Beyond the Buzz, Bistro du Vent Serves Middling French Cuisine

Bistro du Vent was packed with food people the other night. Hardly surprising, since the restaurant is the latest project of Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich and their partner, David Pasternack, the chef at Esca. With a team like this, expectations were high.

While we waited for our dinner, the staff scurried around a nearby table, where a food writer had been recognized. As plates went back and forth next-door, we waited. And waited. Forty minutes went by between the time we ordered our first courses and the time they arrived.

Not that the staff wasn’t friendly. They couldn’t have been nicer, and that night they even did something about the lighting: They turned it down.

Lighting can work magic, as anyone who has ever been to La Grenouille can testify. At Bistro du Vent, whoever decided to install bright pinpoints in the ceiling that beam down mercilessly onto bald spots and thinning hair, casting deep, unhappy furrows on the faces of the people underneath, must be a sadist.

The restaurant, named after a windy stretch of 42nd Street between Ninth and 10th avenues- du vent in French means “of wind”-looks as though it was done on the cheap and in a hurry, as if its designers lost interest halfway through, installing some red leather banquettes with high padded backs, slapping some cream paint on the walls, hanging a few wine racks, and placing 25 bare wooden tables set with votive candles around the L-shaped room (not an easy space). Overall, the dining room is as characterless as a hotel-chain.

Bistro du Vent is on the other side of the block from Esca, which is a great seafood restaurant, also owned by Messrs. Pasternack, Batali and Bastianich (the latter two opened Casa Mono just over a year ago and this year plan to add a new Italian restaurant, Del Posto, to their empire). If you put a door in the back wall of the bistro, you could probably walk right into Esca’s kitchen, which would be convenient for Mr. Pasternack, since he’s dividing his time between the two restaurants.

Before Esca, he worked at Picholine, but his French cuisine here is simpler-traditional bistro food, with classic dishes such as onion soup, oysters, charcuterie, steak frites, rotisserie meat and poultry. The menu is inexpensive, too, with most main courses $20 or less, and it will certainly appeal to people wanting to drop in for a casual meal before or after the theater.

The excellent wine list is long and varied. It’s also exclusively French, including many interesting and unusual wines under $40. The sommelier is extremely helpful at giving good recommendations-in our case, on the cheaper wines.

Mr. Pasternack gives familiar bistro dishes a new twist. A delicate prosciutto is made not from ham but from lamb, served with cranberry confiture (Mr. Batali’s father’s recipe). Warm house-smoked sturgeon comes with blood orange, fennel and watercress. Braised leeks are topped, curiously, with salmon caviar (house-cured) and crème fraîche. The eggs have a pleasantly gentle, salty pop when you bite down, but I’m not convinced they do much for the leeks.

Much of the food I tasted at Bistro du Vent was, alas, surprisingly mediocre. I was hard-pressed to find much evidence of artichokes in the “salade tiede.” A special salad of haricots verts and wax beans with fromage blanc was bland. But the frisée salad with lardons, on the other hand, was first-rate, in a mustardy dressing. It came topped with a perfectly poached farm-raised egg with a deep, orange yolk that oozed satisfactorily over the salad when you put in your fork. Another good salad was made with chopped greens on diced red and yellow beets tossed in a pleasant, vinegary gribiche dressing and shaped in a round mold.

The kitchen hasn’t yet mastered the rotisserie that turns out many of the main dishes. I ordered “classic” duck, and the hostess explained that it would come out well-done, which was fine. Magret rare is one thing; Long Island duck rare is another. But I hadn’t expected it to arrive with a pitch-black skin (the sugars in the glaze had burned) that sat like a damp raincoat over mushy, seriously overcooked duck. You’d think someone in the kitchen would have noticed. The rotisserie pork-which was, as my companion put it, “beautifully romanced” with cloves-was a better choice, but a little dry, and it came with burned endive.

The lamb shank seasoned with Moroccan spices was dry, too, as was the rotisserie chicken, redolent of black truffles, which had crisp, well-seasoned golden skin. The daube de boeuf came in a lovely, rich Provençal sauce made with olives and orange and topped with fried onions. Another Provençal dish, bourride, was made with several kinds of fish simmered in a mild-mannered sauce made with pounded almond aioli, fennel and dill. The garlic was barely discernible.

Desserts were terrific, however, ending the meal on a high note. My favorites were the tarte au citron with whipped crème fraîche, and the pot de crème that was served with a slice of nut-covered praline. Spit-roasted pineapple was paired with a pink peppercorn ice cream, and prune almond cake, topped with crumbled blue cheese, with sautéed apples. The profiteroles-filled with praline ice cream-dripped with bittersweet chocolate, and the tarte tatin had a wonderfully soft, powdery crust and was served warm with crème anglaise.

When Bistro du Vent opened just two months ago, the kitchen probably felt as though it had been hit by a windstorm, given the number of customers that piled into the restaurant from the start. A chef as talented as Mr. Pasternack will surely get the kitchen under control before long. As far as the lighting is concerned, it could be fixed in an afternoon: Just go across the street and take a look at Chez Josephine.

Beyond the Buzz, Bistro du Vent Serves Middling French Cuisine