New York or Paris: I Love Buvette

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Whenever I would start talking French restaurants, someone would invariably ask: "Have you been to Buvette?" Buvette had the buzz, no doubt about it, the consensus being that the food was excellent, the ambiance divine: "It’s like being in Paris!"

On an evening slated to be a misadventure—one in which preconceptions would be dashed—I had assured my companion it would take us no more than 20 minutes to reach the West Village by cab. Wrong. Luck of the draw, our driver, who most likely had honed his driving skills in the mountainous passes of Pakistan, became irritated when traffic came to a standstill on Ninth Avenue. Taking a quick right and a quick left, he soon had us heading the wrong way down a one-way street, a couple of security guards waving frantically. That took a bit of explaining on his part, the meter running all the while.

Where’s your GPS? I asked, suggesting we try Eleventh Avenue, which wasn’t much better. By the time we reached Bleeker at Grove, the meter was edging up on $30, my companion grumbling. The driver said he'd drop us at the corner, rather than drive around the block. Okay, okay. Welcome to New York where the cabbies rule.

Having been warned that Buvette does not accept reservations and lines out front are to be expected, we had decided to go early for dinner. By the time climbed out of the cab, Grove Street was winter dark, not a soul in sight. (I had to go back to take photos another day).

Instead of long lines, we were met by edgy scaffolding that gave the block a sinister cast. We trudged on and would have walked by the unprepossessing entrance, had it not been for a whiskey light seeping through a ground floor window. Could this be Buvette? Pressing my nose to the cold window pane made me feel like a down-on-my-luck character in a Dickensian novel. But inside all was charming, convivial and cozy.

Is that an empty table?

Buvette is a shabby 'chic' with redbrick walls, rough wood flooring, a pressed tin ceiling, ting bistro tables, and weather-beaten metal chairs. Like the ones with pinholes that you see in the parks in Paris. To one side is a bustling bar, to the other a blackboard noting the wine regions of France.

We order a Pouilly-Fuissé, a medium-bodied white from Burgundy. A chardonnay without a hint of oak, the wine is a pleasure, if the menu's not much bigger than my hand.

What's a gastrothèque?

Buvette is not your typical French restaurant, but a gastrothèque—a word that may have been coined by the owner-chef Jody Williams—serving small plates. Think: tapas and drinks. Our server is superb, explaining that portions are meant to be shared. That if you order, say, the julienne carrots with pistachios, cilantro and lemon, it makes for two small portions. If small portions sit well, the thought of too many taste sensations in one meal doesn't. Specifically, how is the cilantro and lemon going to mix with a rich coq au vin steeped in red wine and made thick with mushrooms? Would I be better off ordering the beets?

At this unsettling moment—should we leave, should we stay?—I overhear a gentleman at a nearby table telling the waitress he has just arrived from Paris where he had dined at Buvette in Pigalle three times last week. What a recommendation, and what a perfect opening. From him we would learn that Jody Williams, the American chef who opened Buvette on Grove Street in 2011 has replicated her formula in Paris—using the same white marble and the same pressed tin ceiling, which had me wondering whether Buvette at 42 Grove Street is a slice  of Paris or if Buvette at 28 Rue Henry Monnier is a slice of Olde New York.

We also learn that our gregarious neighbor had owned a successful restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Bill Clinton had been a regular when governor. When it comes to food, this guy knows what he's talking about. My mood brightens, my concerns fade. Chitchatting with strangers makes dining out in New York some of the best theater in town.

Snug little Buvette is a neighborhood treasure, one I'd like to have in my own neighborhood. You can stop by any time—from 8:00 AM to 2:00 AM, Monday through Saturday, and 10:00 AM to 2:00 AM on Sundays. Nevertheless, let the diner beware: everything is pint-sized—chairs bumping, elbows touching—even tiny three-pronged forks. Taking our cue from the gentleman from Arkansas, we share, course by course.

When ready to call it an evening, I’m determined to come back another day, but not for dinner. If Buvette is not what I had anticipated, it's great in its own way. But where dinner is concerned, I’m too much of a traditionalist, enjoying nothing better than a decent-sized table with a starchy white cloth.

So it was, arriving last Monday around 11:30 AM, I took a seat at the counter, bumping knees and handbags with a charming woman, who owns a shop, Current Vintage, on Nantucket. In town for the Accessories Show at the Javitts Center—a show providing designers an opportunity to meet the retailers and retailers a chance to discover the latest trends, be they contemporary pieces or updated classics—she was busy booking a flight on her iPhone. I commented on how expertly she handled her phone, mentioned how I've never quite gotten the hang of mine. Having completed the California leg of a buying trip, she was now on her way to Naples, Florida (my old stamping grounds...) and Palm Beach. If living on historic Nantucket was wonderful most of the year, she was happy to be off-island in winter. A fan of Buvette, she visits whenever she's in the city.

When my scrambled eggs with salmon, crème fraiche and two of the largest capers ever grown appears (see above) I can see why. With a cup of café Americano, freshly-made by the barista behind the counter, this might well be the most perfect breakfast ever. I love Buvette!

What's a buvette?

Checking with Google Translate, a buvette is a pump room. And what’s a pump room? In many 19th century novels, pump rooms were places people visited to take the waters, the mineral waters believed to be beneficial to one's health. So, what do you make of the name? Are we supposed to drink the mineral waters or are they pumping something mightier than water? Or is it too early Sunday morning to worry about such things?

In the 'hood

Soon it was time to say goodbye, to wish her well. Moseying the neighborhood, I discovered that Bleeker Street, like much of New York, is reinventing itself.  Beauty is big business not only on Bleeker, but on a seven-block stretch that's home to a dozen apothecaries, fragrance shops, and skin-care boutiques including Mark Jacobs Beauty, Annick Goutal fragrance, Jo Malone fragrance, Aesop skin care, Fresh skin care, and Caudalie skin care. Coming soon? Sisley of Paris.

Having a 1:45 PM appointment uptown with my dermatologist—an annual check-up to assure me my freckles are no more than freckles—leaves me with no time to explore the shops, but gives me a reason to return another day to what's becoming Bleeker Street Beautiful.  Hope you'll drop by next Sunday, when I'll have the coffee and croissants ready. Merci beaucoup, mes amis.