Nice Matin is one of the more puzzling restaurants in New York. It pairs one of the city’s most pedestrian and uninspired menus with one of its most remarkable wine lists.
It was not always thus. In 2003, William Grimes of The Times awarded two stars, praising the Provençal/Niçoise cuisine, while noting that the 140-bottle wine list poorly represented the South of France.
But by 2011, Eric Asimov reported that the wine cellar had swelled to 2,000 bottles, “with perhaps the best list of Bandols and Provençal wines in New York.” The leather-bound wine list is 55 pages. There cannot be more than a couple of dozen restaurants in NYC with such a list; they would almost all be three-star places considerably more expensive than Nice Matin.
It was the wine list that brought me back here, as my dinner in 2005 was so disappointing that I had vowed never to return. Since then the owner, Simon Oren, acquired the substantial cellars of two luxury restaurants that closed, Chanterelle and Country, and he continues to buy at auction where he can.
Nice Matin is the flagship of a network of undistinguished French bistros, the Culinary Tour of France. (Simon Oren also owns the SushiSamba and 5 Napkin Burger chains.) His partner is chef Andy d’Amico, who once earned three stars at Sign of the Dove.
It is difficult to comprehend why Mr. Oren has made such a substantial investment in the wine list, while Mr. d’Amico allows the food to languish. Unlike my meal in 2005, the food this time was at least competently prepared. There were no fireworks on the plate, but no disasters either. I’d have no objection to dining here again.
But the menus are dog-eared and torn; they are obviously not revised very often, except for inflation. Now, I’ve no objection to the French classics—I love them—but the cuisine of southern France has much more to it than the same list of fifteen entrées, year after year, unchanged with the seasons. Put more life in the menu, and Nice Matin could really be something.
I’ve no objection to the prices, either: nothing is more expensive than Steak Frites, at $27.50. Most of the entrées hover around $20, most of the starters around $11. A prix fixe, with limited choices, is $35. Obviously, the quality of the ingredients is limited at these prices.
And there is some carelessness. Fresh bread (above left) comes with butter drizzled in olive oil, a nice touch, but the butter is ice cold.
The food, as I said, is worthy of neither praise nor complaint. It was fine. I liked the Escargot ($9.75; above left) a tad better than the Mushroom Tart ($11.75; above right).
Both Salmon ($21.50; above left) and Chicken under a Brick ($19.75; above right) are ample portions at practically diner prices. The chicken was quite good, but it was undermined by a pedestrian ragout of couscous, root vegetables, apples, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, and herbs.
The casual décor, if not exactly authentic, is attractive and even romantic if you get the right table (we had the booth in the corner). But tables are crammed together, extracting maximum use from every inch of space that the law allows. Grimes complained that it can get noisy in here, and that is still true.
It is passing strange that you can spend $35 a head on food, and then spend hundreds on a first-growth Burgundy. We didn’t go quite that far, ordering a 1984 Santenay Gravière Premier Cru for $77. I don’t know how many places in the city would have that wine, or its equivalent, at that price (or any price), but it can’t be many.
Nice Matin is two restaurants in one, a forgettable French bistro with one of the city’s great wine lists.
Nice Matin (201 W. 79th Street at Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)
Cuisine: French Mediterranean classics, adequately rendered
Wine List: One of the city’s best
Service: Casual, but fine for what it is
Ambance: A cramped but attractive dining room
Why? Because of the wine list