The young blond Frenchman, dressed all in black down to his leather wristband, drinks champagne with foie gras and consults his cell phone every few minutes. His pretty raven-haired girlfriend, sunglasses on top of her head, dines more modestly on a salad and Coke. Along the banquette, another man in black, conspicuously sporting an early-60’s Rolex, is also lighting up his phone between mouthfuls. But it’s way too noisy to call from here. It’s so noisy, in fact, that in his effort to make himself heard across the table, my companion says he feels like Charlton Heston as Moses reading the tablets.
Frederick’s Downtown, a few blocks from the meatpacking district in the far West Village, is the latest venture of brothers Laurent and Frederick LeSort, who also own a lounge called Frederick’s on West 58th Street and Frederick’s Madison, a clubby, Euro-chic bistro on 65th Street. Jean-Baptiste Parvaix, manager of the Upper East Side restaurant Le Bilboquet, is a partner.
In its previous incarnation, the restaurant was Bivio, a popular hangout attracting an art-world clientele. Now there seem to be two distinct groups of customers, with a sea change taking place around 9 p.m. Earlier in the evening, the room is packed with locals, professorial middle-aged couples, men who bear more than a passing resemblance to Harvey Keitel wearing pink shirts or tattoos, and groups who look as though they wandered over when they couldn’t get into Pastis. An hour later, when those tables have turned, the restaurant is like a private club. There’s a steady influx through the door of the suave and the young, beautifully dressed, many with French or Italian accents (and, commented my friend, with more bankers among their ranks than would care to admit to it). Many of them must surely have driven down from the Upper East Side, and they are warmly greeted not only by the hosts but by each other.
The L-shaped dining room has a small bar in the front, a dark wood floor and large windows on two sides. The walls are lined with gray banquettes, and the tables, packed in tightly along the banquettes, are set with white cloths and candles in heavy glass holders.
“Could we sit at one of those round banquettes in the corner?” I asked the first night I came here, as four of us were led to a table in the back under a loudspeaker. The hostess said they were already booked. One of them remained empty for the rest of the evening as our eardrums were pounded by techno music. If I’d had a gun, I would cheerfully have shot out the speakers.
The food is another story. Executive chef Vincent Chirico has worked at Daniel, Aquavit and Tocqueville, and did a stint with Georges Blanc in France. His menu concentrates on the cuisine of Southeastern France (and it’s similar to but cheaper than the uptown restaurant). A great deal of effort has gone into the dishes, and the food is a pleasure, beginning with the crunchy baguette that’s set down on the table (when your waiter remembers to bring it). It’s not served with butter or olive oil, but with a dense green olive tapenade and a smooth purée of roasted eggplant with mascarpone.
There’s a selection of tapas, including a tender calamari in a crunchy breadcrumb batter with an aioli-tarata and a delicate tartlette made with prosciutto and figs. A plate of crudo consists of a trio: tuna tartare with avocado, salmon and yellowtail, all very fresh and cut in thick chunks.
The salads are also exceptional. Young leaves of frisée are tossed with glazed pieces of pear, shaved fennel and goat cheese and sprinkled with walnuts. Haricots verts come in a white truffle vinaigrette topped with slivers of Parmesan, and baby artichokes are lined up on a long plate with mache, tossed in a lemony chervil vinaigrette.
The foie gras du jour, which my French neighbor was enjoying one night, is excellent. It came on this occasion with a marmalade of figs. I also love the creamy orzo tossed with pieces of lobster and chanterelles. Tuna, cut in small, rare squares, is accompanied with artichokes barigoule and oven-dried cherry tomatoes. Scallops are served with a fine purée of cauliflower and white raisins (this year’s dish of the moment in many restaurants, it seems).
Mr. Chirico matches a terrific veal tenderloin with baby turnips, lardons and shiitake mushrooms, a rack of lamb with white beans and spicy pieces of merguez, and a sliced beef tenderloin with stewed short ribs. The weakest dishes are a watery fettuccini with braised rabbit and roast cod in a wan tomato sauce.
Desserts include a sublime cassis soup laced with berries and faintly scented with cardamom, and a milk chocolate bombe under a dark chocolate sauce. Three small puddings are subtly flavored with lavender, vanilla and chocolate. My favorite of all the desserts is the passionata, a passion-fruit custard that’s like a panna cotta but denser, topped with passion-fruit gelée on a disk of white chocolate and served with passion-fruit sauce.
As he wound up his meal with a Poire William, my companion was still eyeing our neighbor’s Rolex. “In Italy, that is the watch equivalent of driving a 300 Mercedes SC.”
When we left around 11, people were still pouring in, some surely wearing watches of similar ilk.