Cherche Midi: Those Old-Time Pleasures

At first sighting, Cherche Midi— the aqua blue awnings, the antiqued wood paneling reminiscent of Paris, the 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. 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. Do not be put off by the plain-vanilla metal door you can see in the photo, so utterly plain that my companion thought it must be the service entrance and suggested we walk around the corner to find the front door. Don't do that. Go right in!

What’s the Scoop?

Stepping inside is quite a pleasure. 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 all below 14th Street—including Balthazar in SOHO—the restaurant has the same decorative touches we've come to expect: red leather banquettes, soaring mirrors, a pressed tin ceiling, and quarter-sized white tiles underfoot. And it's blessed with flattering lighting guaranteed to take 10 years off your face.

Enjoying our drinks—a pale apricot rosé from Provence and a Tito’s (gluten-free) vodka on the rocks with a twist—we realize that unlike many dining hot spots, the clientele is well-dressed, nearly all the men wearing jackets and the women in suits or dresses. And it seems that everyone knows the rule: When dining south of 14th Street wear black.

If not wearing black that evening, I was no slouch in the dressing department, garnering compliments from the sweet young thing who seated us. By the way in Paris, when the maitre d' compliments you, he does it by offering you one of the best tables in the house. So, too, at Cherche Midi. It's a French thing.

What’s Recommended?

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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, 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. '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. Here the mussels do not come with the traditional frites, but with toasted slices of a baguette. A side of fries adds $10 to the bill. Red-blooded girl that I am, I ordered the Steak Frites with Bérnaise sauce—the steak immensely flavorful, the fries skinny and crispy. Plenty left over to share.

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 were roasting and toasting, slicing and spicing. After the main course, our server brought 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 tempted, we opt for the lemon tart with sherbet, the shell razor-thin and crunchy, the creamy filling tart and runny. Perfection.

Cherche Midi is a delight full of old-time pleasures. Starting with the lighting that casts a honeyed glow throughout, including our cozy corner. Then, too, there are the little touches. Like what? The way the waiter deftly added a fresh paper topper over the white cloth—mussels can be messy!—before serving dessert and coffee.

Last Minute Thoughts

Mr McNally, with a sharp eye for the nuances of fine dining, has created another restaurant that’s a real crowd-pleaser. A contagious conviviality was floating in the dining room that evening. You could feel it in the air, see it in the faces.

Service is excellent, without being overbearing or rushed and not a single server told me his/her name! The wait staff comes from all over the world—France, China and Bangladesh—which I've 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.

what do others say? 

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'Take a quick trip to Paris.'

 'Perfect for people-watching.'  

So what do you think? Have you added Cherche Midi to your list of must-try places? If so, you won't be disappointed. But, tell me, whether it be in New York or in your part of the world, what's your favorite restaurant? Why so?

Thanks for dropping by today. Hope to see you next week, when I'll have the coffee ready. Now where is my UBER driver?