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La Boite en Bois

La Boite en Bois, a Lincoln Center standby since 1985, fell off my radar in recent years. I’ve been there a few times, but until Saturday, probably not in the seven years I’ve been keeping this blog.

It’s rare that the coat-check girl is a restaurant’s smartest hire, but that just might be the case here. Walk in, and down a half-flight of stairs, and there she is, entoning “Bon soir, monsieur! Bon soir, madame!” When the website says that “you will feel as though you are in the countryside of France,” it is almost true. The cramped, rustic dining room really does transport you. I’d forgotten just how tight it is: this isn’t the place for a business deal or a seduction.

Appetizers are $8.50–13.50, entrées $19.50–30.50, but from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., a $44 prix fixe is the only option. However, they offer almost their entire menu at that price. In contrast, Bar Boulud, a better restuarant, offers a $42 prix fixe, but your choices are limited to just three appetizers and three entrées.

Sausage with lentils is a perfect illustration: perfectly respectable, but nothing you’ll remember. It comes out in minutes and is obviously pre-made. The sausages were thicker and richer when I had the nearly identical dish at Bar Boulud in 2008. It was $16 there, but $9.50 here when ordered off the à la carte menu.

Roast salmon in a honey mustard crust, bathed in a rich cream sauce, was the best salmon I have had in a very long time, one of those sublime dishes that you wish would last forever. A similar preparation was the highlight of Bryan Miller’s one-star review for the Times, shortly after the restaurant opened.

For a pre-concert meal, reservations are mandatory. At 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening, the restaurant was already full, mostly with people headed to Lincoln Center. The staff is conditioned to get diners to their concerts on time, and this leads to some confusion. Wine was ordered, but never brought. A coffee was ordered; cappuccino came instead. Water glasses were not promptly refilled, and a spoon (rather than a fork) was the only utensil offered with a slice of cheesecake (housemade, and excellent).

La Boite en Bois (The Wooden Box) is one of many dozens of old-school French bistros that used to dot the city’s landscape, and if they’re a bit scarcer than they used to be, there are still plenty of them. They may be tough to tell apart, but this one delivers just enough charm to deserve a place on your pre-concert rotation.

La Boite en Bois (75 W. 68th St. near Columbus Ave., Upper West Side)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *

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