The Benefits of Being French and Familiar
John Lei for The New York Times
By FRANK BRUNI
Owned in part by Lynn Wagenknecht, the ex-wife of Keith McNally, it shares roots with Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg, Balthazar and Pastis, and it trades on those ties, its walls decorated with framed sketches of well-known worshipers at McNally-related temples over the years.
Their faces contribute to its aura of chromosomal coolness, and that aura has kept Cafe Cluny packed, no matter how unimaginative the menu (roasted chicken with baby carrots, baby beets with goat cheese) or erratic the service, which hit bottom during a dinner when the sides arrived with the appetizers. In the restaurant business as in presidential politics, it can help to come from the right family.
And Cafe Cluny has learned the lessons of its brood, the previously mentioned members of which are to some extent anagrams of one another, their details and levels of performance different, their overall strategy much the same.
Give people food with the comfort of the familiar and dress it with buzz, so that it all seems more eventful than it is. Adapt a French idiom for a Manhattan audience. Make sure the fries are crunchy and salty.
Cafe Cluny does all of that but also departs from the tradition. It’s more bistro than brasserie, tucked into two low-ceilinged rooms that trade swagger for a gentle prettiness that’s charming on first sight. There are carved stone birds in a glass diorama along one wall, flickering votive candles on each table and homey touches throughout, with one extremely odd exception. In the back dining room, hanging upside down from the ceiling, is a wood sculpture of what looks like a giant roach. Its intended symbolism is anyone’s guess.
Like Cafe Cluny’s scale, its dinner menu is modest: half a dozen appetizers, eight entrees and a smattering of sides and desserts. Most of these dishes emphasize accessibility over enterprise, and if you happen across the right ones on the right night, you can have a meal that rises well above pleasant while falling only slightly shy of memorable.
Maybe your good fortune will come courtesy of plump, supple sea scallops, placed on a cushion of cauliflower purée that’s brightened by swirls of beet jus. The best of the appetizers, it spoke to the kitchen’s generally expert cooking of seafood, which was also evident in a starter of unusually delicate bulbs of grilled squid against a backdrop of what was billed as risotto. I say billed because there was minimal truth in that advertising. Rice-a-Roni would have been as apt a description of the dry, dreary grains.
One of the best entrees was roasted cod, buttery in texture, with a hearty mash of polenta and piperade. Another, to my astonishment, was a monkfish special. I’ve grown weary of monkfish’s popularity and skeptical of its charms: it always seems to cool too quickly after it reaches the table and its flavor can be subtle to the point of being chimerical.
In response to this challenge and in accordance with the current vogue, the chefs Vincent Nargi and Phil Conlon recruited the services of pork. A generous cloak of pancetta not only enlivened but also seemed to insulate the fish, keeping it warm.
While the richness of braised short ribs was decadently amplified by seared foie gras on top, there was no distinction — but, then again, no fault — in a thick-sliced hanger steak, served with fingerling potatoes in place of fries. That was true as well of the chicken and of swordfish with green peppercorns scattered over it.
For a menu this concise, weak spots were too common. An entree of duck confit was tough. The linguine below a colony of cockles was soupy.
As for soups themselves, which appeared as changing nightly specials, they tended to be sludgy and timidly seasoned. One of them promised spicy red lentils, coconut milk and cumin oil, only to deliver a vague hodgepodge of indistinct effects. Delving into it was like boarding a flight for India and getting only as far as Heathrow.
You couldn’t ask for a more solid roster of sides, highlighted by haricots verts with hazelnuts and brussels sprouts with plenty of bacon.
But you could justly demand a much better lineup of desserts, among which the only unqualified winner was those profiteroles, with crisp pastry and with slivers of almond flecking deeply chocolaty sauce.
Servers kept re-checking orders, undoubtedly because they had trouble hearing them. If they wind up working at Cafe Cluny too long, they may have trouble hearing altogether. On busy nights, it’s painfully loud.
The restaurant’s name alludes not only to a museum in Paris but also — fittingly — to a Parisian Metro station next to the Odéon stop. And Cafe Cluny’s emergence belongs to an incestuous boomlet of fashionable troughs in the West Village.
Only a few blocks away, Graydon Carter, the Vanity Fair editor, whose face is among those in Cafe Cluny’s sketch gallery, has helped to remake and resurrect the Waverly Inn, which he owns with several partners. And Mr. McNally is about to try his hand at Italian cuisine with Morandi, on Charles Street near Waverly Place. The attraction of the West Village is obvious: narrow and, in some spots, cobbled streets provide a romantic foreground for restaurants, whose dollhouse dimensions convey an intimacy lacking at so many brasher establishments.
But except for a lunch visit, when Cafe Cluny wasn’t full and stacks of the day’s newspapers were graciously laid out on a long table up front, it was less cozy and soothing than its appearance suggested it would be. I often found myself squeezed into a tight seat and subjected to elbows and “excuse me’s” from all sides.
That’s not the most unusual of fates. It’s not the worst of them. And it’s offset by just enough merit to make Cafe Cluny a beguiling neighborhood place. But a noteworthy destination? Anyone seeing this restaurant in a light that kind is looking through a lens of culinary nepotism.
284 West 12th Street (West Fourth Street), Greenwich Village; (212) 255-6900.
ATMOSPHERE On a romantic West Village corner, two low-ceilinged rooms whose dollhouse charm is often shattered by how cramped they get.
SOUND LEVEL Varies greatly, becoming extremely loud when crowded.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Baby beets with goat cheese; scallops with cauliflower purée; roasted cod; monkfish; short ribs; brussels sprouts; haricots verts; confit fingerling potatoes; profiteroles.
WINE LIST Limited to about two dozen geographically diverse and wisely varied selections, most for under $50 a bottle and all available by the glass.
PRICE RANGE Breakfast, brunch and lunch dishes, $8 to $21. Dinner appetizers, $8 to $13; entrees, $22 to $28; sides, $8; desserts, $8.
HOURS 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.
RESERVATIONS For prime times, call at least a week in advance.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS The back dining room is at street level through a separate entrance on West Fourth Street, but the room’s dimensions would pose difficulty. Restrooms not technically accessible.