Foie Gras With Rhubarb Compote
It’s amazing how a few tweaks can transform a space into a whole new restaurant. What was once a chichi pizza joint named Pulino’s has been triumphantly reinvented as a French bistro called Cherche Midi.
Cherche Midi is a total looker. The checkered floors have been replaced with classic bistro, hexagon tile floors, the brick walls are no more, and the glaring fluorescent lighting has made way for soft globes. There are quaint lace curtains over the windows to block peeping toms, tablecloths on the once bare tables, sunny yellow paint on the gorgeous tin ceilings and walls, and weathered mirrors tilted just so, so you can see and be seen. It looks like something straight off a corner in Paris; the kind of room you want to linger in for hours, the kind that feels like it may never go out of style.
I’m sure that’s exactly what Keith McNally and his daughter Sophie (who recently joined the family business) are going for. McNally is a genius at building Parisian-style bistros (in Manhattan nonetheless) that feel like they’ve been around forever. Case in point: Pastis, Schiller’s and Balthazar. In fact, Cherche Midi reminds me a lot of McNally’s now iconic Balthazar, except it’s decidedly younger and hipper, partly because of its location on the ever-expanding Bowery.
Perhaps the most important transformation is the menu, which has gone from pizza and pasta to Steak Tartare and Frog Legs. For a decidedly downtown neighborhood, it’s ambitious to move in an upscale French direction. McNally has enlisted Shane McBride, who worked at Colicchio & Sons before taking over the kitchen at Balthazar, to helm the kitchen here alongside chef Daniel Parilla.
Prime Rib Burger
There’s a playful cocktail list, populated with drinks like the Green and Gold (inspired by the World Cup), a refreshing and well-balanced blend of Brazil’s beloved cachaca, agave, cucumber and dill, and the Riviera Julep with gin, mint, rhum and Green Chartreuse. If you’re a purist, there’s a healthy (or dangerous, depending on your perspective) selection of spirits with plenty of liqueurs, over twenty Whiskies, over ten kinds of brandy, and that’s just for starters.
I visited Cherche Midi on a ‘school night,’ so I switched from the Green and Gold to an awesome bottle of Vouvray, a French white wine, which is the perfect partner to this polished bistro menu. Take Steak Au Poivre, for instance. In McBride and Parilla’s hands, what is typically a generic cut of meat is swapped out for a more tender and superior Filet Mignon from Pat La Frieda. Instead of Sole Meunière, the kitchen turns out Skate Wing Meunière, a decidedly funkier, firmer fish with the same, classic preparation. Craving Frog Legs? Theirs come anointed in a Green Garlic Veloute with Garlic Chips. Or, if you’re looking for something more straightforward, try the Steak Tartare or Steak Frites.
And don’t hold back on the bread basket, brimming with crusty, dark loaves with supremely plush interiors fresh from Balthazar bakery (one of the benefits of eating at a McNally spot). I started with a slice of Pan-Roasted Foie Gras alongside Rhubarb Compote, partnered with Homemade Brioche bun to spread the compote and luscious foie gras on. Our table swooned over the Pot De Fromage, which is a terrific way to begin a meal here; a warm, velvety Parmesan Custard, which deliciously contrasts with Anchovy Butter-slathered toast that will keep you on your toes. If you want something lighter, try the Asparagus Salad, a crunchy, creative melange of Shaved Asparagus, Frisée, Pickled Chanterelles and Garlicky Breadcrumbs. (Do skip the acidic Green Market Lettuces, doused in Lemon Vinaigrette.)
Whole Grilled Daurade
There’s a Whole Grilled Daurade, which was a tad too salty, but the rest of the entrees are terrific. Especially the much hyped Prime Rib Burger, which deserves all the attention it’s getting and more. This meaty, minerally and incredibly tasty patty gets decadently layered with Aged Gruyere, Bacon Marmalade and Roasted Mushrooms. Did I mention how plush the brioche bun is?Baked at Balthazar, of course. I’m wary of ordering chicken in a restaurant, but Cherche Midi’s Roasted Chicken is definitely worthwhile; a moist bird with a flavorful arrangement of Baby Leeks, Morels and Gnocchi. So are the Mussels, bathed in an herbaceous white wine broth fragrant with basil, and finished with a bright Lemon Confit and Broccolini. And throw in an order of Battered Onion Rings, too. (They’re addictive!)
Now, in my opinion, you can’t open a proper French bistro and not serve a cheese course or a dessert Soufflé. Maybe I’m spoiled by my recent, seven week sojourn in Paris, but soufflés are as obligatory as Steak Frites and Salade Niçoise. Thankfully, Cherche Midi peddles not one, but two Soufflés; take your pick of Chocolate or Raspberry. I tried the Chocolate, which comes straight from the oven, dusted with powdered sugar, a crusty exterior that collapses into a liquidy center. As for the cheese course, the one here is refreshingly casual, offered up on a wood cheese board with the name tags; a concise, but terrific selection that includes a blue Buffalo cheese from Italy, a tangy, Selles Sur Cher goat cheese from France that makes me weak in the knees every time it hits my tongue, and a Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a delicate, raw cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin that holds its weight in the world of cheeses.
While I’m not a fan of Crepes Suzette, there is one on the menu as well as a Pineapple Tarte Tatin. We finished the evening with an Il Flottante, aka a Floating Island, with meringue, floating in a lemony cream sauce, and a rich Chocolate Pot De Creme.
Au revoir Pulino’s. I think we can all agree that McNally’s forte is French. New restaurants with a lot of hype always seem buzzy for the first few months. But Cherche Midi already feels like a neighborhood institution, a Balthazar of the Bowery so to speak.