Dirty French on Ludlow Street
Dirty French on Ludlow Street is at 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 hot spot for developers, as well as a rallying cry for residents miffed by the loss of local authenticity. To say nothing of the increase in traffic and the contemporary buildings lording it over the hundred year old tenements.
Thankfully, a number of shops that gave the neighborhood its character—Russ & Daughters, ‘the Louvre of lox’; Katz's Delicatessen, the place where Harry met Sally and where you can order what she did; and Guss’s Pickles, ‘imitated but never duplicated’—are holding fast as the city reinvents itself. Then, too, there's the charming Spanish restaurant ('Food Style from Spain') directly across from the Ludlow Hotel.
If Ludlow Street has a chic vibe, which it does, so, too, does Dirty French with its floor to ceiling windows, burnished wood exterior, and hot pink neon signs beckoning me from across the street. Sexy, non?
Once inside, the atmosphere is electric, with everyone up for a good time at this bold brash retro bistro with the over-sized mirrors and the glittering chandeliers that might have come from Les Puces, the flea market on the outskirts of Paris
The crowd is young, the lighting flattering, and 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—that's the ‘dirty’ part—indigenous to Morocco and New Orleans, those outposts of the former far-flung French Colonial empire. He's not impressed, 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 fraîche that's a few steps short of heaven. I restrain from asking for seconds. I don't mean to sound nit-picky, but the bread would hvae been even better had it arrived with the wine, not 15 minutes before.
The main problem 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 oak-y. Oak-y gives me a headache, is what I tell our server. As promised, it was not oak-y, but then, again, it did not have that fullness of 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. But they are so sweet, I mask my disappointment. At $16 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.
We 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, as promised, 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 order the Provençale pan-seared porgy with chopped green tomatoes and Cajun spices. Both are spectacular! And the chopped green tomatoes, as if meant to be a palate-cleanser, are 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 45 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, 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 that are popping up like mushrooms on a log down on Delancey Street. And, in the photo to the side, do you see the man entering the restaurant? That's my companion, the best-dressed man in town south of Fourteenth Street that night. If you're dining below 14th Street, ladies should wear basic black and gentleman need not wear jackets and ties.
Try to come back next Sunday when I'll have the coffee brewing. Merci beaucoup, mes amis.