It seems odd to speak of French food as a trend, considering that its associated techniques, ingredients, flavor profiles and dishes form the backbone of a seemingly endless, totally disparate range of cuisines — from Japanese to Haitian to farm-to-table American. And yet, in the last couple of years, the French influence in New York has been far more evident than the occasional cassoulet, a swipe of béchamel sauce, a quenelle of sorbet, or vegetables cut into a perfect julienne or brunoise. Witness the triumphant return of the snazzy brasserie and clubby bistro, where 19th century creations like Lobster Thermidor and Peach Melba have been dusted off, and proudly served with little in the way of interpretation or modernization.
2014 was definitely a sign of things to come, with four major, resolutely French debuts, including Keith McNally’s Cherche Midi, where the celebrated restaurateur indulged his longtime love for all things French with an expanse of brass and mirror, tiled floors, Salade Nicoise and a succulent, béarnaise-puddled Steak Frites. There was also Batard; Drew Nieporent’s newest — and perhaps most charming — incarnation of his subterranean, Tribeca space, brightened with sunny yellow walls, bare wood tables. Lest we not forget chef Markus Glocker’s affable Austrian sensibility, expressed in French dishes, like Tete de Veau (calf’s head), lightened with tomato, basil, and haricot vert, and Quail Ballotine, a tight roll of bird spiked with caraway and accompanied by a fluff of white cabbage.
Dirty French came next, a tongue-in-cheek entry from the Carbone/Torrisi crew, which gleefully name-checked a number of warhorses from the French culinary canon. Think everything from Trout Meuniere and Duck a l’Orange to a pair of theatrically presented offerings por deux, including Cote de Boef and Chicken and Crepes; complete with pancakes rolled in silver twist ties, and condiments enclosed in a large glass rooster. Less showy was the refined wine bar, Racines, a Tribeca eatery imported directly from Paris, featuring cheese plates, an admirable list of organic and biodynamic vino, and Squid Bouillabaisse, dotted with morsels of preserved lemon gnocchi.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The French food renaissance caught fire in a big way in 2015, anchored by the opening of Le District; a massive, 30,000-square foot space along the Hudson. Sparking comparisons to Eataly, it was divided into a sprawling marketplace (including a fromagerie, rotisserie, boulangerie and patisserie), and a series of restaurants; Beaubourg (serving Escargot, Frogs Legs Fricassee and Pike Quenelles), Le Bar, and L’Appart; an intimate chefs table. Equally notable were La Gamelle — Mathieu Palombino’s reboot of Chez Jef — a full-on French bistro serving Frisee aux Lardons, Pate en Croute, Moules Frites and Poulet Roti, and Rebelle, a project from the Pearl & Ash team helmed by Daniel Eddy (formerly of Spring in Paris). We easily count his Sweetbreads with fava beans, Leek Vinaigrette, and Beet Bourguignon (a brilliant vegetarian take on the hearty, classic stew) amongst the best dishes we’ve eaten all year.
Even Brooklyn has gotten in on the act with Le Fond, known for its incredible, duck confit Cassoulet, and L’Antagoniste, a little sibling to Noho’s Le Philosophe (which helped set the French revival in motion back in 2012). In fact, when it first opened, the menu at L’Antagoniste was written entirely in French… better bone up on your Escoffier if you want to feel confident ordering Tournedos Rossini, Blanquette de Veau and Grenouillere Brandade!