Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Murray Hill, NY
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Sparticus, Jools, MostlyIrish, BigNoaz, Guillaume, Kyrie, Diasala, Diana
Some of us are vegetarians, some of us are carnivores, and some are in-between, and finding a place to please everyone along the "meat continuum" is often an adventure in and of itself. Also difficult are pleasing people along a fat- or carb- restricted spectrum ... So why a French place? They are not a race known for eschewing fat, carbs, alcohol, butter ... all the bad stuff!|
For one, Tony Bourdain was the executive chef here when he wrote Kitchen Confidential and wrote and filmed A Cook's Tour. He's gone onto other things now, but he became famous for gritty "honesty" in terms of what goes on behind the kitchen door in a busy restaurant, but also for being opinionated, surly and just plain cranky. And that, at the very least, is what many of us had in common deep respect for those who would bitch and moan, and had strong, defensible opinions. And intelligence and wit, too!
For two, this place is named for the former marketplace of Paris, Les Halles, which consisted of ancient corridors and basements arranged into sort of "pavilions" for foodstuffs. It smacks of old-school tradition and salt-of-the-earth workers who toil to provide; it was called "the belly of Paris" in its heyday. It represents the heart and soul of proletariat-level French cookery, meaning the bistros and the households of Paris.
For three, if you have so many restrictions on the table, may as well piss everyone off and choose a restaurant where everyone is bound to be offended ... that way, we are all equal, n'est-ce pas?
And yes, when the menus were opened, there were groans of "too viandy!" and "too fatty," and "why do they have to do that to animals?" and "can you make that without butter?" To their credit, the waiters and hosts answered everything nicely and better than some of us would have ... But there were also groans of appreciation, as some advised that the French onion soup here was the definitive one ... or the steak frites being as perfect as one could find in any perfect bistro on Rive Gauche ... or the roast duck being better than anyone could cook at home. The omelets and fries are definitive, as is the chocolate mousse. And best of all, the price of a three-course brunch is priced at the "French Revolution" price of $17.89!
So after heckling and advising one another, we did get a large range of dishes. Some got the prix fixe brunch: omelets, made with whole eggs or just the whites; duck salad over frisée with fried potatoes. Others ordered à la carte: roasted half duck with an orange and lillet-based sauce; choucroute garni, that wondrous dish of pickled, salted and preserved pork braised with sauerkraut; steak au poivre with the best frites ever; wild mushroom ravioli liberally doused with butter; etc. In fact, all the hot dishes were liberally doused with a fat of one type or another.
When this place garnishes a dish with cornichons and sour grainy mustard, you know you should eat these with the dish. Both vinegary concoctions cut through the richness of the fat and butter (which was there, no mistake) in a savory, complementary manner. The tiny diced potatoes fried in duck fat were the only dressing on a salad of bitter greens, with mustard it was served warm. It's quite unfamiliar to many Americans, we think. In fact, Tony Bourdain's new show called No Reservations's first show was about how the French don't fear ingredients the way Americans do. And the late Julia Child would admonish us for fearing butter. "And if you fear the butter," she once said, "then add cream instead."
Okay, so eating like this might kill us ... we aren't French and our lifestyle wouldn't tolerate this daily. But once in a while, it's luscious and luxurious and the way we dream about eating when and if we were ever poor and envious. The one among us who was recovering from gall bladder surgery actually sighed with a deep satisfaction at his first bite of cheese omelet, and couldn't resist putting his spoon into the chocolate mousse. He declared it a wondrous salve for the austere diet he'd been forced to follow, but he did thank goodness he lived a whole continent away. He found this place irresistible and wanted to come back again!
The goat cheese salad that was the star starter in the brunch menu really was a thing to behold. Many of us had returned and found it equally and consistently good the next time. The French onion soup was as deep and as delicious as our dreams, without any trace of the overly salty canned broth many restaurants use. Or the soggy bread that falls apart if you don't use a good baguette as the crouton. They really use good basic ingredients; we couldn't imagine a chef as cranky as Bourdain tolerating any less.
But how do they do it? We should mention that this place is also a butcher shop and charcuterie, meaning they sell some prepared foods like mustards, preserves, heat-and-eat dishes like the choucroute garni, and also demi-glace of veal to be reconstituted into stock or broth or sauces. The cuts of meat are displayed almost obscenely in this day and age of healthier, more informed eating. But you do drool ravenously at the site of the visions in the coldcase. The meat you see here is the meat they use in the kitchen, and if you are looking for French-style butchered meats where the muscle groups are separated before further cutting, this is the place to get your meat.
You might notice that the place looks dingy, and even though New York City has a no-smoking law in eateries and bars, the ceilings and walls look stained with nicotine. It's an illusion; it's actually a mixture of steeped tea, applied in layers over the plaster. It's said that interior decorators come just to see how it was done, for that "authentic" cheese, seedy, Parisian bistro look.
Strange how in this rather French place owned by a Frenchman, a francophile Portuguese, and a worshipper of all things old-school former executive chef things are not as they seem. But they do try to make it so, even going so far as to serve Coke in those little glass bottles which were formed to emulate a woman's body's curve. (We're not kidding, it's apparently true!) And coffee is brought out in Bodum-brand French presses (which do require some explaining for first-timers). Like any good restaurant, it's about entertainment and fantasy, as well as excellent food for an excellent price.
Oh, back to the desserts ... we tend to be so full and so sated that we don't stray from the prix fixe menu for dessert. They offer chocolate mousse, sorbet, fruit crepes, or profiteroles, which are choux puffs filled with ice cream and covered with fudge sauce. We once begged for and got a substitution of fruit salad. All of it is very good, and it would be worth coming here for dessert on its own. Accompanied by the French press brew, it's a perfect treat in itself. We have no reason to stray much past the standard menu; besides, if one is a great chef, one cannot necessarily expect a great pastry chef, too. This seems to be true at Les Halles, for they seem to only offer the French bistro classics instead of the sugar and chocolate fantasies that other places offer for huge prices.
In the end, no, they didn't resort to Pam and non-stick pans to cook the omelets. They still used lots of butter, though they did create eggwhite-only versions ... and they served everything without apology, and actually without snobbery. A few times, the service has been a bit snotty but never inefficient. Any time there were mistakes were due to miscommunications between the hostess (all of whom seemed beautiful but ... lacking ...) and the servers.
By the way, this place is insane for dinners, meaning it's full, packed, noisy and the line to get in goes out the door and crams the tiny bit of waiting space by the bar. They had renovated less than a year ago and doubled their space, but it can still be a zoo. So make sure you make a reservation if you plan to dine here, and do it a few days ahead. Otherwise, for brunch you can just walk in and there will usually be room for you. Their website does take online reservations and the lady who answers the phone really is sweet-sounding, so you have no excuse not to call.
Disclaimer: The opinions and observations noted are the property of the author. Neither Wookieehut nor any associates makes any claims or lucre from the posting of this report or review. This webpage is presented by Wookieehut.com. Enjoy!