Welcome to Ground Zero of New York’s French revival: Le Philosophe, a mash-up of haute barnyard tropes (lists of purveyors scrawled on a blackboard) and a menu Escoffier might recognize.
So far the critics are loving it, which for a French restaurant is remarkable. Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice, Ligaya Mishan of The Times, and Adam Platt of New York are among those who’ve filed raves. (If Platt has ever liked a new French restaurant before, I cannot recall it.)
The space was recently the short-lived noodle shop Hung Ry. In a quick re-do, they left the bar and the open kitchen practically as-is, bringing in dark wood tables and decorating the walls with photos of famous French philosophers. Dinner is on the house if you can name them all.
The chef is Matthew Aita, who worked under Jean-Georges Vongrichten and Daniel Boulud. He serves dishes like Lobster Thermidor, Tournedos Rossini, and Duck à l’orange that probably haven’t been seen together on a restaurant menu since the Nixon Administration. It gives a whole new generation the chance to discover what they have been missing.
The ambiance is a hybrid too: reservations are taken and coats checked, but at the bare-bones bar, the metal stools are the kind that make your thighs go numb.
There are about nine appetizers ($6–18), a similar number of entrées ($18–36), and a few vegetable sides ($6). Most of the mains are $25 and under, except for the lobster, the tournedos, and the duck.
Thursdays to Saturdays,, there’s a more limited late-night menu served till 1 am.
The wine list may be the most inexpensive I’ve seen in years, with bottles as low as the teens (though you could spend much more) along with a couple of dozen beers by the bottle. Wines by the glass are also inexpensive (as low as $6.50) and pours are ample, but the selection is meager.
The meal begins with two kinds of bread and soft butter (above right) — not made in house, as far as I can tell, but just fine for this sort of place.
Roasted Bone Marrow ($12; above left) was the third rendition of this dish that I’ve had in the last month, and I can’t imagine it done any better. A long bone trench is roasted, sliced in thirds, and topped with a spicy relish of shallots, lemon, capers, and watercress, with toasted warm country bread on the side. There’s oodles of gelatinous marrow, so rich and hearty it could be a meal in itself. Just wow.
Unctuous duck à l’orange ($27; above right) is sliced into triangles resembling hamentashen over a silky potato purée. The duck was just about perfect, but the orange sauce was too meek: it hardly made an impression.
Service was a bit on the slow side, but not to the point it became annoying. The restaurant was mostly full at 6:00 pm on a Sunday evening, which bodes well for the longevity of this place. Le Philosophe is a hit, and deserves to be.
Le Philosophe (55 Bond Street between Lafayette Street & Bowery, NoHo)
Rating: Critic’s Pick
Why? For skillfully reviving classics that almost no one in town serves any more