Jules eats world.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Le vrai francais? Close enough

I've had a couple of disappointing eating experiences in the area TimeOut has goofily dubbed "BelDel" -- below Delancey. I just like to call it "my neighborhood." As I've discussed before, restaurants here have proliferated like ticks on a hound dog, as Dan Rather might say. And the odds would say that not every newcomer will be up to snuff. More on the laggards later: first, let's talk French bistro.

Casanis looks like many of the other faux-francais places around town: black-and-white tile floors, unmarked wine bottles lining the walls, mirrors. It feels convivial, except it's usually half-full at best. That's a shame, since the food is solid. This isn't a destination restaurant, but it's just what I like in "my neighborhood" and you probably like in yours: a reliable, not ridiculously expensive, cozy spot.

I've visited Casanis a few times, most recently on a Saturday night around 7:30 p.m. My friend the acupuncturist and I wanted a low-key place. We both commented appreciatively on the music selection, the sort of lounge-y soundtrack you hear on Buddha Bar compilations. The waiter was familiar from a previous visit -- a young, shy Frenchman who smiled when I ordered in his native language (he wasn't laughing at my pronounciation, I hope). He promptly brought us serviceable bread and the glasses of wine we'd ordered: a pinot grigio and a nice, fruity malbec.

We weren't terribly hungry, so only ordered main courses: the risotto with wild mushrooms and scallops for her, and the special for me, which requires a bit of explanation. It obviously was something concocted by the kitchen with the ingredients on hand, and though on paper it sounds odd, it turned out well. On the plate were head-on shrimp, mussels and scallops, artfully arranged spoke-style, with creamed leeks, sauteed bok choy, and crispy bits of potatoes. Ex-shells, I cleaned the plate. My friend's risotto was as it should be: the sauce rich and creamy, the rice retaining some firmness.

In true French style, we lingered over our glasses of wine until we asked for the check. Surprised that we skipped a decadent French dessert? My restaurant knowledge in the area is sorely lacking in the dessert department for one reason alone: Babycakes. It's a vegan bakery (yes, you read right) on the same block as Casanis, that serves low- or no-sugar cupcakes, mini-brownies and other treats, along with my favorite -- the delicious chocolate-chip banana cake. Oh la la indeed.

81 Ludlow St.
At Broome St.

248 Broome St.
Between Ludlow and Orchard

Monday, January 01, 2007

Bar Americain

Holiday Gorging

In a long season of holiday eating, it's appropriate my feasting peaked on the final day of 2006. For almost a month I've been making like a grizzly bear and storing up for winter. I've seen many friends, raised many glasses, eaten many, many rich meals. Now is the traditional time when gym membership surges and we retreat to our couches, remotes in hand and Netflix queues packed, to wait out the cold weather -- even though it hasn't arrived yet this season.

So -- New Year's Eve. Within 10 blocks of Times Square. A meal at a restaurant run by a celebrity chef, Bobby Flay. A place popular with tourists. For which we need a letter, faxed by the restaurant, to access, since surrounding streets are blocked by barricades to control the festive crowds. Sounds like just the kind of intimate, hassle-free meal Jules loves, right?. Yet when I walked out of Bar Americain three hours later, I couldn't have been happier. Isn't it nice when a restaurant defies expectations?

We arrived and met our friends at the bar, where they were happily quaffing what they described as expertly-prepared Pimm's Cups. We were led to a round, comfortable booth under a large, ugly spool-like lighting fixture. The room is a long, high-ceilinged rectangle done in brown and cream. It wasn't until nearly the end of the meal that I realized Bar Americain actually paid attention to something increasingly left neglected in NYC restaurants: acoustics. That ugly fixture absorbed noise, and even though the room was packed with people, their conversations weren't obtrusive at all. The music was low enough we could talk comfortably, six around the table, without raising our voices.

Our server was a southern girl, and aspiring actress (shocker) who'd coached all the South Carolina drawl out of her voice but retained the charm. The service throughout the meal was excellent.

I started with a great cocktail with rosemary, vodka (which I switched from the gin advertised on the menu), grapefruit juice, and soda. Later we ordered an excellent bottle of red zinfandel called Starlite.

Mr. H and I shared a delicious, filler-free Dungeness crab and crawfish cake as a starter. Our friends also enjoyed their choices, including the johnny cake topped with barbecued duck. The girls -- sisters whose husbands also joined us -- preferred their asparagus chopped salad to their other appetizer, grilled pizza with bacon and caramelized onion.

The main courses were equally well-done. My red snapper, "Florida-style," was pan-sauteed, served over a chipotle-black bean sauce and spinach, and topped with an avocado-mango salsa. The first bite left me feeling I'd made the wrong choice; the fish wasn't terribly flavorful. But it grew on me as I took care to get a bit of each garnish, and I looked down at the end to find an empty plate. Mr. H's cioppino was decadent, with lobster, other shellfish and fish in a thick, creamy, garlicky tomato broth. After he devoured the fish, I kept reaching over with a spoon for more of the delectable sauce. The only glitch in the mains was our friend Dan's veal chop special, which had been cooked more than he'd requested. Our waitress promptly whisked it away and returned equally promptly with his nearly-raw chop, exactly how he wanted it.

Being a tourist-geared joint, the portions are not for the faint of heart or small of stomach, especially illustrated by the desserts. We got a handful to share for the table: the cheese plate, the German chocolate layer cake, the sticky toffee pudding sundae, the blackberry souffle and the caramelized apple tart. The last was my favorite, but none were bad. Somehow we finished almost every bite, and after tea and coffee rolled ourselves out of there and headed to Radio City Music Hall.

I'm not an extremes kind of girl -- I don't go in for the binge and purge of December vs. January, the cleanse, the carrot/cottage cheese/wheatgrass diet. But I wouldn't mind some milder eating for the next few weeks....

Bar Americain
152 W. 52nd St.
Between 6th Ave. & Broadway