La Villette opened in late October, on the edge of the West Village. It offers a solid but sleepy incarnation of French Provençal cuisine. There’s nothing wrong with a restaurant like this—I wish my neighborhood had one. But there’s a distinct lack of dishes that set the pulse racing, and the execution isn’t so exemplary that it demands attention on its own.
On the face of it, this ought to be an ideal location, on a busy corner lot, close to several subway stations. But a number of restaurants on this block have struggled, including La Villette’s predecessor, the appropriately named 10 Downing.
If you’re the owners of La Villette, perhaps the best news of the year is that one of the fall hits, El Toro Blanco (which replaced another failure, Sam Bahri’s Steakhouse), just opened down the block. El Toro was packed at 7 pm on a recent Wednesday evening.
Perhaps La Villette will get some of the spillover crowd, eventually. Or perhaps not. We found La Villette’s dining room mostly empty. I don’t believe they seated more than five tables while we were there, although the bar was mostly full.
The layout of the old 10 Downing space hasn’t changed, but it has been re-decorated like a typical French bistro, with subway tile, old French movie posters, and distressed mirrors. The dining room seats 85, with another 60 outdoors in good weather. That’s a lot of chairs to fill, a challenge that 10 Downing seldom met.
The current menu is not available online. The restaurant emailed me a menu about a month ago, but as of our visit it had already been pared down. That’s never a good sign. On the message boards (Yelp, etc.), there’s a smattering of unrealistically fawning message board reviews that are obvious shills.
On top of the food (mostly good), my Old Fashioned cocktail was well prepared. The wine list, though not extensive, is mostly French, offers fair value, and goes well with the food. The warm bread service (served with olive oil, not butter) a great start.
A Tomato Watermelon salad ($12; above left) was just fine, although December is a strange month in which to be serving it. I’d heartily recommend the Puff Pastry Tomato Tart ($9; above right), one of the better renditions of that dish.
Mussels are offered in two sizes, and each size with either of two sauces (White Wine or Tomato, i.e., Provençale). My girlfriend ordered the Provençale ($19; above left), which had her nodding with approval. I didn’t try the mussels, but the fries (below left) were wonderful.
La Villette sources its beef from the Ottomanelli Brothers, with three cuts offered: a ribeye, filet mignon, or veal filet mignon. I was modestly displeased with the Veal Filet ($32; above right), which was drowned in a humdrum shower of mushrooms and frisée.
Despite my carping, we weren’t ready for the meal to end, so we ordered the Cheese Plate ($20; above right), a good selection for this type of restaurant.
Although the dining room was mostly empty, the kitchen was quite slow, and the meal took over two hours. The table next to us received inordinate attention: an older guy with a trophy date and three cell phones. If you’re into people-watching, it wasn’t bad entertainment. We received what was, I suppose, the more usual service, which aside from the kitchen’s slow pace, was as friendly and proper as it ought to be.
I’m sorry if that comes across as too negative. We actually liked our visit to La Villette. We probably won’t rush back, not for any drawbacks of the place as presently conceived, but because French cuisine of this middling quality is available at many other places.
La Villette (10 Downing Street at Sixth Avenue, West Village)
Food: Provençal, generally well prepared, if a bit lacking in excitement
Service: Solid, friendly, reliable, but a bit slow
Ambiance: A typical brasserie, with subway tile and old French movie posters
Why? This is the kind of French restaurant every neighborhood should have