August 9, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

Charolais Crisis 

 I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one. Sleep tight Charolais.
I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one.  Sleep tight, Charolais.

              Midnight by cell phone I got the news. Charolais must close. Charolais had opened and closed once already and had changed its name three times.  It has moved itself into a space not exactly cursed but certainly not blessed…where Thomas Keller’s Rakel failed to entice folks downtown...inspiring the master-in-embryo to seed his empire out west.

This time Charolais was closing because restaurateur Simon Oren and his chef-partner Philippe Roussel had decided the landlord’s pesky barricade was keeping customers away in droves.  Oh that: The barricade. I remember looking out at the careering traffic on Varick during dinner at Charolais last week. My guest noted that our corner window was a perfect spot for a car to leap the curb.

            “Well, the barricade will break the impact,” I offered.

            Why would I care what happens on Varick Street? Well. I cared. I had just closed on a sweet little rave first tasting-at-Charolais for my Insatiable Critic column due to come out Monday August 15 in New York Magazine.

“Was there anything I could do to kill the piece?” the publicist’s plaintive message asked - at midnight. The barricade was supposed to come down in July, then August.  Now it looked like it would be blocking the view of the joint, not to mention the sign till October.  Charolais would close and save a few months rent and salaries since no one could find it anyway. 

             I hadn’t planned to spend Wednesday morning rewriting my column but the editors more or less stopped the presses or whatever they do now that the world is digital. Probably they press “delete.”

I was out of the country and missed the first summer tryouts of Charolais aka La Côte d’Or né Charolais. But my confreres at Grub Street and busybodies elsewhere documented it all so I knew vaguely.  Oren and Roussel didn’t really like the taste of American-raised Charolais for their French steakhouse, it seems. So they reached out for La Cote d’Or. But the Belgian candy company was not about to ignore Cote d’Or – the stability-deprived child was now described as their homage to Burgundian cooking with a focus on beef.

An invitation to come for a freebie tasting had arrived just the Tuesday afternoon before the midnight call.

I tried to talk Oren out of closing. “Do you really think you can open this place yet again? People will laugh.”

“They are already laughing,” he said resignedly.

“What will it cost to reopen?”

 “$200,000…but it will cost about that either way.”

 “Why don’t you put a cow out front,” I suggested. “Rent a cow. How about girls in bikinis holding signs?”   I hinted that my column was a rave. “Maybe people will come. New York Magazine is powerful.” I must confess I even read him the first line:

 “If Charolais had launched almost anywhere in Manhattan except this awkward little corner of Varick, there would be lines trailing down the block.”

 At noon today Oren has not yet told the staff he is planning to close. In fact, when I found him at the construction sight of Nizza, a Ligurian adventure he hopes to launch in fall next to his restaurant Marseille, he had not closed Charolais, not even told the chef, he tells me, nor the staff.  Now he was not sure when he would close the place. Or if.  Sixty reservations for dinner tonight had roiled his brain. How could he do that to his investors? Close with sixty reservations in the book? He was only trying to protect me from writing a column in case he had to close a few days late.

 I feel betrayed.  I feel like a tool.  I remember when Warner LeRoy closed Maxwell’s Plum after clearing the facts in a review I’d written of his new chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s menu. That was a rave too. My review ran the Monday after the restaurant closed.   I’m hoping my editors at New York are going to forgive me. 

 Anyway, this gives you a chance for a pretasting before Charolais morphs into a sleep state.  But then, maybe it won’t.                      

225 Varick Street at Clarkson. 212 727 2775           



Here’s the column that got killed.

  The chef's small contemporary touches do not mar a splendid coq au vin. 
Photo: Steven Richter

             Real sweetbread texture in a fricasee, Burgundy classics like coq au vin or egg simmered in red wine at pennypinching prices.  If Charolais had launched almost anywhere in Manhattan except this awkward little corner of Varick, there would be lines trailing down the block.

One taste of the marvelous duck terrine and it’s clear there’s a real French chef in charge. Being Brittany-born didn’t strain chef-partner Philippe Roussel’s Alsatian homage uptown at Café d’Alsace nor does it compromise his Burgundian memories here in this bistro with a steak house fixation.

 Are those sweetbreads tossed on celery root? Is there frisee in the egg meurette?  Roussel has picked up on New York’s affection for accents of greenery since his youthful days in the kitchen of the Brothers Troisgros. Call this place what you will -- restaurateur Simon Oren expanding his Tour de France feeding empire with Roussel, wigged out settling on a name  (La Moelle, Charolais, Côte d’Or) changing it yet again days after opening.

 But that hasn’t spooked the kitchen. If it can consistently turn out an aged strip as perfect as tonight’s for just $23.95 and first-rate fries like these -- we specify extra crispy -- it may conquer the loneliness on this corner (once Thomas Keller’s underappreciated Rakel).

