A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “restaurant story of the year . . . the explosion of casual restaurants with good—I mean, really good—wine lists right out of the gate.” Our visit to Racines NY prompted that comment, but I also had another spot on my mind: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, which opened at around the same time, not very far away.
Both take advantage of NYC’s sudden love affair with French cuisine, which seemed so terribly out of fashion just a decade ago, as Frank Bruni came off the plane from Italy and administered the last rites. Six months ago, when the Torrisi boys (both of Italian descent) announced they were opening Dirty French, it was like Nixon going to China. France had permission to be cool again.
(I’ve been writing about a French comeback for at least six years, only to realize I’d been premature. I don’t recall any recent French opening that elicited the kind of heavy breathing that accompanies a Torrisi project, like Dirty French. If there’s finally an inflection point, this could be very well be it.)
But I digress. La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is a mini-chain of three wine bars—Paris and Seven Dials in London have the other two. Just like Racines, there’s a Michelin star chef in charge of the food: La Chassagnette’s Armand Arnal. You’ll note I didn’t say, “in the kitchen.” This feels like a consulting job. The menu is timid, and has barely changed in four months.
That’s a pity. In an era when the better wine bars are lauded as much for their food, La Compagnie really missed the boat. It no longer suffices to trot out the usual array of charcuterie, cheeses, mixed pickles, and a handful of small plates ($11–15), most of them served cold. It’s all decently prepared, but in a city now awash in compelling wine lists, La Compagnie needs more.
That’s doubly a pity, because the wine list is wonderful: 600 bottles, mostly French, and plenty of them in the $40–60 range. You can splurge on a 1988 Petrus for $3,150, but you don’t have to. The by-the-glass list is fairly priced, as well. A couple of enomatic machines hover behind the bar: they serve the more expensive single-glass selections, and the device preserves them for up to a week. One of these is a mystery wine for $15 a glass: guess it, and a bottle is yours for free.
We chose from the small plates section of the menu. Either of the first two items could function as a respectable salad: Sardines ($11; above left) with grainy mustard, lemon juice, pickled pearl onions & herbs; Braised Octopus ($14; above right) with the same pickled pearl onions and pink peppercorn.
We were disappointed in the Roasted Lamb Shoulder ($15; above left), served cold like deli meat, with various condiments and a small serving of ploughman’s bread. The chef redeemed himself with the D.L.T. ($15; above right), a grilled sandwich with confit duck taking the place of bacon. This was the only dish we tried that rose above the pedestrian.
Reservations are taken on OpenTable, but the layout is not really that of a proper restaurant: low-slung couches take the place of banquettes, with tables coming up to knee level. However, it is quiet and comfortable. There wasn’t much of a crowd on a Wednesday evening. Only a couple of other tables were seated, though one of these was a large party, all speaking French. The server was not very attentive, and at least one of the wines (not counting the mystery wine) was served without showing us the bottle, an inexcusable lapse.
For the extensive wine list alone, La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is worth a visit for grape hounds, but I am not sure it’ll last if the food does not improve.
La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels (249 Centre Street btwn. Broome & Grand Streets, NoLIta)
Food: A routine selection of charcuterie and cheeses, plus a few small plates
Ambiance: A low-lit, comfortable wine bar