What might be the best dish of the year is so simple, you’ll wonder why it’s not more ubiquitous. Saucisse puree ($31) starts with a pork sausage that’s as fat as a fairytale giant’s fingers, draped over a buttery swirl of mashed potatoes, with a reservoir of silky French gravy spilling over the sides. Every bite is a heavenly mix of pork and creamy spuds dipped in gravy. It’s hard to not throw down your utensil after the plate has been licked clean and shout, “This is the best thing in the world!”
Of course, you might be wrong, but several dishes of chef Max Mackinnon — veteran of restaurants in Copenhagen, Washington, D.C., and Burlington, Vermont — can elicit that kind of enthusiasm. Libertine at 684 Greenwich Street, near Christopher Street, is a month-old French restaurant that plumbs the heart of bistro cuisine.
The place occupies a lovely corner location, the exterior a studious-looking gray and yellow, the interior dominated by an ancient honeycomb-tiled floor, a short bar with red-upholstered stools, well-spaced small tables, and a series of mirrors for surreptitiously observing other diners, a feature of bistros for a century and more. The menu is written on a chalkboard that can be leaned next to your table if you’ve forgotten your glasses. There are no QR codes to be found.
The second best thing that I tasted on two visits was a unique presentation called scallops + seaweed ($18), listed among the smaller dishes. It arrived in an outsize scallop shell kissed by the broiler, with raw scallops in a nest of shredded seaweed that tastes like cabbage. Every sliver of crustacean provides a sweet explosion of a bite.
While any bistro might serve ham sandwiches or thin-sliced ham on platters, at Libertine it grabs the spotlight. Jambon persille features giant ragged cubes, fibrous and flavorful, in a matrix of bright green jelly, served like pate in a thick slice. It’s so good, it needs no bread.
Mackinnon is something of a bistro historian, sometimes unearthing dishes that have been forgotten rather than inventing them. A case in point is oeufs mayo, a dish strictly for lovers of freshly made mayonnaise. Boiled eggs like humpback whales rise out of the whipped white stuff — foamier than you might expect — decorated with bright orange trout roe that add a briny counterpoint. The proportion of mayo to eggs is much higher than the dish requires, giving license to eat spoonfuls of mayo.
Occasionally, things don’t quite achieve perfection. Gougères, presented in a cloth napkin, are warm round rolls that were as light as balloons, when I had hoped they might be more dense and cheesy. And a starter of toast and anchovies presented with butter seemed a little too DIY, with the constituent items not quite fitting together. (The tiny fish kept slipping off the toast before I could eat them.)
While the menu remains simple, some dishes incorporate technical fireworks. Fit to be enjoyed by a pair of diners, duck deux façons ($72) features a breast with crackly skin swabbed with a piquant green peppercorn sauce, along with a confit casserole, the rich meat concealed below little plumes of potatoes aligot. It’s so beautiful, you won’t want to be the first to disturb its appearance.
Of course, wine is a big part of eating at any bistro, and the all-French wine list is way more elaborate than the simple menu. A list of 13 by-the-glass selections ($16 to $28), slightly favors reds, but with one excellent orange wine: Fabien Jouves Skin Contact, a slightly astringent and lightly colored blend of gros manseng, ugni blanc, and muscat d’Alexandrie grapes from Cahors that stands up to even the richest dishes on the menu. With around 200 choices, the by-the-bottle list ($60 to $360, with lots of action in the $80 to $100 range) is divided by grape color and region, and you’ll likely need the help of beverage director Cody Pruitt to navigate it.
Libertine recalls the days in the last century when the West Village was dotted with French bistros, many located among tree-lined rows of townhouses. At the time, everyone had a secret bistro whose name would be whispered to friends along with the admonition to not tell anyone else. I suggest you hurry to Libertine before the secret’s out.