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Daniel Krieger

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Dirty French Offers 80s-Era Excess for a 2014 Crowd

Dirty French, to borrow the smooth language of coarse pâté, is a fatty restaurant wrapped around a farce of svelte downtown diners. So let's start off with some cote de boeuf Q&A. How big is the steak? It's so big our waiter pushes two tables together to serve it. What does it come with? A side of dry-aged beef fat and mushroom carpaccio. How intense is the lardo? It's so rich that we cleanse our palates not with wine but with butter-laden pommes puree, which is like drinking a double espresso to come down from an eight ball and a can of Four Loko. Now you know.


Dirty French int

Interior of Dirty French. All photos by Daniel Krieger

How does it all taste? Bite into the beef and a peppery crust gives way to a crimson, silky interior. The Niman Ranch cow is aged for 60 days, imparting a level of tenderness that allows the steak to be served rare; try that temperature with a lesser cut and it would be all sinew and chew. The flavor is clean and sweet, the tell-tale sign of a proper grass-feeding. Want more tang? Take that funghi and fat carpaccio and drape it over the beef; the funk is so intense I ask if the chefs slipped a little blue cheese in there. They did not.

How much does it cost? The smallest cut was $167, which works out to over $200 after tax and tip. It is one of the city's spendiest steaks, not surprising because Dirty French, located in the Lower East Side's Ludlow Hotel, is brought to us by the team behind Torrisi and Carbone, two of the city's best and most expensive Italian-American restaurants.

Dirty French calls itself a "bistro," which is about as accurate as calling Sofia Coppola's rock-and-roll narrated Marie Antoinette a true account of the 18th century matriarch. It is rather a globally-minded Gallic chophouse and seafood emporium, with nods to India, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and thanks to Cajun-spiced porgy, Creole Country. If Keith McNally's lovely Cherche Midi is a hat tip to the old ways of fancypants French dining, with its cheese soufflées, frog legs, and île flottantes, Dirty is a look toward the diverse and diaspora-fueled future of high-end French fare. It is also one of the fall's finest openings.

Torrisi roasts Island Creek oysters over coals and tops them with parsley butter for an easy umami high. Lamb carpaccio, dotted with figs, sheep's yogurt, and mint, boasts the gossamer texture of tissue paper but still packs a mighty musk. Humble baked clams, sweetened with almonds and spiked with a smattering of Berbere spices, sport a lingering brine more characteristic of the regal sea urchin.

Dirty French carpaccio

Lamb carpaccio with mint, charred eggplant, figs, sheep's yogurt

And then there is the mille-feuille. It contains no phyllo. Chef Rich Torrisi slices royal trumpet mushrooms on a mandoline, presses the leaves of funghi into a mold, roasts them, and finishes the vegetarian terrine with bright green curry. It's as delicate and buttery as baklava — until the coconut and coriander of the verdant sauce kick everything into overdrive. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the original gangsters of global French fusion, should be jealous as it's the type of dish that wouldn't be out of place at his three-Michelin-starred flagship.

It's also the type of $17 snack you'd like to eat every day — something you could at a proper bistro, which this is not. Dirty French is still largely for those who reserve in advance. Partner Jeff Zalaznick tells me he'll be able to accommodate more walk-ins when things settle down and that he'll debut a full menu at the bar in 2015. For now, the good news is you won't be alone when you take that 11 pm reservation. Close to midnight on Thursday, there's a Ferrari parked in front and Dirty French is packed with well-dressed folks drinking $16 cocktails or good Champagne (there are five bottles under $100). That means that unless everyone here is unemployed — unlikely given the prices — a select group of New Yorkers is going to wake up for work six hours later hungover and smelling like old lamb.

A select group of New Yorkers is going to wake up for work six hours later hungover and smelling like old lamb.

Those are good problems to have. Dirty French, after all, could stand on its own as a high-end cocktail bar thanks to Thomas Waugh, who's put together a list of original potables that match the global spirit of Torrisi's cooking while still tasting good. He softens the blow of Irish whiskey with creme de banane; he amps up the spice of bourbon with ancho chile and cinnamon; he tames the power of tequila with the tang of yogurt and lime.

That last creation is what you drink with the lamb saddle, essentially the same "mutton chop" you get at Keens except this one is cheaper ($38 vs. $51) and more expertly seasoned. The heavy dose of cumin and gamy punch gives it that signature armpit flavor that some of us crave and, damn, the rare flesh practically rips apart with the ease of sashimi.

Dirty French fish
Dirty French cocktail
Dirty French mushroom

Above: Brook trout with sesame and dried apricots; Left: The Pigalle cocktail: Bourbon with ancho chili and bitter aperitif; Right: Mushroom mille-feuille with green curry

Does that lamb linger heavy in the mouth? This is where you take a big sip of the bouillabaisse noir to regain your constitution. What makes the soup grand is its use of octopus to mimic the gelatinous eel in the traditional Marseille preparation, as well as the addition of nutty rouget to evoke the heady flavors of the Mediterranean.

Feeling bloody? Torrisi transforms duck a l'orange, after a few turns on the rotisserie, into a study in silky fat, irony-meat and crispy skin. But even better is the $72 chicken for two, which deserves credit for making the $200 steak seem cheap by comparison. Torrisi roasts the breast and finishes it in mustard sauce and foie gras fat. He then marinates the thighs in fish sauce, kaffir, and lemongrass before slowly confiting them into fall apart bliss. Wicked stuff. Dab some house-made harissa onto the meat, wrap it all up in flour pancakes, and there's your Peking Chicken, an excellent ode to nearby Chinatown.

Heather Bertinetti's desserts are competent — from the respectable lemon tart to the very good ice creams to the forgettable beignets. But the real sweet treats are Waugh's cocktails. And the leftovers. Around 2 am on Saturday I take Dirty's killer flatbread and use it as a taco shell for some lamb saddle, fat-caramelized potatoes, and curried rice pilaf ($12). There you go. Red meat with starch three ways. It ain't dessert, but it sure is bananas.

Photographer: Daniel Krieger

Dirty French

180 Ludlow Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 254-3000 Visit Website

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