Finding the South of France in the Most Unexpected of Places

J’adore, as in love, love, love, the South of France, and so often, all that love has nowhere to go.

No longer! I’m utterly smitten with Pates et Traditions, a quiet little restaurant on a pleasant block of Havemeyer Street just around the corner…

Its bright interior is so charming — a mix of sturdy country woods and wrought-iron table sets, walls adorned with bric-à-brac from the region — that if it weren’t for the large picture windows overlooking the brick walls of a local printing business, you very well may feel as if you’d clicked your heels three times, opened your eyes and found yourself nowhere near New York (or Williamsburg). (This is a good thing.)

In addition to keeping true French hours — Pates et Traditions may or may not be open for lunch on weekdays, depending on the weather — the menu is so quintessentially French:

Sweet crêpes, savory crêpes, how to choose!

House wine starts at $5 a glass (and it isn’t bad); a short list of fresh salads feature Provençal herbs and olives. There are a few pasta dishes and some regional specialties — such as la pissaladiere, a Niçoise pizza topped with onions, herbs, anchovies and olives from Provence ($12) — but on this first visit, I never got past the crêpes. From a list nearly 20 deep, I settled on the forestiere ($10): strips of ham, mushrooms, garlic, parsley, in a creamy bechamel sauce, tucked in a pocket-like fashion into a traditional buckwheat crêpe.

(Known in France as a “galette,” buckwheat crêpes have the added bonus of being gluten-free and loaded with good nutrition.)

On a quiet early evening in the middle of the week, the pleasant pattering of the conversation en français between the proprietor and the single server was a pleasant backdrop to a solo meal.

In a quiet state of contemplative happiness, my crêpe and wine before me, I imagined myself sitting in all the different seats in the house eating my way through the entire menu — from the pillow seats in large, picture windows, and once the weather’s just a touch nicer, saddling up on the high chairs out front and watching the world go by.

It appears that I will not be moving out of the neighborhood anytime soon.

Pates et Traditions, 52 Havemeyer St. at N. 6th St., Brooklyn, 646-409-4019. Cash only.

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Thursday: Finally, Free Meal at Brasserie Comes True (aka the “$19.59 Three-Course Good Value” Post)

It’s true. I wound up at Brasserie in Midtown East on Thursday night, photo-6enjoying a free, three-course meal, plus a couple of not-free cocktails from their $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, because of Twitter.

More precisely, because of a tweet from my friends at Wined & Dined (who I’ve leveraged previously for some food deal hookups) announcing that Brasserie, in celebration of its 50th Anniversary, was offering a free lunch on Sept. 17 until reservations were full.

Lunch was booked up by the time I called, but the restaurant gave me an even sweeter deal: A complimentary three-course dinner, on the night of my choosing (before November 1), so long as the reservation was booked for 9 p.m. or later.

And, surprisingly, there was no other catch. We were comped the restaurant’s “$19.59 after 9” menu, which is on through the end of October. Since there was two of us, we decided to just order the whole thing and do a mini tasting.

photo-7Here’s the breakdown:

Appetizers

French onion soup: This molten, cheese-crusted bowl of soup didn’t skimp on portions, and we ended up using pieces of the fresh baguette (one comes with every table) to sop up the broth and polish off all that cheese. Great for two people to split; a really large portion for one.

Pâté de Campagne: My favorite of the two. Better portion size, a savory pâté, plus, I always love the “some assembly required” appetizer: layering spicy French mustard, pâté, a slice of cornichon, a touch of frisée.

photo-9Entrees

The Brasserie burger: A towering burger, stuffed with cheese, more cheese melted on top and garnished with frizzled onions. Served between sliced, toasted halves of a French bread loaf and served with a heaping side of hot, fresh French fries. I tried my best to finish my half — but no go. This burger is a serious meat rock.

photo-8Poulet, frites and salad verte: Again, the portion of this plate is so, so generous. It comes with an entire half of a roasted chicken, bones trimmed up in the French style, plus a heaping portion of fries and a dab of salad.

The chicken was well-executed and moist enough,  if a bit bland — I was wishing for more evidence of herbs and seasoning. But that was sort of the modus operandi for everything that came out of the kitchen — well-executed, if a little ordinary. Maybe “playing it safe” is a better phrase?

But generous meal for free? In no way am I complaining.

photo-10Dessert

The desserts, on the other hand, I could have skipped. (Trade out for a cocktail?) The beignets unsure of their beignet-ness — a little bit doughnut, a little bit churro and a little bit beignet, and not so fresh.

And the creme carmel, too, didn’t impress. Then again, this might have been my stomach having reaching its capacity, vetoing any more intake.

Verdict

The $19.59 special is a great value if you’re hungry, and a little overwhelming if you’re not.

…On the other hand, the $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, which includes a specialty cocktail from each decade of Brasserie’s history (you can find a copy of the menu here) beats out just about any others you could possibly scour up in this part of Midtown, at least in terms of price and strength. Imbibe and enjoy, carefully.

Brasserie, 100 E. 53rd St., near Park Avenue, 212-751-4840

Dinner: A Little Starstruck and Really Good Beef (the Les Halles Discovery Post)

Don’t ask me how I ended up sitting in the original Les Halles restaurant on Park Avenue, the exact place where Tony Bourdain, now a writing, traveling, gallivanting food-centric travel show host (among other things) worked so hard and played even harder, for so many years. Because I’m not really so sure either.

photo(5)But there I was, in flip-flops and a breezy summer skirt, drinking really great wine (probably better than my fledgling palate deserves) and poking at buttery, garlic-y escargot, still bubbling hot from the oven on a random Thursday night. And loving every second of it — and not feeling uncomfortable at all.

