Dirty French: The Trendy Lower East Side
Dirty French on Ludlow Street is in the heart of the trendy Lower East Side. There was a time when few people sought out this part of the city, but that has changed over the last decade as it became a hotspot for developers and a rallying cry for residents miffed by the loss of authenticity. To say nothing of the increase in traffic and the contemporary buildings lording it over hundred year old tenements.
Thankfully, a number of shops that gave the neighborhood its character-- Russ & Daughters, ‘the Louvre of lox’; Katz's Delicatessen, where Harry met Sally and where you can still order what she did; and Guss’ Pickles, ‘imitated but never duplicated’-- are holding fast as the city reinvents itself. Then, too, there 's the charming Spanish restaurant pictured above, across from the Ludlow Hotel.
If Ludlow Street has a chic vibe, so, too, does Dirty French with its floor to ceiling windows, the dark wood exterior, and the hot pink neon signs beckoning from across the street.
Once inside, the atmosphere is electric, with everyone up for a good time at this bold brash retro bistro with its over-sized mirrors and glittering chandeliers that may or may not have come from Les Puces, the flea market on the outskirts of Paris.
The crowd is young, the lighting flattering, the music loud. Too loud for my companion. I try to divert him, explaining that Dirty French is the newest offering of the Torrisi Team who are reinventing the classic dishes of French cuisine by infusing them with spices-- the ‘dirty’ part --indigenous to Morocco and New Orleans, those outposts of the former far-flung French Colonial empire. He signals the server, wants to order a drink.
The restaurant succeeds on a number of counts. Shortly after we’re seated, the kitchen sends out a buttery flat bread with a smear of crème fraiche on a board that's a few steps short of heaven; I restrain from asking for seconds; it's hell. I don't mean to sound nit-picky, but to tell the truth, it would have been better had the bread arrived with the wine, not fifteen minutes before.
The main problem, at least for me, is the wine. As my companion and I have differing tastes, we usually end up ordering by the glass. Tonight, I want a chardonnay, but only if it's not oaky. Oaky gives me a headache is what I tell our server. As promised, it was not oaky, but then, again, it did not have that fullness I associate with a ripe chardonnay. Honestly, it tasted more of green apples and lemons than of tropical fruits. I switch to a chenin blanc, but I'm unhappy with that as well. The young waitstaff wants me to be happy, so they offer to bring me a glass of the sauvignon blanc, which I thought nothing special. I mask my disappointment. At sixteen dollars a glass, a wine ought to have something going for it.
I don’t know if it was an off night for my palette or an off night at the bar, but James, the bartender, could not have been more accommodating. Doesn’t he look adorable in that white dinner jacket? Shades of Gatsby.
Back at the table, we both order the mushroom mille-feuille. When I hear 'mille-feuille', I think of a Napoleon filled with custard, but this was nothing of the kind. Rather, it's a new take on an old classic: an appetizer with layer-upon-layer of thinly sliced mushrooms, so translucent you might think you're eating sautéed onions. Not a flaky pastry leaf in sight. We gave it high marks. I adore vegetable appetizers, and this one is light and elegant.
But when my companion orders duck a l’orange, they’re out of it. At seven o’clock on a Saturday night? No matter, he chooses a Brook trout meuniere with sesame and dried apricots from Morocco, while I go with a Provençale pan-seared porgy with chopped green tomatoes and Cajun spices. Both are spectacular. The chopped green tomatoes, as if meant as a palate-cleanser, are so refreshing.
The slip-up is that a side of broccoli au gratin never makes it to the table until we’re two-thirds of the way through with the entrees. Having waited forty-five minutes between the appetizer and the entrée, and then, again, for the broccoli, we agree that the pacing in the kitchen is off. Of course, when that happens, no matter how excellent the food--and it was--the pleasure of the meal is diminished. As neither one of us has an especially demanding sweet tooth, we skip dessert and order espresso.
Would I go back? Yes, but not right away. Give them time to get it all together, take another shakedown cruise. However, the neighborhood is cool, and I certainly will go back to check out the chic French boutiques popping up like mushrooms on a log on Delancey Street. (Did you see Crossing Delancey? I no longer remember what it was about, only that I loved it.) And, in the photo below, do you see the man entering the restaurant? That's my companion, the best-dressed man in town that night. But I should tell you that if you're going below 14th Street, the ladies can get by wearing basic black and the gentleman need not wear jackets and ties. Not unless they're heading for Wall Street.
Now don't go way. Remember you can "like' and "share" on Facebook or other social media. Try to come back next Sunday; I'll have the coffee brewing.