tiny, packed five-seat bar in the back of the downstairs dining room to wait. I asked the bartender for a glass of wine. “We only serve it by the half-bottle,” he said.

That turned out to suit me just fine, all the more when I discovered that the price for a half-bottle here is what you’d expect to pay these days just for a glass of wine in other restaurants. It’s one of several novel ideas at this new bistro- cum -trattoria- cum -steakhouse that chef Marc Murphy has opened in Tribeca. The international wine list, with 200 bottles, is very good indeed, and the prices are a fraction of the usual restaurant mark-up. So instead of desperately trying to find something decent in the low two-figure range, here you find yourself agonizing over a plethora of choices. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some bottles actually cost more in a liquor store (if you can even find them). The small bottles reminded me of being on an airplane. They also made me think of the food writer Elizabeth David and an encounter she had with a waiter when she was once dining alone on British Railways (“Half a bottle of wine, madam?” The waiter drew himself up, shocked at the order. “Do you know how much wine there is in half a bottle?”).

Landmarc is in the two-story industrial space that used to be Independent. It has thick steel front doors, bare brick walls, exposed duct work, heavy beams and wide plank floors. A metal cylindrical sculpture over the bar extends through the ceiling to the upstairs dining room, where it becomes a semi-private, cocoon-like booth. And running the length of the downstairs room is an air duct that looks a Tom Otterness sculpture, from which project what appear to be outsized versions of those air jets that you find above your seat in planes. They don’t entirely eliminate the tantalizing smells coming from the wood-burning grill in back of the bar. With mounting hunger, we watched as a young woman, dressed in chef’s whites and with a red baseball hat on backward, cooked quails, hamburgers and steaks. They sizzled over the coals and sent a wonderful aroma into the air.

By the time the hostess came to show us to a table, I had been mollified by half a bottle of Sancerre, and I apologized to her for my irritation. She was actually very nice-and, after all, it wasn’t her fault that we had to wait. We were seated upstairs in a large dining room that has well-spaced tables set with brown paper on the white linen and small candles, but the ambiance is marred by harsh strip lighting. Picture windows give onto a surreal view across West Broadway: At night, the cars that are parked in layers in a multi-storied lot look as though they are floating.

We all wanted some of those quail we had seen on the grill, but it was too late: They had been a special of the evening and were all gone. There were, however, plenty of other things to choose from on Landmarc’s menu, which is extensive. Both chefs have backgrounds in French and Italian cooking. Mr. Murphy previously worked at Cellar in the Sky and La Fourchette (where he turned out wonderful food) and also in the past at Layla, where his current chef de cuisine, Frank Proto, was the executive chef.

The menu runs the gamut, from French bistro (such great, old-fashioned dishes as boudin noir, rognons à la moutarde and sweetbreads), Italian (six daily pasta specials, including spaghetti alla carbonara and linguine con vongole) and steak. There is a choice of five different cuts (plus a portobello mushroom for vegetarians who want the steak taste without the meat) served steakhouse style with a choice of five sauces. For sides, there are French fries, spinach and leeks vinaigrette.

You can begin your meal with warm goat-cheese profiteroles, airy puffs served with an herb-and-roasted-red-pepper salad (a better choice than the doughy fried calamari). Salmon carpaccio, set out like the traditional smoked-salmon platter with red onion, parsley, lemon and mustard, was very fresh and silken. The roasted vegetable terrine-a difficult dish to do properly in a restaurant because it doesn’t take well to the refrigerator-was excellent, with an array of vegetables (including strips of eggplant) that tasted as though they had only just been cooked.

There are over half a dozen salads, including an American-style salad Niçoise made with fresh tuna instead of canned, and a sprightly frisée salad tossed with lardons and topped with a soft poached egg.

But grilled rare tuna as a main course was cold and dull and not of a very good quality. I preferred the roast monkfish, which came with fennel, tomatoes and black olives. Braised lamb shank, which was falling off the bone, was also a success, if a little wintry with its garnish of celery-root purée, bacon and Brussels sprouts. Duck confit was well crisped and came with a ragout of white beans, chorizo and spinach. The strip steak had a good beefy flavor, and the juicy boudin noir with French fries, caramelized onions and apples made me want to hop the next plane to Paris.

Another of Mr. Murphy’s great ideas at Landmarc is to serve small portions of dessert for just $3 apiece. It’s perfect for people like me who like just a taste of something sweet at the end of the meal but don’t want to plow through an enormous dessert. The choice included tarte Tatin, blueberry crumble, lemon tart, mini crème brûlée, chocolate mousse and a trio of granitas. You can get all six desserts for $15 (one more good idea from this cheerful, pleasant restaurant).

As we waited at the bar for our table earlier in the evening, I watched a handsome young Hispanic man, with tattooed biceps bulging out from the sleeves of his black T-shirt, tenderly spooning his way through a colorful platter of these small desserts, which he shared with an adoring audience of young women.

If you come to Landmarc early enough, you won’t have long to wait. And it you come really early, with kids, you can feed them from the children’s menu, with main courses just $3 to $5.

The night after I dined at here, I went to a new steakhouse in midtown. I’d made a reservation, but the four of us waited at the bar for close to 45 minutes anyway. And the price of a glass of wine was just one dollar less than the half-bottle I’d had at Landmarc. Oh, well.

Dining With Moira Hodgson