[Pigging by Wilfrid: February 15, 2010]
Christian Delouvrier, one of the city's most honored chefs, crept quietly into the kitchen at ten year-old UES bistro La Mangeoire. No fanfare, little ballyhoo.
He has described his arrival at this casual, Provencal neighborhood spot as a return to his roots. He certainly came by a circuitous route.
After major success at Les Célébrités on Central Park South, chef Delouvrier met the challenge of following Gray Kunz at Lespinasse. After more than a decade as the talk of the town, he left Lespinasse to launch two restaurants - the self-named Delouvrier and the more casual Terre - which never quite left the drawing board. After working for Alain Ducasse, ironically in location once occupied by Les Célébrités, he toiled in other people's kitchens - in Florida for La Goulue, in Chicago for Brasserie Ruhlmann, and then in New York again for David Bouley at Secession.
As the painful year of 2009 drew to its melancholy close, Delouvrier was one of a number of storied New York tocques who seemed to be in search of a kitchen; Gray Kunz, with the closure of Café Gray, remains another. And so to La Mangeoire, where there is no caviar, no foie gras, and entrées are half the price they were at Lespinasse seven years ago.
At least chef Delouvrier should be able to ace a regional French bistro menu, right?
Well, you would think so. But I've now dined here twice, and I'm not so sure. Escargots in a "crunchy pastry shell" was the first dish I tried. The snails were fine - not the splendid, fat specimens found at Craft, admittedly, but bistro standard. The curl of pastry resting on top, however, could be cut only with some difficulty. More hard than crunchy.
This appetizer arrived after bread service, which features a tapenade I know some people love, but which on my second visit was so oily as to be almost liquid.
A more successful dish was the rustic petatou, a hot pot one might expect to hail from Jura rather than Provence. Here it features an entire crottin, surrounded by a bubbling hot gratin of potato and onion, garnished with fresh herbs. It's convincingly French and a rib-sticker. I did think the goat cheese needed to be warm right through - the center remained refrigerator cold - but the execution was on the right track.
Not so with the duck confit, which is a dish well within the competence of a good home cook.
Now I don't expect the duck to be truly "confit" - that is first brined in flavore salt, then preserved in its own fat until it takes on a flavor and texture quite different to fresh duck. In just about any New York restaurant, the term now means little more than braised - and served the same day. It should, though, have a crisp skin. I believe this duck had been through the dry brine - it was plenty salty, and perhaps it hadn't been very well rinsed. Indeed, it might once have had a crisp skin. My best guess is that it was heated for service aboard the soupy lentil stew, and this is why it had the slightly flabby character of a steamed dish. Believe me or not, as you choose, but I can make a better duck confit myself. And there is no way I should be able to outcook chef Delouvrier.
I should say that the chef was visibly present on the occasion of my first meal - he was occupying a corner table, out of uniform, and enjoying spaghetti and wine. He may of course have been in the kitchen when I returned.
Pork loin looked good. It looked like a French dish - that typical well-sauced lunch of pork or veal or turkey escalopes which any corner bar in Paris seems happy to send out. A slight disappointment that the thin pale strips on the plate were not pommes allumettes - they were yellow beans or apple batons, depending on the luck of your fork. The bigger disappointment was the pork. I couldn't help remembering slices of simple roast pork in a hotel dining room in Boulogne, exploding with the flavor of garlic and fresh herbs. This could have done with some seasoning at least.
An apple tart was similarly pretty, but also flat in flavor. One bright spot of each meal was the basic Guigal Gigondas, available in half and full bottle - eminently drinkable and appropriate with these meat dishes.
La Mangeoire offers main courses in smaller, tasting sizes. This can help restrain cost too. Although cheaper than Lespinasse, prices for duck and steak in full portions get up around thirty dollars. I expect nothing less, given the location, but I couldn't help thinking of the rather better bistro food I can get downtown - at Café Charbon or Lucien - ten bucks cheaper per dish.
But why is this so? Delouvrier can cook rings around the competition, so why doesn't he? It is not a question of ingredients - these very ingredients could be better prepared. Perhaps the kitchen brigade is not up to it. I wondered if the treasures were to be found in the tasting menu, the five course "Flavors of the Côte d'Azur." On enquiry, this seemed to be three savory courses from the carte, cheese and pudding. An overheard conversation suggested that some Delouvrier specials were still in the works (I could hardly help overhearing, as the owner was having dinner at the table next to mine - not the same table as the chef). Casual setting and price aside, Delouvrier's customers are bound to expect a little more in the way of fireworks. Rightly so, I think.
Here's the information.