Just before the turn of the last century French food in New York had fallen on hard times. Where once great Gallic behemoths like Lutece, Le Cirque, and La Cote Basque dominated the fine-dining landscape, these places were overtaken with a great whoosh by neophyte New Italian and New American establishments. A great Tuscan craze swept the restaurant industry, emphasizing fresh pastas, seafood, and vegetables in simpler, lighter preparations. Heck, these ascendant cuisines were practically sauceless, decreasing cost and prep time for restaurants increasingly plagued by cash-flow problems. But the tide was bound to turn and French food is making a comeback. With a modern twist, upstarts like Cherche Midi, Lafayette, and Dirty French have ushered in a new age of culinary opulence.
Mid-priced French bistros are beginning to bounce back, too. While we’ve retained a slender collection of old guard bistros, new ones are materializing, recalibrated to hold their own in today’s small plate and wine bar culture. One such restaurant is Le Baratin ("The Sweet Talk"), with a smirking fox logo that seems about to holler, "This is an ideal place for romantic seduction." Le Baratin is located in Greenwich Village, once a hotbed of casual French restaurants. And the place has a pedigree: brothers Michael and Cyril Touchard, two-thirds of the ownership, grew up working with their parents in the Theatre District’s oldest bistro, Tout Va Bien. Like the proprietors of old, they personally tend the bar and patrol the dining room waiting on customers.
The décor might be termed Parisian kitsch: bicycling jerseys descend from the ceiling, dimpled banquettes march along one bare-brick wall, original works of art alternate with colorful advertising posters, and strings of tiny lights twinkle over the bar. The bill of fare incorporates French standards, but also features a sprinkling of Italian dishes such as gnocchi and pizza. Comprising nine sections, the menu juggles all the classic hors d'oeuvres, cheese and cured-meat platters (that’s the wine-bar angle), and steaks and seafood, among such hoary bistro commonplaces as coq au vin and beef bourguignon.
You could do worse than order that old warhorse, steak frites ($32). Instead of slinging a rubbery and inexpensive hanger as bistros traditionally have done, Le Baratin fires up a New York strip, consciously treading on steakhouse turf. Well-marbled and tender, the thing comes smothered in a green peppercorn sauce with a bit of piquancy to it. Welcome back, sauces! The accompanying french fries are superb – scraggly, salty, and slightly greasy. Once the steak has been demolished, there’s nothing better than sopping up the last of your sauce with these unruly fries.
Welcome back bistros, and welcome back sauces
Other classics find themselves remade in smaller ways. The salade Lyonnaise ($12) topped with a poached egg comes with way more bacon lardons than is traditional, with the dressing toned down so the vinegar doesn’t burn your lips. Call it a tamed frisee salad. The pate maison arrives in a pair of thick chunky slices, a real rustic version sided generously with toasts and a heap of salad. If this were mainly a wine-drinking evening, this could be your whole dinner. Still hungry? Many of the apps come in two portion sizes, so nibbling an order of six snails, or hogging an order of 12, or sharing it with friends, provides plenty of noshing options.
There’s a rotund flame-grilled burger ($16), too, mounted on a toasted brioche bun, ravished with Russian dressing and wearing a skullcap of camembert – a choice just as radical in its own way as the Roquefort on the Spotted Pig’s. Other fry-bearing choices include moules frites, featuring some of the plumpest mussels this side of Marseilles. Of the three preparations, pick the version steamed with saffron, shallots, and garlic ($18), yielding a heavenly yellow broth. Ask one of the brothers for extra toasts.
The worst thing tried in several very good meals was beef bourguignon ($24), a classic from Burgundy featuring meat chunks braised in red wine and poured over homemade noodles. The noodles are superb, but the beef is dull tasting, and more salt doesn’t help. A high point was a pair of caper-smothered ray filets with a nicely sour tang, complemented with a passel of mixed vegetables. The all-French wine list is exceptional, with lots of action among the Bordeauxs and the Rhones, a good deal of it around $50 and on down. There are plenty of glasses of red, white, sparkling, and rose priced at $10 to $13, and the pour is generous. Ultimately, whether you treat Le Baratin as a wine bar, a snacky short-dish joint, or traditional bistro is up to you. And a trip there will remind you that nothing says dining pleasure quite like French food and wine.
Cost: Dinner for two with a shared app, two entrees, and two glasses of wine, with tax but not tip, $110.
Sample dishes: Steak frites, raie aux capres, moules aux safran, salade Lyonnaise
What to drink: Among sturdy reds, try a bottle of Cotes du Rhone or Cotes de Blaye, but for a casual approach to summer at a minimal price, try the Domaine de Jarras rose ($36), which is refreshing and light on the tongue.
Bonus tip: An early bird special available from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. each evening provides two courses for $20, or three (including an app) for $30. It’s an astonishing deal.