Lower East Side, NYC
Review by SuSu, Piggy
Some of us might be blessed with such a cook at home, but those of us tend to not be too grateful for it till we move away. Then we miss it, and start having unreasonable expectations of those who cook for us. "It's not like my mothers," is the usual whine.
The traditional neighborhood bistro in France would be opened by widows and housewifes who need the extra income. Jacques Pépin's mother, Paulette, opened several after the war. He recalled "working girls" stopping there for breakfast, on their way home from work. He didn't judge them, for though he knew there was something naughty about what they did, he only saw them as neighborhood patrons. Evocative, ain't it?
The Bistrot Margot looks tiny from the street. The frontage is 12 feet wide. Like any traditional bistro, it's more a converted living space than a made-to-order restaurant space. People were going in; we were waiting for friends, and grew worried that we should find a table? But one member of the party assured us the place was bigger inside than it looked. He referred to it as a "clown bus" -- he later said he meant "clown car" but his original simile was accurate. It's a long, narrow space, about three rooms deep. So tables are shoved up against walls and it's automatically a sort of romantic place, since tables for two are the norm in the long, narrow, corridor-like space. Try to avoid the tables by the walk-in refrigerator and the bathroom, of course. (Both stinky.) They apparently have a garden in the back, but being winter, we didn't investigate that option this time.
A nice benefit of the long, narrow room (which in NYC real estate parlance is called a "railway car" apartment, where one room follows another in a straight line) is many little romantic corners. Every corner was taken by a happy looking couple.
The menu is handwritten on long narrow mirrors set sideways about halfway up the walls, and they are very hard to read even though the handwriting was beautiful. Fortunately, the two waitresses gave us menus that were more legible. Like any good bistro, there were three or four offerings for any category: appetizers, salad, mains, desserts. Between us, the four of us had the boudin blanc (white pork sausage, served with potatoes and salad), navarin d'agneau (lamb stew in a clear broth with carrots, potatoes and turnips), roast pork served with potatoes, green vegetables, salad. Appetizers included a platter of charcuterie (slices of sausages and paté with cornichons -- tiny pickled cucumbers), paté de campagne (country paté with salad and toast points), spinach salad with goat cheese, escargots (snails in garlic butter). We drank a nice pinot noir with the meal.
It was all outstanding, carefully and thoughtfully cooked, and we cleaned our plates! A lot better than mom's efforts, sorry Mom! Not wanting the evening to end, we opted to share two desserts among us: crème brulée, and tarte tatin (upside down caramel apple cake), which were outstanding and served with crème fraîche. The coffee was good too, but the digestifs: a porto and armagnac ... you want to know how someone can spend 6 hours at dinner? This is why! The after dinner cheeseplate is apparently marvelous, will have to try that some other time.
The service was good overall, though sometimes overattentive or hovering. Other times, we waited and waited for them. The two waitresses were not coordinated, so we got told everything twice or not at all. That's not always bad though -- no one, for example, remembers the specials being told once, after all, and we often just wanted to be left alone. Would have been perfect if they had been more telepathic or experienced, maybe. This place is often advertised as a space-warp, where stepping inside is like going to France, and like in France, the waitresses seemed more like daughters of the proprietor perhaps. Not quite professional, but knowledgeable and pleasant.
The bill was a very respectable $50+ per person -- very good when you consider all the food we had, the wine and the after-dinner drinks. And the food really was good, better than even Mom's. And if France is really like this, then we understand why and how the French are still on this earth.
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