Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
You can’t escape that feeling when you walk into yet another Keith McNally restaurant. Whether it’s the Odeon or Cafe Luxembourg (with which he’s no longer associated), Pastis (recently closed), Balthazar or Minetta Tavern (both alive and well), or the brand new Cherche Midi, you’ve seen this before.
McNally has only occasionally departed from his signature motif, the all-day French brasserie. But even these other places, such as Schiller’s Liquor Bar and Morandi, bear his unmistakable stamp, long since copied by many others, though seldom as well.
He has rarely failed, but Pulino’s, his bar and pizzeria, never caught on like the rest of them. McNally panicked when he fired the opening chef, Nate Appleman, who got mediocre reviews. I liked Pulino’s under Appleman; much of the charm evaporated after he left. “Failure” is relative: Pulino’s had a nearly four-year run.
With Cherche Midi, McNally has returned to the French brasserie template that has worked so well at Balthazar, Minetta Tavern, and so many others. It is, of course, reliably full with beautiful guests who know and love the formula, and the rest of us when we can get in. Whether it will fill a distinct niche, as his more successful establishments have done, will take time to sort out. For now, it is very good, and that’s enough.
McNally’s establishments are less chef-driven than most restaurants. You go to Balthazar for what McNally has created, not for who’s in the kitchen. Still, good food doesn’t happen by accident. There are co-executive chefs at Cherche Midi, Daniel Parilla (a former sous chef at Minetta) and Shane McBride (who still oversees the kitchens at Balthazar and Schiller’s). Should either man leave, McNally would replenish from his deep bench, and I doubt Cherche Midi would miss a beat.
The food is prepared with French technique, although the menu is mostly in English. Appetizers are $14–27 (all but one under $20), entrées $23–49, side dishes $9, desserts $10–11.
The main menu doesn’t change much, but there’s a printed list of specials that changes daily. When other restaurateurs are copying from McNally, I wish they’d copy this. I far prefer to read the specials than to hear the server recite them.
There’s a custom-blend burger made from dry-aged prime rib ($23; above), served with a bacon marmelade, roasted mushrooms, and aged gruyère. I had it back in July. Four and a half months later, the taste still haunts me. It was that good. Among the premium burgers in this town, it is one of the best.
Caldo Verde (“green soup”), a Portuguese specialty ($13; above right), was one of the daily specials when I returned several months later with my family. Made with kale, sausage, potatoes and garlic, it was a hearty appetizer for a cold autumn evening.
I tasted a bit of the Hamachi Crudo ($17; above left) and Beet Salad ($14; above right), both of which deserved the nods of assent my family gave them.
Roasted Chicken ($28; above left) doesn’t attempt to compete with Balthazar’s iconic whole chicken, but it was expertly done, served on a bed of baby leeks, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and gnocchi. The Salade Niçoise ($26; above right) was a just about perfect specimen.
A dry-aged prime rib ($49; above) aims to be the signature dish here, a cheaper sister to the côte de bœuf at Minetta. This is not the dull prime rib of wedding caterers and Las Vegas buffets. There’s a deep, musky flavor, and it’s almost as soft as butter. But I really don’t think it needs to be doused in such a heavy jus, when such a superb product doesn’t need the help.
The prime rib comes with pommes soufflées (above left), which might be the best potato side dish in town. Wafer-thin potato slices are fried so that they fill with air, like balloons. I don’t recall having it anywhere else in town, and they won’t sell it à la carte; you need to order the prime rib.
The kitchen comped a side dish of baby carrots with cumin and chestnut honey (above right), which was excellent.
If you’d like some cheese, a server presents the options on a wooden cutting board ($6 each; $16 for three; $27 for five). Or have an assortment of excellent macaroons ($10; above right).
The wine list fits a lot onto four pages, almost all French. You figure McNally’s empire has buying power, and it’s reflected in the choices, with plenty of options below $50, and ranging up to the middle three figures. A 2010 Château Aimée Médoc was $58, or about 2½ times retail.
Cherche Midi remains tough to book at prime times. The first time I visited, I walked in and dined at the bar. The second time was a Sunday evening at 6:30pm. It is always busy and a bit loud at McNally’s places, but you’re always well taken care of. That cannot occur by accident; the man must be doing something right.
If the McNally restaurants feel a bit formulaic by now, you have to tip your cap. When they execute well, as Cherche Midi does today, they’re as good as anything of their kind.
Cherche Midi (282 Bowery at Houston Street, NoLIta)
Food: French brasserie technique, with American and other European classics
Service: Right out of the McNally playbook
Ambance: Ditto, but why change what works?