Les Halles — at one point it was described to me as a slightly grittier, edgier Pastis, which I really enjoyed — really does lack pretension. The servers are knowledgeable, if a little no-nonsense, and the ocassional picture on the wall hangs askew. But no one cares, because Les Halles really is about the meal, and what a meal it was:

photo(6)photoThe order of escargots were followed by the côte deboeuf, described on the menu as “prime rib or two,” but this is unlike any prime rib I’ve ever had before. (Something to do with French versus American cuts of beef.) This stunning beef cut is cooked on the bone, carved up tableside, and served in long, strips on plates piled high with hot frites. Nice work, Bourdian. Your team nailed it.

TIP: Go! Les Halles is that it really isn’t expensive, nor is it pretentious. Check out their menu: a majority of the entries fall between $14-$24, and most of those are less than $20.

Saturday: Love at First Bite (aka the “Brunch at The New French” Post)

Since The New French first came on my radar via pleasantly-surprised,  upbeat reviews such as this one in New York Magazine and this one in the New York Sun (both have far superior photos of the interior), I have been very, very curious.

photoTurns out, with very good reason: Absolutely everything about The New French is just right, right down to the quirky, playful character doodles by Maria Kalman that populate a mural on one wall and sneak onto other materials, such as the paper placemats and menus.

The New French is as serious about its food as Kalman is playful in her drawing (which is not to imply that there isn’t an element of play in The New French’s food, or that Kalman isn’t a serious artist. Both swing both ways). From start to finish, the meal I had here vaulted The New French straight into Tier One brunch territory. It went something like this:

photo(12)The first thing I noticed when I sat down was the bowl of rough-cut sugar cubes, which I absolutely adore. Inspired, I ordered a latte. What showed up a few minutes later (along with a 4-minute egg timer by which to judge when my friend’s French pressed coffee was ready to be pressed) — what showed up a few minutes later was one of the best lattes I’ve ever had: Frothy, creamy, a bold espresso flavor, but not so bitter that it made me wince, temperature hot but not scalding.

I’m an occasional coffee drinker, not a habitual one, but this latte was something really special. It would have paired absolutely perfectly with the toasted baguette, served with jam and butter ($3.50, not pictured), that I ordered, but showed up with the food with strawberry preserves and cold butter — a pet peeve of mine. Very minor details.

Anyhow, when my steak and eggs ($12.50) arrived, my first impression was: What a gorgeous salad! This was no afterthought side salad, like the petite pile of greens mounded on so many brunch plates; no, this salad of vibrant mesculn greens tossed in a French-style vinaigrette with ultra-thin slices yellow and red beets was a key player.

photo(13)Proportion, on a whole, was perfect; I hate when a flat wasteland of homefries/toast/other carbohydrates completely dominate the plate. Here, the plate was shared agreeably between the salad, two fried eggs, over medium, which were laid on a bed of chopped, homefry-style potatoes — that were oh so much better than your average breakfast potatoes, being fried up with slivers of garlic and diced spring onions.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the steak. Initially, I expected to see a larger cut, or at least not simply six slices laid on top of my eggs, but in actuality, it made my job eating easier, the presentation was gorgeous, and the steak seasoned so well that all it didn’t need any salt or pepper. As a habitual salt-and-pepper shaker, I wasn’t even distressed that the table didn’t have shakers on the table, the food was that good.

Don’t wait a year-and-a-half to get over there; I certainly won’t.

Breakfast: Friday, April 17, 2009

Street crêpe a la NYC.

photo46photo215
Sitting here minding my own business and suddenly, a vision of the crêpes I saw stacked up on a cake stand at Macaron Cafe the other day invaded my consciousness.

Done. The only thing left to be determined was: sugar, jam or Nutella? I opted for the tart-sweet raspberry jam sitting on the counter in a big bowl.

Scoop, slather, fold, bundle (pay) and I was back out on the street in five minutes.

Apparently I was hungry: I’d nearly devoured the crêpe in the time it took me to walk back. No street-side Parisian crêpe this one, but still such a delight.

COST: $2.75
PREP TIME: n/a

EARLIER: Look at them there, all lined up. So, so pretty.

Lunch: Tuesday, April 14, 2009

photo37Look at them there, all lined up. So, so pretty.

I’m a sucker for all things rainbow colored, and Macaron Cafe‘s macarons — and the brightly-colored cafe in which they’re sold — are no exception. The walls here are pink, the menu written out in multi-colored chalk, the staff all smiles and lilting French accents.

It all makes you just want to sit back, and stay a while. Which is exactly what I did when I saw a seat open up (there are only about eight seats total in the whole place).

photo38photo212I’ve only just begun to work my way through the menu, which includes about 20 sandwich and salad options, a daily soup and a daily special entree. But my first pick, the Siciliano sandwich … OMG.

Between the savory Bressaola (Italian dry-aged beef), the silky-smooth fresh mozzarella, the brightness of the fresh basil, the acidity of the cherry tomatoes, the saltiness of the giant capers — all drizzled with olive oil and tucked inside a very traditional, and very crusty, baguette — it may take some time to move on.

COST: $9.20 (sandwich and one macaron)
PREP TIME: However long it takes to imagine Midtown slip away … and become Paris.