One of my favorite restaurants last year was Sauvage. Right across the street from McCarren Park, it provided a perfect setting for summer evenings, with its line of outdoor tables and long, windowed dining room, decorated in Viennese fin de siècle style.
Sauvage offered a rather wild French menu courtesy of chef Lisa Giffen, who started at Maison Premiere, a restaurant that specialized in absinthe and oysters. For the meatier bill of fare at Sauvage, Giffen memorably paired a whole lobster with pig’s blood sauce, but also did a delightful dish of stuffed and poached vegetables in broth, facetiously entitled “petit farce.” Here was a chef with a sense of humor.
Then late last year, Giffen left Sauvage, later replaced by Damon Wise, a veteran New York chef who’d just spent two years in Charleston. His new menu debuted on January 11th, and a friend and I went on a recent evening to check on its progress. The two dining rooms remain the same, all bent-cane chairs and wavy beveled mirrors.
The waitstaff behaves as if unsure of the new menu, which is clearly a promising document — though it still needs modification and development. Gone are the humongous pork porterhouse and the flattened pig head that so stunned Pete Wells. In its place you’ll find another non-doctrinaire French menu with some enjoyable as well as puzzling aspects.
Our least favorite dish was a wagyu beef tartare ($14), which came with some great homemade potato chips that were nevertheless too thin to scoop up the raw meat. The wagyu itself was a bit dry and rubbery, which, I suppose, is why raw egg is often added to tartare. On the side was a soupy huckleberry sauce that did nothing for the tartare, and anyway, this isn’t huckleberry season anywhere in the world.
A much, much better app was a bowl of squash agnolotti ($15) that really did look like pale little sheep among a turf of salty and shredded duck ham, which served to accentuate the sweetness of the squash filling. We spooned up the sauce — which glinted with pomegranate seeds — even after the sheep had vanished. Other things we wished we’d ordered included small dishes of beets and coffee yogurt, cauliflower and anchovies, as well as scallops in cucumber nage.
We were drinking a bottle of Valdiguie from Broc Cellars ($56), a terrific red varietal from California with a flat, berry flavor that we plucked from a list that was overwhelmingly French. My oenophile companion described the list as all sorts of hip wines that one is willing to pay a premium for, particularly for their contemporary fame.
On to the entrees! We picked a thick, boxcar-shaped strip steak ($27), cooked perfectly medium rare and served with herbed butter in a sharp green-peppercorn sauce with coins of potato and an oozing marrow bone. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist also ordering a side of french fries; this is a bistro, after all.
The other entrée was rabbit ($25) with roasted turnip, which I enjoyed just as much, though my companion thought the mustard broth too sweet and thin. Nevertheless, it was a nice riff on a French classic. Other entrees we considered included a cheeseburger with smoked cheddar and cornichon relish, and lobster with bok choy and sour cherry — would the sauce be as good as pig blood, we wondered?
The menu offers twice the apps as entrees, but at this initial visit, we enjoyed the entrees more. Nevertheless, given the extent and sophistication of the wine list, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to treat Sauvage as a wine bar rather than a bistro, and order only smaller dishes that go well with the wine. We agreed as we strolled in the park that our first meal at the revamped Sauvage had been promising.