Odeon's Girlish Cousin
By Adam Platt
There is a pleasant, almost connect-the-dots exactness to the proceedings at Lynn Wagenknecht’s new restaurant, Cafe Cluny, which anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time in the company of women (like I do) will recognize almost instantly. For a while, in fact, I didn’t even bother taking my wife there, or either of our two daughters, or our beloved Oprah-loving babysitter from Nepal, or even our beloved (female) parakeet, Fluffy. The idea just seemed too obvious. Everything about this neighborly little West Village bistro, which opened a bit more than a month ago, on the cobblestone corner of 12th and West 4th Streets, is competent, tidy, almost amusingly just-so. The walls are decorated with winsome arrangements of pressed ferns under glass, stuffed songbirds, and other naturalist knickknacks. There are fresh flowers on the bar, the candles in the bathrooms are scented with golden mimosa (there are fresh flowers there too), and if you ask one of the waitresses where the name comes from, she might tell you, as mine did, that it was inspired by Abbaye de Cluny, the famous monastery in France.
I don’t know what they eat in monasteries these days, but in Lynn Wagenknecht’s restaurants, the menus rarely vary. Wagenknecht is, of course, the founder, with her former husband, Keith McNally, of the Odeon in Tribeca. As such, she is at least partially responsible for elevating the great American faux-brasserie dinner (salad frisée aux lardons, steak-frites, profiteroles with chocolate sauce) to the hipster equivalent of, say, the McDonald’s Happy Meal. She and her partners still run the Odeon (and it’s uptown doppelgänger, Café Luxembourg), and Cafe Cluny seems to have been conceived as its petite, slightly more civilized West Village relation, a place where you can obtain neighborly, moderately updated versions of old Odeon chestnuts like beet salad (in this case with artisanal baby beets and aged goat cheese), and salad frisée (topped with lardons and a poached egg). Duck confit also appears on the menu, as do pan-roasted cod and, of course, hanger steak, presented here not with frites but with healthful portions of Swiss chard and fingerling potatoes.
Of course frites are also available at Cafe Cluny, and like most everything on the limited though generally well-executed menu, they’re pretty good. The baby beets in my beet salad were fresh, the lardons in the frisée salad were crunchy and plentiful, the scallops in my scallop appetizer were sweet as plums and seared to the proper crispness. But if it’s culinary improvisation and sloppy, fat-man largesse you’re after, then go someplace else. The most risqué dish I encountered was grilled squid served with a “paella-style” risotto that tasted mostly like rice. Among the entrées, you’ll find cockles on your linguine, and cod that isn’t just roasted but mingled with stewed red peppers and creamy polenta. My chicken was roasted to a pleasant crackle, as was the crispy-skinned duck confit, which comes stacked over baby Brussels sprouts. My friend the Food Aristocrat had no problem with her hanger steak, but if you want beef, get that eighties-era fat-man specialty braised short ribs, set here in a buttery potato purée, with a dainty sliver of seared foie gras balanced on top.
The layout at Cafe Cluny (two tiny rooms jammed with tiny, wobbly tables) is designed to encourage maximum chattering and intimacy, and judging by the crowds flooding into the place, it has its appeal. To further promote a sense of clubby exclusivity, Wagenknecht has hung pencil drawings of her various chic, Odeon-era friends (Diane Von Furstenberg, Graydon Carter), though the only remotely chic person I saw there was that ageless boulevardier, Joel Grey. I couldn’t see what Mr. Grey and his party had for dessert, but I’d bet crème brûlée was involved. It’s called “Classic Creme Brulee” on the menu, and it seems to have been beamed in from the Odeon, circa 1982. It’s much better than the meager, pre-refrigerated chocolate pudding or the “concord grape” tart (which seems to be stuffed with Smucker’s jam). But it’s not as good as the profiteroles, which are crunchy and chocolaty, and seem to have been shrunk from their original Odeon size to promote a decorous, you could say ladylike, form of nibbling.
With new beef palaces popping up all around town, this critic has been suffering, recently, from an acute case of steakhouse fatigue. But when my iron-stomached friend, the Steak Loon, began rhapsodizing about the qualities of the grilled rib eye at an obscure new chophouse in the theater district called 7Square, I strapped on the old feed bag and waddled uptown. 7Square is located in the small Time Hotel on 49th Street, and before it was a chophouse (“A modern chophouse” is the official motto), it was a struggling gourmet establishment serving high-minded Continental creations by the Lespinasse-trained chef Shane McBride. Mr. McBride is still in the kitchen, but now he’s turning out highbrow chophouse fare, like lettuce wedges with feta cheese, salmon crusted in gingersnaps, and short ribs braised in root beer. To accentuate this nouvelle workaday theme, the menus are encased in corrugated cardboard, and the small room has been decorated with swooping brown wood installations, which make it look like a swanky cafeteria designed for hip, mid-level executives at, say, UPS.
Before you get to the steak, there’s an interesting appetizer of artisanal hams (duck ham, wild boar), and a surprisingly nice “dirty rice” risotto, spiked with duck confit and andouille sausage. Among the entrées, the short ribs are Lespinasse quality, even if the root beer makes them taste a little too much like a candy bar, and the fat, well-seared veal chop with wild mushrooms is unlike anything you’ll find at any cafeteria run by UPS. The Colorado lamb chops are double cut, and garnished, not unpleasantly, with sweet raisins. And the Steak Loon is right about the steak. His beloved rib eye comes from Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Maine and is marbled with the kind of corn-fed fattiness that old- fashioned carnivores covet. The side dishes are okay (nicely caramelized Brussels sprouts, tasty macaroni and cheese), but if you’re on your way to the theater, do what hard-core Steak Loons tend to do, and forgo the desserts (Frankenstein-size banana fritters, a gold-leaf-flecked chocolate “Square Ding”), which are clunky and uneven.