Monte Carlo: Uptown French with a Downtown Feeling

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Stopping to check out a restaurant under construction, I meet the charming Alexandra Pollet, the owner of Monte Carlo who, having spent many years in the hospitality industry in France, was brought to New York ten years ago by the Waldorf-Astoria to be the food and beverage director at the legendary 'Bull and Bear Steakhouse.' The same 'Bull and Bear' that in the early part of the twentieth century had been the after-the-close club of the titans of Wall Street. The same that in the 60s had been the cafe of choice for the liquid lunches of the 'Mad Men' of nearby Madison Avenue.

Bienvenue to the Upper East Side

Monte Carlo is her first solo restaurant. Why the name?  She grew up in the south of France on the Côte d'Azur and remembers fondly summers spent in and around Monte Carlo—the spirit, the style, and the casual elegance. Something which she hopes to recreate in this lovely bistro on the Upper East Side. Designed to attract those in the fashion and food industry, it's also meant to please the sophisticated and demanding palates of a neighborhood clientele.

Entering the restaurant last Saturday evening, we stepped into a luxe world of white—white walls, white cabinetry, white tablecloths, and a single white bloom on each table—spiked with the warm tones of the apricot banquette, the bentwood hairpin chairs, and a brick wall over by the bar.

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At both ends of the restaurant hang over-sized mirrors, which I’ve come to think of as a classic French design element. You can see for yourself, it’s a blend of classic and modern—simple and très chic. In a word-- inviting.

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So, too,  the menu with a number of the classics of French cuisine, tweaked to please modern palates with the portions suitably sized and beautifully presented. The operating principle at Monte Carlo is farm-to-table, with an emphasis on quality and freshness. The fish is organic or wild, and the antibiotic-free chicken comes fromthe Amish country.

Vivela différence

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Often when dining out, I find myself looking for something to enjoy with a drink. Heading the menu under ‘To Share’ are Barbajuans, a south of France specialty with a Mediterranean twist. Deep-fried ravioli stuffed with wilted greens, ricotta and Parmesan. Or, as an alternative, salmon rillettes, a mix of fresh and smoked salmon dill served withcrostini.

Everything Old is New Again

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Especially flavorful and bold was a Country Terrine, served with cornichons, celery remoulade and country bread toasts.  What’s noteworthy is that everything, including the pate and a duck foie gras confit, are made in-house. Other appetizers included a crab cake that looked fabulous going by and a soup du jour—a cream-based asparagus soup.

For the main course, my guest, if tempted by the skate fish Grenobloise in a caper sauce, eventually went with the lobster vol-au-vent —poached Maine lobster and pike quenelles in a lobster jus, served with a square of puff pastry cradling wild mushrooms. Superb. And sobeautifully presented that upon seeing it, a gentleman at the next table put down his menu to order the same.

For Red-Blooded All-American Francophiles

Lately, I’ve been indulging myself with hangar steaks.  At Monte Carlo, the hangar steak, served with wilted greens, frites and a splash of peppercorn sauce, was flavorful and tender. Take a close look, see for yourself all that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. (Entrees range from $25-$30, with Dover sole at $55 an exception.)

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For dessert, we shared the profiteroles and agreed we’ve never had better—the puff pastry light and airy, the chocolate sauce decadent and divine. Even the ice creams and sorbets are made on the premises.

Days later, I learned that many of the staff at Monte Carlo have come from the shuttered L’Absinthe on East 67th Street-- a stone’s throw from Sloan Kettering.  A long-time fan of L'Absinthe, a quintessentially French bistro of the highest order, I was heart-broken when their lease expired and the building was demolished. So, it's good to think that something of that elegant bistro lives on here at Monte Carlo.

Seated by the window, I part the curtains to see a Vespa-- my dream vehicle for tooling around the city-- parked at the curb. Restaurants with street views have a certain charm.

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If it’s a perfect evening you’re after—elegant in its simplicity, decadent in its food—consider Monte Carlo. We knew it had been perfect when we found ourselves discussing it at length over breakfast the following morning.

Lucky me. Monte Carlo at 181 East 78th Street, (Lex-Third)  is only a few blocks from home.

Hours: Open Monday—Saturday, for lunch and dinner. Sunday for brunch and dinner from Noon—11PM.

Hope you will join me next week, desperately seeking Paris on the streets of New York. Until then --  a bientot! And remember...sharing is caring.