By Paul Adams
On a recent Wednesday evening in the West Village, the wait to get into Cafe Cluny was about an hour. Any unsuspecting passers-by, glancing at the blatantly ordinary menu in the window, must have wondered why. Were people queuing for the steak frites? For the mixed green salad? Didn't we know that the Place, right next door with plenty of vacant tables, serves quite a similar menu? Yes, Cluny is plain by design, but the crowds aren't here for its subtleties.
What the restaurant serves the most of, at the moment at least, is buzz. Not only is it newly opened in a restaurant-hungry neighborhood, but it's owned by Lynn Wagenknecht, ex-wife of Keith McNally. The couple's brasserie Odeon made a similar splash in TriBeCa in 1980. Portraits of downtown press and nightlife luminaries adorn Cafe Cluny's front room. The clientele of the restaurant includes an occasional luminary perhaps, but mostly the sort of connoisseur who takes pride in identifying even the most obscure portraits. Regardless, food is not the point: The luminaries, like the rest of us, order from a short menu of bistro standards.
A couple of salads may satiate the lighter eaters in the room, but a squid dish ($13) makes a much more substantive appetizer. Large strips of grilled squid are laid on a paella-like dome of gooey, moist rice that's orange with saffron and studded with tiny bits of chorizo. Its flavor, faint but good, is dominated by the taste of the grill. A pair of scallops ($13) have a freshness that rises some distance above the average, complemented by a pair of vegetable purées: cauliflower and beet, which swirl into each other and offset the sweet shellfish. Whoever first discovered the compatibility of delicate, buttery seared scallops and earthy, rich cauliflower, piqued perhaps with a squeeze of something acid, deserves accolades, if not royalties. It wasn't Vincent Nargi, who developed Cluny's (and also Odeon's) menu, but he implements the idea very well.
Every evening finds a soup, starter, and main course special clipped to the standard menu, offering considerably more flair than the everyday fare. A meaty little roasted quail ($13) with a sweetly browned skin made a better starter than anything on the regular list, its savor accented by the sharp tang of charred radicchio leaves. Another night, wontons stuffed with pungent blue cheese added interest to a transparent, warming tomato broth ($8). But the everyday cooking's lack of ambition makes itself felt in dishes like a humdrum linguini with clams — pardon me, cockles. Dotted with about 15 little shells, the pale pasta lies in clumpy tangles, hardly improved by a perfunctory white-wine sauce. So little flavor for $22 is a bit of an affront to any customer who might be here for the food. A grilled slab of sturdy-flavored swordfish ($26) fares a little better, its flesh moist and doused in a thin, very mild sauce that the menu calls "au poivre" and that does little for the fish. But thick, dense slices of mushroom sop up the sauce excellently; I wouldn't mind if the plate were filled entirely with those, and the fish left behind in the kitchen.
Still, bistro stalwarts like duck confit and braised beef know their job and do it well. Two confited legs of duck ($23) have buttery, crisped skin enclosing dark, savory meat. If their reduction is too salty, that just adds to the hearty, flavorcrammed mood; roasted Brussels sprouts on the plate lend a fresh crunch without compromising the dish's vigor. A cap of foie gras on beef short ribs is less incongruous there than, say, on pizza, but still it doesn't add much to the dish beyond glitz (and ratcheting a cheap cut to $28). Indeed, it almost gets lost melting among the tender shreds of beef, which hardly need more richness — their classic wintry depth is permeated with wine and fat.
A miniature ginger-tinged cheesecake strewn with candied citrus zest is delicious, refreshing, and almost shockingly exotic among the desserts (all $8). Much more in keeping with the menu's overall level of ambition is a big bowl of chocolate pudding that's not particularly chocolatey or rich, but accented with a dollop of cream. Wine fills its role without many surprises, pleasant or unpleasant. The list is scanty, much shorter than Odeon's, and not as French as one might expect. There's a fine white Burgundy (Domaine Eric Boussey, $10/$38) and a powerful, merlot-braced Bordeaux from Chateau Clarke ($16/$62), but also several bottles from North and South America. Cocktails like the Cluny ($14) have the zing of fresh juice.
Odeon has maintained its reliable stature for more 25 years — no longer hip, perhaps, but firmly anchored on the downtown map. The question for Cluny is whether it can modulate its opening buzz into enduring iconicity, and it seems to have what it takes. In this environment, impressive food would just be a distraction.
Cafe Cluny (284 W. 12th St. at West 4th Street, 212-255-6900).