             Definitely a plus are appetizers starting at $5.95, entrees from $14.95 and $5 sides. To me the unremarkable design seems somehow unfinished. A sampling of the evocative French advertising signs that pepper Café d’Alsace might help. 


Discount August at David Burke & Donatella

David Burke's scallops Benedict are witty and delicious. Photo: Steven Richter

No one can say I’m prim.  Stuffy is not the word either. My friends think I can be funny and fun, even silly though not nearly as silly as that incurable prankster David Burke.  I was never seduced by his angry lobster on a bed of nails or unshelled walnuts in the bread basket or his Jello™ flavored sauces even while admiring his patented swordfish chop and the salmon pastrami.  

            There are fiercely devoted Burke fans and equally fierce detractors.  I just don’t think food should be fun or funny.  I think eating out with friends should be fun and funny. Still there is a very good cook buried under all that frou-frou. Burke can do a great steak.  I can even make a case for his so-called lobster steak – a very grand burger by any other name – but I can live without the accompanying fennel candy.  Should dinner be a three ring circus? A chocolate park bench?  Fine.  A stove that actually smokes? Let the eater decide.

             Even so, perhaps especially so, I was excited to learn that from now till the end of August, I could catch up with Burke’s frolics for a discount.  A three course prix fixe was being offered for just $49.95 compared to the everyday tariff a la carte where entrees alone can run $44.  Yes, you can even have the hot weather bargain Saturdays when, all you Hamptonites will be shocked to know, a handful of actual New Yorkers mingle with the tourists in town.

             I found our guests perched on stools at the curb in front of the restaurant when we arrived. Bad portent.  Sure enough, the joint is jammed.  You can barely feel the air conditioning in the bar area.  We are the fifth foursome waiting for a nine o’clock table.  Half an hour later, we are third in line unless we would like the fourtop next to the bar.  I don’t really mind forsaking the back room, not getting to see or be seen by the kind of people who would eat out on a summer Saturday night.

             But I do mind the waiter being too lazy to walk around the table to reset it and constantly reaching across under my nose.  “Do you think this is the discount style of service?” our friend asks. 

             What is David up to now?  The butter comes on a slab of Himalayan sea salt. Individual little breads are gorgeous but mine tastes stale as if it were warmed and rewarmed.  It’s a halibut t-bone now. And you can have his tricky “Bronx style” filet of veal with jack cheese polenta for a $15 supplement.  In fact, four of eleven entrees cost extra on our bargain menu and four out of nine starters, as does the cheesecake lollipop tree. That’s only a wee bit annoying.  I didn’t really expect them to give the house away.

             I loved the perky scallops Benedict with their little poached egg chapeaux the first time I tasted them and I still do.  Yellow fin sashimi is especially voluptuous and we are all knocked out by the silver monkey that rides atop the small silver bell concealing warm Thai style vinaigrette.  This charming nonsense sits on another slab of Himalayan salt, awkwardly large – there must have been a fire sale in Himalaya.  Pretzel-crusted crab cake sounds like certain disaster; surprise, it’s works… though frankly, I much prefer the supernal crab cake Ed Brown sent out at Sea Grill this past spring. Still, pretzel-fenced in crab is okay too.

             Sea-water-soaked chicken, a mammoth and esculent chunk of short rib sitting on not-quite-enough cavatelli for the pasta-worshipping Road Food warrior, an unbalanced surf’n’turf  (huge filet mignon perfectly cooked, one teeny ravioli allegedly filled with lobster) -- all are perfectly fine. But for me, rolling and stuffing slices of duck with endive and apple relish, even bacon-wrapped, is not ducky enough for me.  Just as great sorbets gain nothing from crunchy cookie-like topping.           

Splendid blueberry crumble rates this fancy setting, but I can't say anything polite about tarragon ice cream. Photo: Steven Richter.

          At dessert time, Donatella wanders in looking even more voluptuous than mere yellowfin sashimi, infinitely more gorgeous than a couturier dinner roll, with a lowcut dress barely clinging to her low-cut bra…surprised to see us sitting at what is obviously not a VIP post.  No faster than you can say cheesecake tree, she commandeers one for our table. Steel branches display cheesecake balls in many flavors. Two luscious little chocolate orbs make up for our chocoholic guest’s disappointment in her chocolate caramel mousse (too much airy froth, I’d say).

          In total, a perfect night.  We get to be anonymous and we get to be VIPs.   And we get to eat very fancy for just $150 per couple.  (The pleasantly fruity Benziger red blend was an inspired choice, just $45.)

             133 East 61st Street just west of Lexington. 212 813 2121