Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
La Promenade Des Anglais
461 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011
Dine date: January 14, 2012
Nice is nice! What better time than dead-of-winter to open a New York restaurant that seeks to recreate the vibe and atmosphere of the sundrenched capital of the French Riviera. It’s in these cold, dark months that New Yorkers crave the sounds of crashing blue waves, clinking glasses of chilled rosé, bleating overfed seagulls, bronzed children playing in the sand… ok, maybe no enfants terribles, but pinstriped beach cabanas with cocktail service? Now we’re talking! That’s the kind of tableau in which we like to thaw out, and that’s the one being hawked at La Promenade Des Anglais. A fitting name for a restaurant specializing in Niçois cooking, being that it’s named after the main beachfront drag in Nice, dotted with warm, breezy dining rooms serving much the same fare as Chef Alain Allegretti’s new Chelsea destination. Or maybe the tie-in is that the name means “the promenade of the British”, and is housed in the ground floor of the odious, gargantuan London Towers apartment complex. Or maybe the promenade reference is to the nearby Highline? It doesn’t matter, because now even us common folk can afford to eat from Allegretti’s kitchen without pawning off any firstborn enfants.
Opened quietly this past September, the eatery is run by a guy who has helmed the kitchens in Michelin-starred spots all over France and Monaco, learned the trade from Alain Ducasse, and made a mark in New York in Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque 2000, not to mention his own namesake Flatiron eatery Allegretti, which unfortunately shuttered in the summer of 2010. It took him a while to get back in the mix, but it was well worth the wait - this badass toque had to turn up sooner or later. In related news, Allegretti has also embarked on a new venture to open another Riviera-themed restaurant called Azure in the forthcoming Revel mega-casino in Atlantic City. Potentially flirting with sellout-land? Nous verrons… don’t be beckoned by the dark side of the epicurean Force, Alain…
Set on a somewhat desolate stretch of West 23rd Street, La Promenade Des Anglais is rather unassuming in its presence, announcing itself with no more than a simple white awning. Walking in, the smartly dressed desk staff rolls out a very warm and accommodating welcome as they take your coats and show you to the bar. The bartenders are sharp and on-point. Wet your whistle with some pre-dinner ‘tails as you settle in from the cold. The Lavender Lemonade ($14) is a mix of lavender-infused vodka, lavender honey, and lemon. It’s well portioned in a tall highball glass and garnished with a lemon peel. The bitterness and sweetness of the lemon hits first, and the lavender follows sequentially and smooths it out. You want your lavender drink for the purple visual, but you don’t get it. Relax, it’s still a great drink. The Pumpkin Divine ($14) blends Pear Williams, pumpkin butter, triple sec, simple syrup, nutmeg, and cinnamon into an excellent wintery elixir. The eau de vie leads, and it’s strong like King Kong. The cinnamon bark garnish finishes it. It’s a somewhat small pour, but take it easy, baller - there’s wine coming with dinner.
Get your tab transferred to the table (yes, they do that… merci Alain) and get a better look at the ecosystem as you are whisked to your table. A prevailing light blue theme is interspersed with dark wood tones and fluted glass panes. Two robust dark wood art deco columns support a ceiling that is frescoed with images of the beach (sand, umbrellas, fedoras), which of all the design elements, could have probably been deep-sixed. Inviting blue velvet banquettes flank tables that are well lit, despite the room being relatively dark. Red sconces add contrast. Stand-alone tables are predominantly spaced at a generous twenty inches. Everything is wrapped in a tastefully subliminal San Tropez-y nautical theme, with brass boat railings, curved mirrors that look like they came off a yacht, and brass-railed shelving like you would see at the Eden Roc Hotel. The room has a richness to it, but it’s not heavy. The early clientele is a demure and forty-something downtown mix, which seems to young up a bit for later seatings, but not by much. The staff is looking neat, but not stuffy, in cool uniforms – open collars with ties, slacks with sneakers.
Provençale placemats are set in lieu of white linen, a preliminary testament to Allegretti’s somewhat more casual intentions for this new space. The breadbasket is filled with hot and house-made olive baguettes and whole-grain mini-loaves that are accompanied by seasoned olive oil and sea salt. Fresh and crispy but a bit bland. Dommage.
The lineup of openers is aimed squarely at the Côte d'Azur.
The tuna crudo ($16) is quite fresh, and of high quality. Its composition is mild and moderate, and it won’t play out your palate. The heart of palm is presented unusually, cut vertically, and binds well with the acidity of the lemon juice drizzled upon it. There’s too much peppercorn here, and the heart of palm could be more copious.
