It takes nerves of steel to decorate your restaurant with a three foot cockroach. To be fair, I am not sure it is a cockroach or that it is carved from driftwood, but that’s how it looked to me suspended from the ceiling in the back corner of Café Cluny, the new little French place in the West Village serving straightforward bistro food. I am sure you are asking, “the West Village needed a new small restaurant serving French bistro food, how will it stand out?” Well, besides the three foot driftwood cockroach, a serious collection of sketches of flora and fauna, and a strikingly good portrait of a young Jonathan Waxman in pencil, it has a stupendous appetizer.
Like Gavroche, Jarnac, La Ripaille, Le Gamin, Paris Commune, Tartine, and the many places in the neighborhood that also serve standard French bistro food but don’t identify themselves as uniquely French, this is a quaint room jammed full of little, two-person tables and bistro chairs that encourages an intimacy with the crowd. You are, after all, about ten inches from your fellow diners in two of the three directions that aren’t facing the table. Also, like all of these places, this one was full of patrons; it would seem outside Paris the best place to be a Parisian bistro is in the part of New York City where the East-West streets start running diagonally SE-NW.
When Wife and I walked in around six on a Monday to a rather sparsely sat restaurant we were told they could accommodate two but that we would need to finish by 7:30pm. This initiated a gamut of feelings in me. First was this isn’t Nobu and I stopped eating at Nobu because of the “I need the table back” thing they do. Second was, well, maybe the table has been reserved and this host is kindly squeezing me in, making a fair deal for both of us (we weren’t going to be long anyway, people who sit before six seldom are and he must know that or he wouldn’t be the gatekeeper at a restaurant in Manhattan). Third was what kind of inept reservationist loads a book around 7:30pm on a Monday? Finally, when the third phrase uttered by our waiter was “there is no rush” I figured best to write it off to new place jitters not worth being distracted by.
Ok, so the place is not very unique and is very popular very early in its run. What matters is the food and wine:
The wine list is trite and dear, however every bottle of wine on the short list is also offered by the glass. A tough program to maintain that would end up wasting a lot of fine wine, it seemed sensible with these simpler selections which may even improve with a little oxidization. The menu doesn’t care what you drink with it so neither should you. Get a glass of whatever you feel like; Swordfish “Au Poivre” will be fine with Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.
Mixed Greens Salad: there can be beauty in a simple salad, as this example shows. Crisp, well selected greens with fine herbs mixed through, dressed in sherry vinegar and a nutty olive oil vinaigrette. There is a margin for error in such simplicity that many versions of this salad fall victim to, happily not here.
Sea Scallops w/ cauliflower puree & beet jus: no doubt the dish of the night. Seared scallops dotted with a touch of caviar resting on a velvety cauliflower purée which has been ringed with reduced beet juice, all topped with a scattering of what I assumed to be baby mache. The scallops, seared to a taut level, had a smooth texture, perfectly complimenting the luscious purée I would bet was 99% butter. The beet sauce offered a light sweetness, the caviar provided saline bursts that stood well individually rather than homogenizing as salt would have otherwise, and the mini-lettuce offered a light bitter touch of vegetal astringency to play off the tight spectrum of sweetness, saltiness, tartness, and richness of the other components.
For entrées we had Roasted All Natural Chicken w/ autumn vegetables and Hanger “Steak Frites” w/ fingerling potatoes, Swiss chard and garlic butter. The good side of both was the cooking. The steak had a great char with a tender, exactly-cooked center, the chicken’s skin was crispy while the flesh remained succulent; both were as good as or better than most of the versions around town. The accompanying vegetables were as good. The fingerling potatoes were called confit in the sides part of the menu, by which I assume they mean poached in oil, either way their waxy flesh had a sumptuous bite. The braised chard was light with only enough vegetal bitterness left to compliment the beef. The vegetables with the chicken were roasted Jerusalem artichokes, onions, carrots, and spinach, a mélange that played quite well with the deep reduction of chicken stock (with its zip of long roasted bones and vegetables) dressing the plate.
Notwithstanding the menu’s annoying habit of presenting certain options “in quotations,” the weakness of the entrées was a pronounced lack of salt, which is often the weakness at new restaurants. I never complain about salt in a restaurant that provides it on the table. If it’s there I can use it after all, but the level of preparation in this case wanted far better salt than was available in the shaker on the table. In the chicken dish the breast, the vegetables, and the sauce were properly salted, the thigh however was entirely lacking (I have to imagine because it was plated under the breast the last touch before service missed it). As for the steak, it was missing salt entirely as were its accompanying potatoes. After three bites I added some of the table salt, only to have it wash through and make the meat taste coated in salt rather than seasoned with. Better table salt would cure this, but I assume from the level of attention in the rest of the preparation it won’t be necessary for long.
So that I could say I tried a dessert I sampled the Concord Grape Tarte with Peanut Butter Ice Cream (apparently the pastry chef does not believe in shorthand). People often try to reinterpret childhood memories like PB&J in dishes, some to good effect, some to poor. This one works, both components are solid and well produced but in no way genius, much like the ingredients they ape. The result is a fun, good take on the fondly familiar.
I originally thought Café Cluny would serve best as a way to skip the line around the corner at Tartine and its sibling good French bistros, except that a week in they are already very full, which leaves us with that scallop. The staff has nailed that cute and adept, if not expert, thing that usually takes years to get down. The food is good enough to expect it will get better. The best you can hope for from a restaurant serving the standards that are on this menu is aptitude, which this place has. Have a bad jones for simply roast chicken? This place will be as safe a stop-off as any other. But I would definitely be willing wait around a short amount of time at the cute little bar and have some drinks in order to eat more of their scallops.