The cool thing about living in New York is that chefs and restaurateurs from all over the world want to open up right here in Manhattan. (Of course, they don’t always survive, but that’s a different story.) Well, now you don’t have to go all the way to Paris to try the popular, market-driven wine bar & bistro, Racines, because they just opened their first stateside outpost. (There are two locations in Paris: Racines & Racines 2.)
While the original Racines is housed in the one of the oldest covered passages in Paris, Racines NY is located all the way downtown on Chambers Street in TriBeCa. A far cry from the very picturesque Paris, the entire block has been dug up, so you can’t possibly get dropped off anywhere near the entrance, which isn’t exactly ideal for luring guests. Such is life when you open in New York City. Weave past the barricades and through the front door, and you’ll be surprised how much it feels like a neighborhood restaurant. And that’s exactly what worries me.
Hanger Steak with Shishito Peppers
You see, this is a chef-driven restaurant, not a tried-and-true French bistro. There’s no Onion Soup Gratinee or Steak Frites on the menu. And there’s no Grand Marnier Souffle for dessert. (Quelle sacrilege!) Racines NY fancies itself an ambitious eatery with what they dub “innovative food” that’s loyal to no country, and an impressive selection of natural wines to boot.
But the thing about Tribeca is that it’s a local kind of neighborhood, which is probably why I spied a girl in exercise shorts, a tank top, & sneakers drinking a glass of wine and catching up with a friend at the bar (not exactly fashionable attire), a few older couples, and even a family with a toddler glued to his Ipad and a sleeping baby. Only neighborhood food isn’t what they’re serving here.
Pan Seared Snapper
The menu features an appetizer of English Peas with Lobster and Iberico Ham, glossed with Vanilla Oil, a tarragon-scented Veal Tartare with warm mayonnaise, and Peekytoe Crab with Ginger Bisque and Avocado. The chef is Frédéric Duca, who earned a Michelin star at L’Instant D’Or in Paris, so he’s got something to prove, which is probably why there’s no Steak Tartar and Fries on the menu, while there is at the Paris original. However, there is a Sliced Hanger Steak; it’s served over Eggplant Puree with sliced Japanese Eggplant, Fava Beans, and Shishito Peppers, and finished with a terrifically tasty Cumin Jus. It’s a very good dish, one that will likely make you forget about steak frites. The Snapper is good, too, an interesting combination of pan-seared Red Snapper, Octopus and Fried & Battered Mussels from Prince Edward Island, sauced with snapper fish stock and a garlic aioli.
As you can see, nothing is simple or very bistro, for that matter, at Racines NY. The Lobster comes tossed with a Squid Ink Capellini in a Spiced Carrot Froth, and the Wild Oregon Salmon appetizer arrives not tartare, but Tataki with puddles of Cauliflower Mousseline, and a refreshing Cucumber Sorbet – an interesting play on hot and cold that didn’t quite gell, though I did like all the parts on their own. The same goes for a starter of Foraged Wild Oregon Morels (oh how I love morels!). They’re paired with an Aged Balsamic Vinegar and Di Palo’s Burrata, which was downright messy and ridiculously pricey at $35 for an appetizer. “How are you supposed to eat this?” My table mate asked. I shrugged because her guess was as good as mine.
Basil Panna Cotta
Dessert was my favorite part of the meal here, and it happens to be the handiwork of Frederic Duca, too, who just might make a better pastry chef than savory. His Panna Cotta, laced with basil, and heaped with fresh ripe strawberries is exceptional. I also dug his Pistachio Parfait with Poached Rhubarb and Raspberries, a perfectly summery ending.
What a strange career move, though; to go from being a Marseilles-born rising star chef in Paris to a new restaurant tempting its luck on a tough block in Tribeca. I only hope it works out for Duca, and for this charming spot because it’s an earnest and passionate team of players, which includes the very knowledgeable and also charming sommelier, Arnaud Tronche, Racines’ owner, David Lanher, and Chambers Street Wine Owner, David Lillie. Speaking of wine, the list leans French, but there are a few Italian and American offerings, and even an interesting, effervescent Hungarian white wine by the glass if you care to cross into another country.
The restaurant itself is attractive, outfitted with wood floors, a white, marble-topped bar, brick walls, and an open kitchen, trimmed with white subway tiles. It’s the kind of restaurant you hope will succeed, which is why I’m going to give Racines NY a bit of unsolicited advice: Lighten up and don’t take yourself so seriously. After all, it’s only food. Broaden the menu a bit; toss on a steak tartar, roast chicken, and a souffle. And hopefully, the neighbors will come back again.