[Pigging by Wilfrid: June 20, 2010]
We have entered tenatively upon a strange and hopefully brief passage of the city's history in which traditional gridiron, baseball and hockey bars ringing to the rafters with cries of "the go-ahead goal!"
If you must watch the copa mundial communally, why not seek out a sleek Euro-venue with authentic atmosphere and quite decent food. Lina Frey for example.
Just opened on East Houston, almost next door to Katz's, Lina Frey is what one might call an actual as opposed to a virtual French restaurant. No Clochermerle here, no "hoopla and ooh-la-la" as the blessed Liebling's father would have said. Lina Frey (named for the owner's grand-mère) breathes the air of modern cosmopolitan France. The room is long, tall, coolly grey, with an open ceiling. Lines are straight, furnishings are stark. Football games are projected onto what appears to be a large white bedsheet. Tables are filled predominantly with females; the bar attracts an Afro-French crowd. A crèpe-maker plies his wares in a take-out window by the entrance.
I would describe Lina Frey as half-heartedly a crèpe restaurant. They have their proud section on the menu, and setting up a hot plate at the front of the restaurant is a vigorous announcement of their availability. Sweet crèpes there are, but I shrink from anything featuring Nutella. Of savory crèpes one finds only three, and the first two choices are ham and Emmenthal or mushroom and Emmenthal. A far cry from the exotic galettes found at Bar Breton: lamb shoulder, crabmeat, "carbonara." I dutifully tried the third on the list, a sort of breakfast crèpe stuffed with thick bacon lardons and creamy eggs. It was actually very good. The crèpe itself was light as a feather, and it takes deft attention to provide precisely cooked eggs in such a package.
Most of the interest, I think, lies elsewhere on the notably inexpensive carte. There's a regular hamburger, but also a seasoned hamburger attributed to one Bamba, who turns out to be the chef, Bamba Seydou from the Côte d'Ivoire. Bamba spices up a thick patty served on a kaiser roll: the first taste I got was cumin, but this was succeeded by agreeable bursts of flavor supplied by fennel seeds. A choice of melted cheese on top, $7 (the un-Bamba burger is $6).
On my first visit, I decided to test the kitchen on something other than French fries, and was served a very neat gratin, light on the dairy, dotted with a pesto oil which is one of the kitchen's favorite decorative devices.
Further adventures with vegetable sides (all $4) took place on another occasion. Spinach with what I think was a smear derived from a red bell pepper was fine. I thought the portabellos, grilled slice and singing with thyme, were very good indeed.
Imaginatively, cauliflower arrived looking like a puck of steak tartare, with potato chips for eating (could have used more). It had been roasted, but finely chopped rather than puréed as the menu claims, and its a neat dish. Ideal for someone newly turned vegetarian who misses chopped steak. Grilled bread with fennel and black olives helped out with the dipping. (Apologies - the table this time was too dark for photography.)
When I finally got to the fries, the kitchen didn't ace them. These seemed to have been sitting around a while, cooling off, and way overcooked in any case. Peppered as well as salted, they might earn their "Provençale" designation by sporting some more obvious herbs. I might, of course, have got a bad batch.
The lamb chops - two for nine bucks - are the most expensive thing on the menu. They come with potato chips too and some of that pesto sauce. I was encouraged to dip them in the sauce and eat them like lollipops. I couldn't fault the lamb, exactly medium rare as requested. It has an interesting crust with a haunting sweetness, but I couldn't find out what was in it. My question elicited the response that it was mostly the chef's secret (which I took to be a coy way of saying, "Who knows?"). I'd happily eat it again.
My first visit was so early that there wasn't yet a wine list. There's one now, but I didn't stray beyond a fruity, moderately priced Malbec. Service is still in rehearsal mode; very sweet, but harried. It's a large room, needs at least four servers when full, but until word gets out will sometimes be empty. They seem a little short-handed when busy, but that's easily adjusted.
Not a destination, it should be emphasized, but Lina Frey adds welcome variety to a restaurant-jammed neighborhood. At least it's not a reiteration of the comfort food in a farm kitchen theme everyone else seems to be embracing. And you really can eat quite well here for about twenty dollars a head (really: an entrée, two sides and dessert). Let's hope that lasts.
I don't yet see a website.