Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Searching for France in Brooklyn

Restaurant Name: Le Petit Marche
Location: Brooklyn, New York

When my husband and I first moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, I was delighted to learn that not one, but three, French bistros were located within walking distance from our apartment. I should state at the outset, of course, that I am of the opinion that the French have created among the finest and most delectable cuisines in the world and that their cultural love of all things culinary [most lately finding expression in their effort to have their national cuisine enshrined as a UNESCO cultural treasure - see] is well founded. So, naturally, I wasted no time in seeking the delights of France's bistro cuisine in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

Alas, the first contender, Moutarde, was a disappointment - a Disneyland version of a venerable cultural institution, in all ways. I sadly moved on down the street to A.O.C. Bistro. I ate there on a beautiful late summer evening and I was dining alone. I propped myself up at an outdoor table and perused the menu with interest. I was hungry, I was ready....and A.O.C. Bistro's interpretation of great French food made me look with some longing back up the block at Moutarde. The roasted chicken was dry (even the leg! The leg), the frites were pedestrian, the service was snobbish. I have been to many French bistros and in Paris and despite what everyone says, snobbishness is not a sign of authenticity. Ugh. Feeling wary now, very wary, I ventured to the final nearby contender: Belleville Bistro. And it was an improvement (how not to be?). The steak frites was very juicy and flavorful, dripping with maitre'de hotel butter and lounging in the shadow of a huge pile of very passable frites. But nothing was really special. Had I not experienced the lows of Moutarde and A.O.C. Bistro, I may not have found Belleville such a relief.

All hope, it seemed, was lost. But then I read about a relative newcomer in Brooklyn Heights, just a short hop away on the subway. Le Petit Marche. I rolled the name around on my tongue. It sounded promising. Too promising. I was afraid to hope, but I could not resist the siren's call. I gathered a group of friends and I went and at last found what I sought. Le Petit Marche is the real deal: a charming restaurant in the tradition of an authentic French bistro but with a flair for tiny, surprising touches that elevate the food and inspire the palate.

The restaurant itself is all classic banquettes, tables perched precariously close to one another, tin ceiling, and dim lighting. The interior was warm and inviting and the service was attentive but not fawning. All promising. But the food is the thing.

We began by sharing two appetizers: a goat cheese brulee with roasted beets and blueberries ($10) and beer braised mussels ($8). Both were outstanding but had little else in common. The mussels were rich, buttery, hearty (the beer an excellent replacement for more traditional white wine), shockingly fresh, festooned with herbs and utterly irresistible (this from someone with a life-long ambivalence for mussels). They came with thick, charred slices of French bread that were perfect for sopping up the leftover broth (saving us the ignominy of picking up the bowl and drinking directly from it). The goat cheese brulee, on the other hand, was refined, composed, and seductively sweet. A pile of glistening red beets made the centerpiece and was framed on three sides with rounds of fresh cheve that had been caramelized on one side. The entire dish was delicately flavored with a blueberry sauce and drizzled with mint oil. Both appetizers went perfectly with the Provencal Rose we ordered ($21).

Then came the main event. Between us we tried three entrées: the Grilled New Zealand Baby Lamb Chops ($26), the Cracked Black Pepper Parpardelle ($21) with Braised Rabbit, and the Slow Braised Short Ribs ($24). The lamb was the standout dish of the night. The chops were prepared traditionally enough (4 chops, frenched, glistening medium rare) but were served with an unusual accompaniment - a jalapeno cream sauce. It was exquisite with the lamb and a wonderful, unexpected riff on a very classic dish. The potato gratin that oozed appealingly next to the meat had, somewhere in its creamy depths, a hint of cilantro. Oh, bliss. The short ribs were tender and rich (perhaps a touch too fatty) but were served with an outstanding side of sweet potatoes redolent of the freshest, most piquant ginger. The braised rabbit was probably the most disappointing, being not especially tender and perhaps slightly overly sweet, but otherwise lovely with its hints of clove and cinnamon.

We had perhaps the highest expectations for the final course, but they were not only met, they were exceeded. A pear frangipane tart was awesomely flaky, almond-y and dripping with pistachio ice cream, a champagne sabayon pooled fluffily over fresh berries, and a trio of the most shockingly intense, not-overly sweet sorbets rounded things out (raspberry, passion fruit, and chocolate).

After munching down the last of the complimentary chocolate peanut brittle that came with the check, we waddled out into the night. Our wallet was a total of $220 lighter (for 4 people) but our hearts were lighter still. France in Brooklyn, I have found you.

Check out Le Petit Marche for yourselves, you won't be disappointed!

Le Petit Marché on Urbanspoon

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