I have no idea how good it will be in, say, one month or one year (we’ll leave that up to Ryan Sutton), but one week after opening, Frenchette is fantastic. Early reports made the brand-new Tribeca French restaurant out to be a brasserie along the lines of Balthazar or Pastis, but the food is far more adventuresome than the collection of ho-hum dishes of brasseries, which act as cosmopolitan diners delivering predictable menus intended to satisfy a wide audience. In price point, style, and menu, Frenchette seems more like a quirky French bistro in, say, Montparnasse, than a historic brasserie.
In fact, chef-owners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson are veterans of iconic brasseries Balthazar and Pastis, but at Frenchette, they are breaking out of the Keith McNally mold to start their own place. So far, they seem intent on distinguishing it from their earlier projects — and I got the sense that this is no clone of Balthazar or Pastis the minute I walked in the door.
The place is located at 241 West Broadway in Tribeca, at the dead end before the street resumes on the other side of a pocket park and makes its way to Soho. The room lacks the usual deep red banquettes, smoky walls, and brass rails to hang your coats over. I realize, with orange-ish banquettes here instead of carmine ones, the distinction in decor is subtle. But the sensation of being inside the restaurant was decidedly different.
The pair of chambers — a barroom and a squarish dining room divided down the middle — feels like they were ripped from old Parisian apartment houses I remember from visits to France, the kind where a concierge sits in a booth in a darkened lobby. With an atmosphere more comfy than cosmopolitan, the curving doorways are edged in rounded maple trim and so are the beveled mirrors, the cream walls stenciled with flowers, and fluorescent light fixtures hanging from the ceiling playfully take the décor down a notch.
The menu, too, is playful. What other restaurant of this caliber offers a baloney sandwich ($7)? Actually, it’s the best mortadella you’ve ever tasted, smooth textured and lacking in big fat globules. Lightly wadded atop the bottom half of a bun, it comes snowed with grated cheese. Like our modern neighborhood bistros, Frenchette’s menu is divided into many sections, with amuses, small dishes, and sides easily outnumbering the entrees, making snacking and drinking a good bet, especially in the barroom.
Also from the amuses section is a plate of wonderful sardine filets, slightly tart and swimming in some green-yellow olive oil. The restaurant offers a basket of bread with it, and you should accept it, since the sardines are powerfully flavored. Another section dubbed hors d’oeuvres contains nine choices priced from $16 to $18. From it, my dining companion and I selected two dishes, one traditional brasserie fare, the other totally off the wall.
A pair of baton-size white asparagus appeared on a long plate mediated by a poached leek. Underneath was a gribiche sauce, a classic French mayo-style hard-boiled egg sauce, but subtly accented with specs of truffle. No truffle oil here to stink up the place, thank goodness. Much stranger, but even more delicious, was a thick filet of mild mackerel matched with veal tongue sliced thin, as soft as a chamois cloth. The pairing is unexpectedly magnificent; you never would have seen it at Balthazar. Other apps feature guinea hen and foie gras, sea snails and scrambled eggs, and a watercress soup.
You could put a great meal together without ever consulting the list of entrees. Indeed, many of these are intended for two people, but judging from the ones I saw flying by, they could easily satisfy several more. Among them is a roast chicken ($64), a whole turbot ($88), and a 50-day, dry-aged cote de boeuf ($103), the meat sliced and stacked into a huge pyramid. Even some of the plates destined for individual diners are generous, including a novel duck frites ($32), with a giant seared slab of breast, medium rare but crisp of skin, with a mound of french fries and a dipping sauce. Pour the sauce on the fries (disco fries!) rather than the duck. Do I need to tell you how good the fries are?
Our other entree was the only dud of the evening, a vegetarian artichoke and romanesco tajine ($21). It sounded like a good idea but lacked Moroccan flavors except for black olives that overpowered the bland assemblage. Apart from that, we found the food at Frenchette exceptional, washed down with the usual invented $16 cocktails; interesting beers on draft and by the bottle, running from lagers to saisons; as well as some good by-the-glass wines, accompanied by a long wine list bound in leather.
The waitstaff moves silently through the room in their tattered blue jeans and long black aprons; other employees wear rumpled shop coats in shades of rust and dark blue. At the end of the room a kitchen bustles, with one chef or another standing in the doorway at the pass certifying plates, light streaming all around into the dining room. ’50s and ’60s jazz played softly on the evening I was there, reminding me that this is one of the quietest restaurants I’ve been in lately.