An affordable French bistro in Harlem.
308 Lenox Ave., between 125th and 126th Streets
Lunch – 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., M-F.;
Dinner – 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sun.-Thur., 5 p.m.- midnight, Fri.-Sat.;
Brunch – 11-3 Sat.-Sun.
CUISINE French bistro
VIBE Charming haunt
OCCASION Group dinner, neighborhood eats
DON’T-MISS DISH Foie gras terrine, tuna tartare, nougat glacé
PRICE Appetizers $8, entrees $16, desserts $7
This is the way New York works: Something unexpected pops up and it turns out to fill a crying need. In other words, it wasn’t so unexpected after all.
I mean, why was I surprised to find a good French bistro at 125th
St. and Lenox Ave. —and surprised to find it jammed on a Friday night,
so jammed you couldn’t make your way to the bar? The city is full of
unexpected restaurants that have become neighborhood fixtures. It’s
worked that way everywhere — Queens, SoHo, Tribeca, the lower East Side, Carroll Gardens and Flatbush.
If you watch the faces coming into Chez Lucienne in Harlem, you see
a look of surprise over and over again. It’s also a sense of déjà vu —
the feeling that you’ve just stumbled into a place where you want to
order a drink and look at the menu. French music, French accents — not
the Inspector Clouseau type — bow ties, homemade terrines and honest bistro prices.
Chez Lucienne is a place that’s meant to be affordable. Pâté, six dollars.
House-smoked salmon, nine. Skirt steak entree, 16. What’s the catch?
There’s only one. Silly drinks — the Moulin Rouge, the Blue Ocean, the
White Cosmo and the Rose Martini.
They’re pushing the house cocktails and they’re not worth drinking.
Besides, it’s a French bistro, so order wine. The lineage behind Chez
Lucienne is pretty distinguished. Owner Jerome Bougherdani worked at
Le Bernardin and Daniel. He fell in love with Harlem 15 years ago. The
chef, Thomas Obaton, is from Lyon, France, and cooked with Guy Savoy in Paris. He’s serving really simple bistro classics — chicken fricassee, salade nicoise and a foie gras terrine.
And it’s the simple things that work best here. How do you know what
isn’t simple? It’s drowning in sauce. That includes the beef
bourguignon, the fricassee in chasseur sauce, and the scallops in an
orange reduction sauce. So what does that leave you with? Lots.
One of my favorites is the sautéed skirt steak. At Chez Lucienne,
the skirt steak has a texture more like filet mignon, but with all the
skirt steak’s flavor. And the foie gras terrine was as good as a foie
gras terrine should be. What made it special were the accompanying
Anjou pears, steeped in red wine. They enliven the seriousness of the
foie gras itself.
On this mostly French menu, there are a few immigrants, like the tuna tartare.
Listen to this list of ingredients: wasabi-spiked caviar, cucumber, red
pepper puree, and parmesan cheese crisps. How are they supposed to get
along? This is one of the dishes that give you a glimpse into the way a
creative chef thinks. He finds a kind of taste-logic where you wouldn’t
think it exists. This is also the kind of appetizer that makes the $15
Burger du Chef and the leek and potato soup taste drab.
Chez Lucienne is a really good find. And chef Obaton is asking to be taken seriously. So let’s.
Is this the best restaurant it could be? Not yet. Maybe it’s trying
too hard to be a classic French bistro. Maybe the chef needs to follow
the lead of the tuna tartare, which has nothing to do with France. But
wherever Obaton takes the menu, it will be interesting to watch.