The South of France’s tables are dominated by the region’s ubiquitous fish soup, served here ($14) in a slightly untraditional way – with the rouille and grated cheese served atop the bread crisps. The rouille itself is also a bit unusual, resembling a chickpea mash more than the bright orange garlicky sauce that’s so prevalent in Nice. The soup itself could have more poppy tangy zip, leaving a somewhat soapy feeling after each bite, but is more or less true to form. Beware: provençale fish soup is purposely quite fishy in taste – you have to be into that.
The prosciutto and clam croquettes ($12) are one of the highlights of the menu. Little nugs of Frenchified lovin’ is what they are. They are fried, but not too oily. A bite breaks the crispy outer layer into a dense, rich, delicious filling that eats like a clam soup custard. The odd bit of prosciutto adds some meaty solids and drives it home. Everything is balanced well with a fairly dominant and fiery espelette chili oil. Keep ‘em coming, Chef.
The whipped ricotta ($9) is another highlight, but where’s the advertised thyme? No matter, the honey and crunchy slabs of peasant bread make for the perfect vehicle. This is not your typical ricotta – is has an almost cottage cheese-y makeup, but is realized beautifully.
The octopus a la plancha ($16) is of perfect texture, and is fresh as can be. The subtle fennel is a great touch. It sits on a bed of a chickpea medley that feels like a fancy summer picnic salad, not too citrusy or oily in deference to the two segments of mollusk legs resting above it. The Domain Pierre Duret 2010 sauvignon blanc ($15) is a perfect pairing here, heaping loads of melon, grass and fresh-cut flowers into the mix.
The plating of the entrees is synchronous and timed correctly.
The striped bass ($28; seasonal, winter only) is earthy, of a beautiful color, and presented exquisitely… but intimidating to approach through the stringy crisps piled too high onto it. Once you get in there, there is lots of texture going on here between the topping, the crisp skin and the succulent meat. The accompanying fondant potatoes are mushy and over salted - meh. The crispy breaded mussel on the plate was fantastic, but only served as a tease – don’t hurt me like that. More now please. Overall this dish could have come through much stronger with some minor tweaks.
The arctic char ($25; seasonal, winter only) is happier than the striped bass. Although it doesn’t stand alone as well, it’s a slam dunk with the accompanying pomegranate seeds and sassy citrus zings. The grapefruit makes it curious but not overpoweringly so. The rustic duck fat potatoes are lovely and a welcome touch, as is the endive marmalade.
The farrotto ($22) is an inventive ‘risotto’ made of farro, a wheat grain popular in Italy and southern France. It follows the same cooking path as rice-based risotto, and it’s finished with olive oil to drive home the Mediterranean-ness, but the real gems are the veal cheeks that are served on top – they fall apart like short ribs and are a novel and tasty mate to the grainy farro.
The duck breast ($29) is tender, delicious and sweet due to a lovely honey glaze, which is in turn balanced by a pretty cool counterpoint - port jus. The presentation is one of the best on the menu, and is accompanied with a new discovery – a strain of green “Du Puy” lentils from France that carry their own DOC appellation, like a fine wine. Firm, dense and packed with flavor. The Domaine le Colombier 2009 Vacqueyras grenache ($15) makes for a clean and rich pairing here, adding mushroom and blueberry notes.
Save room for dessert.
The butternut squash pound cake ($10) is another unexpected find on this menu. This is Thanksgiving incarnated in dessert form. Its two slices deliver laser beams of cinnamon, orange, hazelnut, and brown butter from within its dense consistency. The zucca gelato zaps you with an icy cold element.
The warm chocolate fondant ($10) is a ganache lover’s dream. It’s a soft chocolate hockey puck filled with molten chocolate magma, and topped with blueberry coulis and crunchy stracciatella gelato. Chocolate freaks: just skip the foreplay and order two. Don’t front. The Domaine de Beaumalric Muscat de Beaumes De Venise 2009 ($9) is the desert wine to pair here, adding an embracing flavor profile instead of sweetness.
Overall the experience here is high in quality and authenticity. The room is transporting, and the staff does an excellent job of supporting the sun kissed Gallic fantasy from start to finish. There is passion infused into the food that you eat here, that much is evident. Is this a date place for people in their twenties? No. Is it where you bring Mom and Dad? Also no. This is a sedate yet bustling dining room that is brushed with a civility from a different, yet somehow familiar, part of the world… one that we would certainly rather be in, during the doldrums of a New York winter. The pricing and environment don’t necessarily make a statement for you one way or the other, making this your next neutral rendezvous with out-of-towners or casual business acquaintances.
Break It Down...
Solid and authentic, with some surprises on the menu that take this up a notch.
Courteous, humble and friendly from start to finish.
Feels good; transporting; the seaside motif may preclude multiple repeat visits.
Fair prices across the board; a bargain for a meal from Allegretti.
Accommodation On Walk-In
We pretended we didn’t have a reservation. They were cool about it.
Bathroom: Sanctuary Or Minefield?