Eater critic Robert Sietsema grazes around BPC’s new French market.
The new restaurant and market complex called Le District in Battery Park City has been described as a French version of Eataly. It lies directly beneath the sprawling Hudson Eats food court, though it lacks some of the spectacular river views that complex affords. Half the space is allotted to a series of 13 counters and kiosks that sell commodities like cheese, meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and flowers, while others vend such prepared foods as pastries, cookies, sandwiches, crepes, and rotisserie chickens. Two "stations" (as the complex calls them) furnish counter seating and the spectacle of your food being prepared, while the others don’t provide seating — so if you want to buy a sandwich, tart, or piece of cheese and eat it on the spot, you’ll probably have to seek out a bench in the Palm Court — the sunny, tree-dotted indoor public space that spreads in front of Le District.
A friend and I decided to undertake some culinary adventures to see how Le District compares to Eataly. Our first stop was the three-week-old brasserie, Beaubourg, named after a famous shopping district in Paris’s 4th Arrondissement. We arrived promptly at 6 p.m. to be certain of getting a table. To reach the restaurant you have to first approach a pair of reservationists standing in a shiny black box, and then traipse through a rather large bar called…Le Bar. At this hour it brimmed with raucous Wall Streeters, mainly men with their ties loosened, who sat and stood around raised tables in the elongated room. Early evening sunlight streamed through half-closed venetian blinds, making everyone look like zebras.
Beyond Le Bar was a dining room seating around 100 at beige, fake-ostrich-skin banquettes around tables set cunningly at angles to encourage a sense of intimacy in the disparate parts of the room. White curtains filtered the bright sunlight, though they obscured what might have been great views of the river. Busboys and waiters loitered in white shirts and black ties, wearing natty, knee-length black-and-gray striped aprons. There were also guys in three-piece suits standing furtively in the corners surveying the scene and speaking French. With Hudson Eats as upstairs competition, were they worried about the ultimate success of Le District?
A jovial wine guy approached dressed in a jaunty sports coat. He seemed as happy to recommend $12 glasses of wine as $200 bottles of champagne. The waiter insisted on explaining the menu, as if we’d never eaten French before. Though Beaubourg describes itself as a brasserie, the menu is more limited than that term suggests, though it contains standard brasserie fare with little variation from the most obvious. There are seafood towers, mussels in white wine, steak frites, croques monsieur and madame, escargots in garlic butter, fricasseed frog legs, a dorade tajine, and pike quenelles.
For appetizers, we ordered onion soup ($10) and frisee salad ($14). The soup had one of the richest broths ever encountered, buoying a couple of croutons but a little low on gruyere. Still, a notable win on the part of the restaurant. The waiter had ordered the salad split into two portions, with an extra poached and crumbed egg provided so each diner could have one. The vinegary dressing was a little on the harsh side, but that’s typical of the dish. We washed the starters down with glasses of rose and riesling, the latter from Alsace and not as sweet as we’d feared.
Heaped with pickled vegetables, an escabeche of mackerel ($26) — a little milder than expected — made a delicious entrée. The waiter had warned us it would be served cold, which was fine since it provided a nice glimpse of summer to come. The other main was a navarin of lamb shoulder ($28) cut in bite-size pieces. It was nicely meaty, and the dark demi-glace rich enough to glue your lips together. We finished up with three chocolate-drenched profiteroles ($12) filled with vanilla ice cream. The place had been nearly empty when we were seated; by 7:30 nearly every seat was taken.
THE FRENCH MARKET
We strolled around the market after dinner, noting a display of multiple French mustards, and a selection of kitchenware in a separate room on the way via a fruit and vegetable market to what would eventually be an outdoor terrace. At the front of Le District was a station with a small selection of sweet crepes made to order and a coffee bar, both positioned to lure potential customers passing in the Palm Court. The small flower area deeper inside seemed to be a concession; equally as small was a fish counter, which doubled as a seafood source for the brasserie.
