It’s Not Fake French, It’s Frenchette
Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson named their new restaurant after a David Johansen song from 1978, “Frenchette.” The first line is, “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette,” and later when he rhymes that with “naturalette” and “leatherette” you know the suffix isn’t diminutive, it’s dismissive. The song is about what you do once you figure out that you’re not going to get the real thing, and Mr. Johansen’s answer is simple enough. “Let’s just dance,” he sings. Never mind love.
Frenchette, which opened in TriBeCa in April, isn’t fake French, but it isn’t the real thing, either. Since 1997, when Keith McNally hired them as the opening chefs at Balthazar, Mr. Nasr and Mr. Hanson have cooked side by side, building a kind of brasserie-steakhouse hybrid out of standards from both genres. Mr. McNally kept loading them up with new restaurants, giving them joint command of Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar and Minetta Tavern, none of which could really be called chef-driven.
Frenchette, their own place and their first without Mr. McNally, takes some liberties with the formula, but not enough to get them recognized as visionaries on the level of Pierre Gagnaire. Frenchette says: Never mind art, let’s just cook.
The restaurant is divided into two chambers. In front and on display to the street is a lounge with Art Deco curves, where bartenders percussively clack shakers behind a long river of zinc. If you have a seat, this room is the height of metropolitan civility. If you are waiting for one, as many people are on any given night, it’s purgatorial.
The dining room is in back, behind a pair of arches and up a step so slight that its only conceivable purpose is to raise the insurance premiums; every time I approached it a worried server materialized to tell me to look out. The small tables are too small and the big ones, encircled by red-leather banquettes the size of living-room sofas, give you enough space to spread out a map while you eat. The room is grandly scaled and conspicuously underdesigned, a simplification of the brasserie archetype that doesn’t try to reproduce every chipped tile and nicotine stain. It’s a room for people who have outgrown illusions.
That must describe half the people in New York, judging by the number of times I’ve been asked how to get a reservation at Frenchette at an hour when an adult might reasonably be in the mood for dinner. Even well-placed magazine editors with highly resourceful assistants can end up eating at 6 or 10 p.m., as I did.
In the brasserie mode, the menu rambles. It goes on too long; not everything on it is worth rambling about. But once you sort it out, it’s full of dishes worth planning a night around.
Some of them don’t look wildly impressive unless you know how they’re made. For each order of brouillade, a pan of eggs has to be stirred constantly over a small flame for a long time, until they look like grits. (There’s a reason you don’t see brouillade on many menus.) Dropped on top are a few excellent snails in parsley and garlic, a buttery garnish for very buttery scrambled eggs.
Calf’s liver was sweet and custardy, the goal in cooking it, and one that’s not often reached. Sweetbreads with creamy white insides were fried to a pale, crinkled gold, then served with a brown, French, lovely and anachronistic sauce made from veal jus and crayfish. Lobster was roasted on a rotisserie, sending some of the shell’s flavor into the meat, which was then given a very luxurious bath in curry butter.
The entire roast chicken is juicy without tasting of brine, a rare thing these days. Hidden under the drumsticks and thighs are rafts of baguette that sat under the rotisserie, imbibing every drop that fell from the bird. Some diners might say bread wet with drippings is too homespun for a dish that costs $68. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
The menu is full of things that take years of practice to get right. Duck breast with a side of fries sounds ridiculously simple, but look at the crackle on that duck skin, and listen to that echoing crunch on the fries. If these chefs learned anything from Mr. McNally, it’s that people will overlook many lapses if you feed them great French fries. At Frenchette, they overlook the peculiar steak knife brought out with the duck; its sharp side is straight and its dull side is curved, and everybody who picks one up makes a joke about slicing open a finger. That would be one way to turn tables faster, but I never saw any casualties.
The kitchen is at its most sure-footed with big pieces of animals, whether they’re classed as appetizers or main courses. (The guinea hen terrine appetizer is a chunky pink brick that could serve as dinner.) All those meats, combined with the chefs’ fondness for fat-enhanced sauces that cling to your lips, give the menu a wintry feel, something that the recent proliferation of peas and artichokes on the plates here doesn’t quite hide.
So far, Mr. Hanson and Mr. Nasr have responded to the hot weather by changing ingredients but not the menu’s spirit. Green celtuce stems can be a nice crisp side dish for summer, but Frenchette serves them in a steaming-hot gratin, slick with bone marrow; it’s perfect for January. The blood sausage slab on top of a buckwheat galette that surfaced at the end of June was as seasonal as earmuffs.
Reversing the natural order of the universe, the appetizers and the smaller “amuses” often seem more tentative than the main courses.
Blowfish tails brushed with mustard and spice-bearing bread crumbs are terrific when they’re available, and the chefs should get some kind of award from the French government for serving iced oysters Burgundy-style, with peppery finger-length chipolata sausages. But gumball-size smoked eel beignets with a crème-fraîche ranch dressing called “Franchette” didn’t taste much like eel; pig-foot croquettes were a washout; and a bowl of oily whole-wheat spaghetti with bottarga needed to be slapped with more lemon and salt.
With desserts, Frenchette tries the blunt approach that works so well for its main courses, and comes up short. Not very short, but enough to make you wish more attention were being paid. The mille-feuille doesn’t shatter on impact like the ones at Le Coq Rico or Benoit, and the pastry crust under the long band of cooked fruit in the apple tart needs to be crisper or more buttery.
One of the more clever moves Mr. Hanson and Mr. Nasr made is hiring Jorge Riera to shepherd a list of natural, biodynamic and organic wines. Not every sommelier who has become infatuated with these labels knows where to find the good stuff, but he does. This means, though, that you will probably not end up drinking what you thought you wanted to drink. There are few safe harbors of familiarity; even if you just want sparkling water, you have a choice of Vichy Catalan or Mondariz.
You’d have to be delusional to wager money on the longevity of a restaurant in New York, but Frenchette is the closest thing to a safe bet that I’ve seen in years. Mr. Nasr and Mr. Hanson seem to be in it for the long haul; if one of them hasn’t held the other’s head down in a pot of French onion soup by now, it’s probably never going to happen. More than that, they know how to flatter New Yorkers with food that doesn’t scream for attention but that smiles back when you notice it.