When Frenchette debuted two and a half years ago in Tribeca, it initiated a French bistro revival ongoing today. Its founders, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, had worked as chefs at Balthazar, a starchy French brasserie with a classic menu that had been entertaining well-heeled tourists, visiting NYU parents, and Soho shoppers for two decades.
The pair scaled the brasserie concept back somewhat and tweaked the menu to be smaller and quirkier, adding ingredients like rabbit and veal tongue more often relished by Parisians than New Yorkers. There were smoked eel fritters and sea urchin deviled eggs, and menu expansions a year later added organ meats — though the place still pumped out perfect french fries like a fire hose. This was a bistro, after all, not an haute cuisine restaurant. Eclipsing its own steak frites, duck frites were offered and scored an instant hit.
The pair added nostalgia to the formula by styling the bar and double dining room like a streamlined steam locomotive, and set the price point sky high for a neighborhood bistro. The entrees climbed into the $24 to $38 range, with shareable dishes much higher, and they added a pricey Gallic wine list second to none in interest level, with an increased emphasis on natural wines. The customers flooded in; Frenchette became the hottest ticket in town, mentioned constantly and invariably included in best restaurant lists.
I remember liking Frenchette intemperately and looking for excuses (and the means) to return. But how has it fared during the pandemic? I decided to visit with a couple of friends and find out. Frenchette turns out to be thriving, with some ingenious touches that preserve the fine dining experience even in the odd atmosphere of 2020.
Getting a reservation was no mean feat, even during the days following Thanksgiving, when the neighborhood seemed empty. There was virtually no foot or vehicular traffic on the bucolic West Broadway cul-de-sac as we approached the restaurant around 3 p.m. on a Saturday. Its familiar black facade and white block lettering was visible over an elongated green canvas street installation, windowed in clear plastic on three sides. Additional tables were strung along the sidewalk, too, heated by a variety of electric and butane devices.
No indoor seating was permitted, in spite of it being currently allowable by the city, and a note on the menu asked guests to strap their masks back on when staff approached the table. The menu had shrunk from a high point of 40 starters, entrees, and desserts to a current roster of 28. A cursory examination indicated fewer luxury ingredients, in favor of a larger presence of sausages and offal; the mains now ran from $24 to $56, with only one large-format dish, a whole roast chicken that had been $64 two years ago but was now $72.
The oyster service ($26 for six) was almost doctrinaire, on a pretty piece of bone-white china with a vinegary mignonette and lemon wrapped in gauze. Weirdly, a plate of four pork sausages was poised on top, as if the waiter had forgotten to separate the plates. The sausages proved plain and porky, pleasant, although with no apparent seasoning; the oysters were lovably briny and perfectly opened. Was the pairing a value-added feature, two apps in one? Or part of an elaborate joke? No one else at my table wanted to alternate bites of sausage and bivalve, so I had the links to myself.
Our meal turned out to be a sausage tour de force. More sausage came with my brouillade ($26), a shallow bowl of eggs so finely scrambled that they’d turned into a bright yellow sauce. The focus of the plate, though, like an obelisk hurling toward the sun, was a plank of blood sausage that crumbled as soon as it was cut into, broadcasting black crumbs. Was this a stunt pairing or was it actually brilliant cheffing? I’d go for the latter; this incredibly rich starter previously featured snails, and this was better.
Continuing with the sausage cavalcade, we had an entree of sabodet ($32), a bulbous pork sausage more commonly identified on menus as saucisse a l’ail, sliced and served on a bed of lentils. If nothing else, the Frenchette menu is a language lesson, sprinkled with terms unfamiliar even to American lovers of French food, like “sabodet.” Oozing garlic-scented grease, the sausage was absolutely delicious, and so rich it might happily be your entire meal.
There was a French onion soup ($19), with more cheese than usual flowing down the sides of the cup, and a skate wing in lemony black butter, the filet not having been separated from its cartilaginous spines. It was, however, served with a handful of littleneck clams, a further value-added feature. It takes little details like this to make the diner feel pampered, and Frenchette excels in such flourishes.
The best thing we tried was one of the best deals, a substantial plank of veal breast ($35) glistening with a dark demi-glace that cascaded onto the plate. The meat was dense and slippery on the tongue, served with root vegetables and a smallish dab of polenta, both swamped in the limpid gravy. The plate really needed a larger portion of polenta; otherwise, much of the rich demi-glace goes to waste.
Our meal concluded with a shared dessert, a Paris brest ($16) with pistachios in various guises crusting and oozing from every surface, and a slight salty edge, perfect with a cup of coffee. We’d gone with a wine from Mallorca, a plummy red blend from Cható Pqta ($80) with an intriguing almost brownish color and enough dryness and acidity to cut the frankly greasy parts of the meal down to size. Pricewise, it was at the lower end of the wine list, although I couldn’t help but note the same bottle was available nearby at Chambers Street Wines for $29.99 retail.
Our bill had come to $336.42 for three, including tax. On top of that, a 10 percent COVID surcharge was added, bringing the total to $367.32. Since we were calculating the tip based on that final total, rather than going back to the pre-tax, pre-surcharge subtotal, as we’d done in olden days, we decided to add 20 percent, which brought us to a sum of $440.78, pushing $150 per person.
That’s steep for a bistro meal with few luxury ingredients and a plethora of sausages. Still, it was a memorable repast perfectly executed with exemplary service, and culinary details that will be savored long after.