When Lucien opened in 1998 at 14 First Avenue just north of Houston Street, it was at the tail end of a French bistro craze that saw 10 or so such restaurants open in the East Village over a five-year span. Other places, largely forgotten, included Jules on St. Marks, Casimir on Avenue B, Flea Market on Tompkins Square, and Resto Leon on East 12th. All served a predictable menu of steak frites, roast chicken, escargot, frisée salads with lardons, and gooey onion soup, along with the stray Basque, Moroccan, or regional French dish, as bistros do in Paris.
Even then — founded by Lucien Bahaj, who died in 2019 — Lucien was defiantly more ambitious and it still is. I went last week with a couple of friends, having heard that the place was as popular as ever. When I last visited in 2015, the customers were mainly gray-headed and sat reading the New Yorker or a volume of Proust. Now, as the early evening sunlight blazed in the front window, a younger crowd of fashionistas and art hangers-on dominated the dining room, judging by appearance and overheard snatches of conversation, as the tiny place filled up and became crowded.
In the 25 years since it opened, the walls in the front room had accumulated oodles of signed celebrity photos — where I’d once referred to the place as “pleasantly underdecorated” — and the furniture had become older and more worn. But beyond the bar in the rear enclave, the same Cezanne-style painting was hanging with a patina of age. The waiters still don peg pants and pocket t-shirts in traditional East Village black.
My friends and I were seated at a table that hugged the curve of the wall so that anyone who squeezed past to get a cocktail or glass of wine at the bar had to undergo our scrutiny (and we, in turn, received curious stares).
I won’t bore you by comparing specific dishes with the way they used to be. The menu is mostly the same (though duck done two ways is currently missing), but the prices are now astronomical. However, the bouillabaisse ($58) was one of the best things I’ve eaten so far this year: A thickly populated shallow bowl was studded with scallops, giant shrimp, mussels, littlenecks, and a half lobster rearing up like a monster in a sci-fi flick, in a dense broth shot with tomatoes and Pernod; croutons smeared with peppery rouille launched into the soup like little boats.
It was only after the meal that I discovered a framed copy of my review of the same bouillabaisse when the place opened in the bathroom.
The steak frites ($48), too, was up to par. As the waitress suggested, we had the NY strip grilled to a medium rare. It came with a green peppercorn sauce, a useless wad of watercress, and scraggly fries that threatened to upstage the steak. In other words, we gobbled them up before cutting into the steak. But isn’t it part of the definition of a French bistro that the fries are the best thing?
The two entrees were enough for our trio. We’d earlier lined our stomachs with three apps, including slices of a silky duck liver pate strewn with crunchy pink peppercorns ($18), and a French onion soup ($16) that wasn’t different from any other versions in town, gooey, bready, and brown. Which means — order it by all means.
But best of all the starters was Lucien’s signature salad ($28). When it arrived heaped on the plate, a cavalcade of different lettuces, it looked underdressed. But one bite of a leaf coated with the restaurant’s light, sweet vinaigrette and we were won over. And immediately began digging for the crisp fried artichokes that are buried in its depths.
We washed the dinner down with an excellent bottle of Alsatian pino gris — assertive, and not even slightly fruity or sweet. At the end of the meal, we were still sipping it, and decided to forego the doubtlessly great crème brulee and tarte tatin for dessert. The modest dinner, though a memorable one, had cost us $295, including tax and tip — making Lucien still a great bistro, but now with more formal French restaurant prices.