On a rainy autumn day we entered Orsay Brasserie to a warm "Bonjour" from one of the owners, Hassan El Garrahy. In true French tradition, the proprietor was at the front door welcoming his friends and guests to his restaurant to ensure their comfort and pleasure.
After being seated, we peered out the window expecting to see the Eiffel Tower. That’s how authentic this richly decorated, dark wood and tile room feels – like you have suddenly arrived in Paris. There is good reason to feel that way, as we learned when Hassan explained the provenance of the design and architectural details of this beautiful eatery.
It appears no expense was spared in creating the proper atmosphere for Orsay. Virtually everything is imported, mostly from France, of course, but the dramatic floor tiles come from Italy. The bar, which is unique among bars in NYC, is about 24 feet long and made from a single piece of wood. Shipping the piece to the US was a challenge in itself. After assembly, the bar top was covered in pewter. Hassan regaled us with information about the care and craftsmanship that went into the making of Orsay, including the custom designed copies of a French antique light fixture and even the subtle curves of the arches above our heads.
Orsay not only distinguishes itself in the character created by its décor, but in its menu as well. It is eclectic in its choices and includes something for every palate. It’s a brasserie in the true French definition, meaning they serve beer and up to 225 French and American wines, as well as a variety of the highest quality foods. They are well known for their Two Cheese and Truffle Soufflé.
We arrived before noon and, despite the rain, Orsay was already filled with patrons, none of whom seemed like, “I-have-to-rush-through-lunch-to-get-back-to-work.” Instead, there was a certain joie de vivre about the crowd – leisurely dining on their delectable food and drinks, seemingly without a care in the world. Maybe we were in France, after all!
We started with appetizers from the striking vintage hors d’oeuvres trolley. Approximately 18 different chilled items, including asparagus, sardines, cheeses, artichokes, beets, celery root, hearts of palm, and other mouth-watering specialties, rotate on trays, like a Ferris wheel. We would have been content sampling them all, but this wasn’t possible unless we wanted to skip the tempting dishes on the menu. Instead, we snacked on a few choice items with our drinks, while waiting for our entrees.
Marilyn chose the Poached Salmon; a huge slice of fresh pink fish accompanied by homemade dill sauce and thinly sliced cucumber, artfully shaped like a box, topped with caviar. Dennis ordered the Nicoise Salad. The just-cooked fresh tuna was superbly seasoned on the outside and bright red inside, with the white anchovies adding just the right amount of zing to the dressing. It was a first-rate presentation.
We were accompanied to Orsay by Jackie, who lives and works in NYC. She chose one of the daily specials, Grilled Shrimp Risotto, telling us it was her favorite dish. She really didn’t have to; her empty plate spoke for itself!
When entering Orsay, you can’t help but notice the dessert display, with its colorful array of tantalizing sweets. Dennis spotted a luscious-looking Fig Cake and after our main course, he finally got the chance to order a piece. With typical panache, the restaurant places a white chocolate “button” with the Orsay imprint in the center of each slice.
We relaxed over coffee, enjoying the last moments of a very satisfying meal, with a plate of macaroons and cookies. In no hurry to leave Orsay, we realized that it had become more crowded and slightly noisier. It seems a lot of New Yorkers found Orsay a comforting respite on a rainy afternoon.
Owner Hassan El Garrahy is well schooled in French culinary operation, having served a long tour at one of the top French restaurants in NYC. His expertise reveals itself in the quality of food preparation and presentation, as well as the efficient way the restaurant is run. So how would we describe our overall impression of Orsay? Quite simply, as the French would say – C’est magnifique!”
Orsay Brasserie & Bar
1057 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10021