At Frenchette, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson’s sleek Tribeca hotspot, something unusual happens while patrons engage in the dreaded ritual of waiting for seats at a packed bar: A server walks up, presents a menu, and takes your drink order on the spot. No credit cards are requisitioned. No one behind the bar is summoned. And a few minutes later a waiter returns with, say, a Calvados and tonic — a bitter, boozy, apple-tinged highball — or a fizzy glass of sparkling gamay.
The quiet courtesy lets guests focus on what’s important, which is contemplating the list of natural wines or the menu of creative Gallic fare — uni deviled eggs, anyone? — rather than forcing them to flag down a bartender or shout past fellow patrons. It’s the type of generosity that makes one think: Maybe Frenchette is worth the hour-long wait.
“Bad food is always more tolerable than bad service.” That’s one of the axioms of hospitality industry thinking, as well as a brilliant explainer as to why your grandparents’ burnt meatloaf always manages to please: because it’s served with love! And the good news is that service, in the mechanical sense of getting stuff to a table in a timely fashion, is generally practiced at a high level throughout the city.
But a larger goal of hospitality — making guests feel warm and welcome in an unfamiliar environment where they’ll spend a lot of money — is a trickier affair. Nasr and Hanson are more skilled than the overseers at other fashionable hangouts at creating a sense of belonging, a heck of a thing given that the duo hail from Minetta Tavern, a Keith McNally restaurant whose earliest days were a classic example of how not to treat humans.
Frenchette’s cocktail service is part of the feel-good equation. Another part is that the hosts seem genuinely excited to see guests at the door. And then there’s the fact that walk-ins aren’t just encouraged, they get about a third of the restaurant’s 105 seats; there are few better ways to make a first-time patron feel excluded than by telling them a nominally approachable cafe or brunch spot books up weeks out.
Hospitality is vital anywhere, but particularly clutch here, as it creates a safety net for a style of gastronomy that’s sometimes a standard deviation removed from the brasserie norm. Instead of shrimp cocktail, the kitchen sends out warm spot prawns tossed in thyme and butter; guests are instructed to eat the entire crustacean, chomping through a shell that shatters like the crisp exterior of a kouign amann. And scrambled eggs, as rich as creme anglaise, come topped not with truffles but a tiny pile of sautéed snails, amping up the buttery fats and adding an umami-studded chew.
These are the types of dishes that make it tough to be dismissive of Frenchette, that make it hard to ask whether “we need another self-consciously luxurious brasserie, in a city so full of them,” as another critic wrote. The truth is that Nasr and Hanson have given New York something decidedly different. They’ve built a modern French spot in conversation with the ambitiously lean neo-bistros of Paris, a venue whose culinary exploits can feel closer to a creative small plates place than a more staid institution like Balthazar.
Yes, the dining room is a study in architectural riches, with red leather banquettes, white curtains, glossy sapele wood paneling, and sinuous liquor shelves that recall the space age curves of the 1960s. But in a city admittedly replete with brasseries, I can’t think of a single one dishing out ethereal fritters laced with smoked eel, or funky surf and turfs that pair oily mackerel with paper-thin veal tongue.
How many other French restaurants are grilling blowfish tails, dousing them in chile butter and letting the patrons gnaw the succulent flesh off the bone? They are the chicken wings of the sea. And they go perfectly with a glass of pet-nat, a class of wines whose bubbles are produced without the addition of yeast or sugar, as is the case with the methode traditionelle. The result is a low-ish alcohol content and a level of fizz gentler than most Champagnes.
Jorge Riera, late of Wildair, is the man behind the natural wine list, and a large reason why Frenchette is compelling as it is. The bearded beverage director roams the dining room, deciphering obscure grapes to willing imbibers, and pouring restrained reds, skin contact orange wines, and cloudy whites that sometimes boast the oxidized flavor of sherry. But what makes the wines truly special is something larger: The ever-changing selections end up forcing a more honest conversation between the guest and the waiter or sommelier.
If Minetta rose to fame as one of the city’s more expensive purveyors of dry-aged steaks and hamburgers, Frenchette seems destined to be a touch more accessible, with two of the signature red meat preparations offered at $34. The first and best is the duck frites; the kitchen takes the canard breasts and steams them, roasts them in a cage, and then crisps them up a second time on pickup. The silky fats and iron-y flesh are a welcome alternative to the working class indulgence that is steak frites, though Frenchette does a fine number on that staple as well. The chefs rotate among a series of cuts, from bavette, to onglet, to the petit tender. The last of the bunch, also known as teres major, sports the soft mouthfeel of a filet but exhibits a more robust beefiness.
The sun-drenched flavors of the Cote D’Azur is a running theme here, which explains the fish soup — a tomato-laced misfire packing as little flavor as Campbell’s Manhattan clam chowder. Lemon- and bottarga-slicked spaghetti is a more skillful evocation of the Mediterranean, with the fragrant citrus taming the mineral overtones of the cured roe. Lamb, in turn, is broken down into the standard Provencal daube-style stew; cubes of fork tender shoulder meat sit in a summery broth of red wine and lamb jus.
Rotisserie lobster smacks of clean ocean air; the soft meat drips with curried butter. And the $68 Sasso chicken for two easily feeds three. It’s a Thanksgiving feast of a dish, with golden skin as crispy as a hard taco shell, a crock of mushroom-spiked pommes puree redolent with the scent of maitakes, a baguette showered in tart vinegar, and a metal gravy boat filled with heady drippings. And while such carnivorous fare almost begs for a lighter dessert — there’s a fresh, sugary strawberry pavlova on the menu — pastry chef Michelle Palazzo excels in heartier endeavors. Cue the stunning Paris Brest, filled with enough verdant pistachio cream to qualify as a nut butter sandwich. Or consider the large format clafoutis, a wonderfully eggy cake studded with the namesake dark stone fruits.
It’s also tempting to keep eating that chicken in the hours following a meal at Frenchette. On a recent visit, the kitchen supplemented my leftovers with half a loaf of bread for postprandial sandwiches. The restaurant tells me this courtesy is only an occasional one, but I hope it becomes more regular. In an era where the price of dinner continues to shoot up, guests at expensively casual venues could use a nice parting gift from time to time.