Cherche Midi: Those Old-Time Pleasures
At first sighting, Cherche Midi—aqua blue awnings, antiqued wood paneling reminiscent of Paris, and a menu bounded by a simple glass box—looks so much a part of the neighborhood that you would think it had been there for years. Which is not the case. Indeed, at the corner of East Houston and Bowery, the restaurant is an upstart on the Lower East Side, having opened its doors in June 2014. Speaking of doors, do not be put off by the plain-vanilla metal front door, so utterly plain my companion, mistaking it for a service entrance, suggested we walk around the corner to find the front door. Don't do that.
What’s the Scoop?
Stepping inside is a jolt. With tables to the right of us and tables to the left, Cherche Midi feels spacious and airy. Light and lovely. As the latest venture of Keith McNally, who owns five other restaurants below 14th Street -- including Balthazar in SOHO -- this one has many of the same decorative touches we've come to expect: the red leather banquettes, soaring mirrors, pressed tin ceiling, and the quarter-size white tiles underfoot. Then, too, there is lighting so flattering it's guaranteed to take ten years off your face.
Enjoying our drinks—a pale apricot rosé from Provence and Tito’s (gluten-free) vodka on the rocks with a twist—we realize that unlike most dining hot spots, here we are having a conversation without raising our voices.
Yet another pleasure is that guests were well dressed, with nearly all the men wearing jackets and the women in suits or dresses. Everyone knows the rule: When dining south of 14th Street wear black.
Even without wearing black, I was no slouch in the dressing department that evening, garnering compliments from the sweet young thing who seated us. By the way, in Paris, when the maitre d' compliments you, he gives you one of the best tables in the house. So, too, at Cherche Midi. It's a French thing.
We started with frogs' legs served with a green garlic velouté, garlic chips, and crisp parsley. Coated in a light batter and about the size of cotton balls, I didn’t recognize them as frogs’ legs when they arrived at the table. Were they good? Better than good, they were original and sensational.
After which, my companion had the Bouchot mussels, served with caramelized fennel, Pernod, crème fraiche and tarragon.
What are Bouchot mussels? I asked our French server. We learned that 'bouchot' means the “shellfish bed” where the mussels are grown on ropes strung from wooden poles in the sea. A technique that produces fresh-tasting plump mussels, free of grit and barnacles.
By the way, the mussels come not with the traditional frites, but with toasted slices of a baguette. You might want to skip a side of fries as it adds $10 to the bill. Red-blooded girl that I am, I ordered Steak Frites with Bérnaise sauce—the steak flavorful, the fries skinny and crispy. With plenty left over to share with my date.
By a little after eight, with nearly every table taken, the decibel count was still comfortable, even in the kitchen, where more than a half-dozen chefs are roasting and toasting, slicing and spicing.
After the main course, our server brings over a dazzling array of cheeses—cheeses made from the milk of cows, sheep, and goats—from France, the UK, California, Georgia and Vermont. If sorely tempted, we share a lemon tart with sherbert, the shell both thin and crunchy, the creamy filling tart and runny.
Cherche Midi is a delight, one full of old-time pleasures. Starting with the lighting that casts a honeyed glow throughout, including our corner below. And then there are the little things. The way the waiter deftly substitutes a fresh paper topper over the white cloth-- mussels and fries can be messy!-- before serving the dessert and coffee.
Last Minute Thoughts
Mr McNally, who has an eye for the nuances of fine dining, has created yet another restaurant that’s a real crowd-pleaser. There was a contagious conviviality in the dining room. You could feel it in the air, see it in the engaged faces.
Service is excellent, without being overbearing or rushed. And not one server told me his/her name! The wait staff comes from all over the world-- from France, China and even Bangladesh—which I have come to think of as a quintessentially New York touch. Cherche Midi is open for lunch Monday to Friday, 12-3:30 PM; for brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 -3:30PM, and nightly for dinner. Reservations highly recommended.
Can we talk?
So what do you think? Have you added Cherche Midi to your list of must-try places? If so, you wont be disappointed. But, tell me, whether it be in New York or in your part of the world, what's your favorite restaurant and why?
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