On three further visits, we grazed in a modest way around the food court. The bakery counter offered 15 or so loaves and buns, as well as already made sandwiches on elongated rolls. The selection included pork rillettes, roast chicken, croques monsieur and madame, hot dogs heaped with grated cheese, and the classic baguette with ham and cheese, in addition to a small number of quiches sold by the slice. We picked the muffuletta sandwich, and found it tasty, even though the bread was all wrong (it should have been a wedge cut from a round loaf) and, instead of the usual green olive salad, came smeared with black olive tapenade. At over $10 including tax, it was also not much of a bargain.
At the cheese counter, we picked a goat button and a wedge of brie. The latter had been expertly aged, and went nicely with the baguette we also purchased, which had ends sharp enough to pierce armor. It was noted that the cheeses, totaling perhaps 80 varieties, were almost evenly divided between locavoric American cheeses and French, Swiss, and Belgian ones. The charcuterie counter adjacent featured selections not principally from France —many of the choices, including duck confit and several pates, had been manufactured by D’Artagnan of Newark, New Jersey. Indeed, D'Artagnan enjoyed a dominant presence in Le District.
La Cure Gourmande was one of the stranger spaces, really a shop unto itself. It featured mainly chocolates, candy bonbons, and cookies stacked from floor to ceiling in a profusion of eye-catching packaging. The logo highlights a girl with blond pigtails flashing a toothy smile, and the chain boasts 26 stores in France alone, with additional ones in Kazakhstan, Spain, and Abu Dhabi. The display right in front encourages you to make your own selection of cookies stuffed with chocolate, marzipan, and various fruit jellies by means of disposable plastic gloves that allow you to reach right into the hoppers. Though bearing the name of the shop, the chocolates look like they were made by Jacques Torres.
BIRDS AND BURGERS
Priced at $8.50 for half and $14.50 for a full bird, the rotisserie at the far end of the complex specializes in chickens, but also carries other roast meats that can be made into sandwiches, in apparent imitation of Eataly. The chickens, though, are held in a warming case pre-packaged in domed plastic, so the skin is rubbery rather than crisp; nevertheless they are marginally edible and large enough that a whole chicken can satiate two people. Next to it is probably the most interesting feature of the entire market: a butcher counter with a selection of steaks, chops, ground meat, and sausages at luxury butcher prices (more-expensive steaks $30 to $32 per pound) glowing pink in their refrigerator case. On the other side find a scimitar-shaped counter that allows you to select any cut of meat and, for an additional $8, have it cooked as you watch at a gas-fired grill. Pretty cool.
A short menu also offers burgers, steaks, merguez, and poutine, all featuring good french fries of the McDonald’s sort, offered rather paradoxically with bottled ketchup. (Do they know Americans, or what?) I sat down and enjoyed a "p’tit burger" ($12) that came topped with a julienne of roasted red peppers and the thinnest slice of cheese imaginable. Measuring only four inches across, the burger was small but quite delicious, with a lingering smoky flavor and compelling juiciness. While the burger counter seated only 12 or so, with a paltry selection of three wines by the glass, the adjacent counter known as Le Comptoir ("The Counter") was longer, and boasted free-standing tables. It functions partly as a wine bar, with a full page of beers, mixed drinks, and wines by the glass and bottle. Another page includes most items from the burger counter plus plates of cheese and charcuterie ferried from the respective stations, at least partly allowing Le District to burn off surplus commodities since these platters don’t specify any particular selection.
Admittedly, eating at one of these counters is enjoyable. But does Le District deliver the same excitement Eataly offers? Not quite yet. The selection of commodities is less far-flung than its Italian counterpart, the sense of space less expansive, the wine program more timid. While Eataly has a scintillating produce department, Le District's is not as impressive. Moreover, its sandwiches rarely come with lettuce and tomato, bagged baby lettuces are served at the counters, and the produce in the brasserie seems mainly limited to carrots, potatoes, and other predictable and cost-conscious choices. No ramps or heirloom tomatoes, for sure. This runs counter to the current desire among diners for a diversity of vegetables and healthier eating. Here's hoping Le District succeeds in a big way (the foot traffic so far suggests it already has), but so far it's no Eataly as far as level of culinary excitement is concerned.