July 6, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Heading South to Plein Sud

Fennel strings crown rigatoni with merguez sausage and goat cheese. Photo: Steven Richter
Fennel strings crown rigatoni with merguez sausage and goat cheese. Photo: Steven Richter

        Am I just imagining it? Frederick Lesort’s Plein Sud on the hip of the Smyth Hotel in Tribeca seems to be shockingly smiley-faced, welcoming, wanting to be a hangout for the neighborhood, affordable, accessible, all that current bistro jazz. It’s definitely a departure for Lesort, who rubbed our noses in Euro-chic snobisme in the 90’s at Jour et Nuit when Soho was trendy, before it became a shopping mall.

Plein Sud’s bar and café fill on this unseasonably hot evening. Photo: Steven Richter

        Just a year ago Frederick had nothing. He’d closed both Frederick’s Downtown and Frederick’s Madison. “Not even going into bankruptcy helped,” he said. Now he’s switched into humble mode, quietly opening Matisse, a little bistro for the locals on Second and 51st and Plein Sud. All things to its Tribeca neighborhood, a bar (watch out for $14 cocktails), a café, a spot to sit for coffee or pick up breakfast to go and, yes, of course a restaurant with French brasserie staples – crispy frogs’ legs with sauce gribiche, creamy duck liver mousse, the inevitable salade frisée with lardons and a poached egg, even boeuf bourguignon, from $15 for a black angus cheese stuffed burger with fries to $32 for steak au poivre, but entrées mostly $24 or less.  AvroKO designed it in “Provençale Moderne,” (whatever that means) clean, neat, boring.

Give me big fat snails in garlic butter please over fussy potato balls. Photo: Steven Richter 

        It’s one of those killer June nights - weather hot, crowd merely humid - perfect for surprisingly sweet chilled summer corn veloute with tendrils of lump crab, bits of sweet pepper and Thai basil. Maybe the weather is less perfect for traditional coq au vin, but this one is deconstructed: the chicken braised separately, not left to stew till stringy and dry, then served in its winey-bacon tinged sauce with button mushrooms and pearl onions. Very good herb spaetzle comes alongside. 

The foie gras is over-salted but our foie gras fan eats it anyway. Photo: Steven Richter

        Since one of us is French and the rest Francophiles, we’re pleased to find tapenade with the bread (stalish olive petits pain, alas), and a sensational lentil salade ravigote chosen from $5 vegetables designed “to go with charcuterie,” too salty but so good we’re ignoring it. The $5 ration of truffled potato salad could use more mustard and less truffles for my taste. Foie gras au torchon, with its layer of gelée, toasted brioche and seasonal preserves (it was rhubarb, now peach) is properly elegant but also over-salted. The man who ordered it doesn’t seem to mind. The duo of parsleyed snails with watercress coulis and snails and hazelnuts in fried balls of “potato dauphin” are only disappointing if what you long for is the fattest escargot money can buy drowning in garlic butter you can mop up till the last drop.

A waiter who gives his all with proper style makes the evening. Photo: Steven Richter

        Plein Sud limped off at the starting gun, minus a liquor license but not warning customers, who blogged their discontent amidst bleats about bad service. Well now is now. We’re sharing a decent red for $37 and although I know we’re recognized, I don’t think our waiter could possibly be putting on all that charm just for us – he’d explode if he didn’t erupt every few minutes in a burst of enthusiasm. I don’t want him to think we’re ungrateful so I let him grate pepper on the tarte flambée we’re sharing – a decent version of that Alsatian flat bread with smoked bacon, onion and fromage blanc. I ask for ice because the water in our carafe has warmed. It’s been refreshed seven times and I expect someone to hand me a glass of ice as I go out the door.  Lesort lurks nearby too, cloaked in humility and looking Dorian Gray-youthful for the man who made us feel not good enough to belong at Buddha Bar, Lemon, Vandam, Frederick’s in any zipcode and Opia.

Grilled skirt steak, rare please, on smashed potatoes is just $21. Photo: Steven Richter

        Given the early heat, the menu tonight seems too skewed for cold weather – the coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, roasted leg of lamb with bean fricassee. Now chef Ed Cotton says he is tweaking the boeuf – a braised flatiron steak – "to lighten it", adding grilled radicchio, tomatoes roasted on the vine, summer vegetables and balsamic roasted pine nuts. He also plans to bake bread in house.  Sounds to me like an overwhelming need to be creative. We’ll see. Cotton did his dues in the Todd English empire before moving on to Daniel Boulud’s. Actually, his snails “pomme dauphin” are either a borrow or an homage to Daniel (depending how you look at it).  At the moment, the bavette, grilled skirt steak on smashed potatoes with caramelized shallots, baby spinach and bordelaise sauce is classic enough and very good.  And “ragout d’agneau” is not lamb stew after all, but pasta, fresh cut rigatoni tossed with house-made merguez sausage, stewed tomatoes and goat cheese and topped with fennel ribbons -- a schmoosh that is wildly rich and delicious.

When a spoonful of something sweet is desperately desired. Photo: Steven Richter

        Desserts arrive.  One we actually ordered. A trio of pots au crème. Blueberry tart with lemon curd and honey-rosemary ice cream. The Tribeca: peanut butter ganache on rich chocolate cake with banana cream. If our world gets back to normal and Lesort is drafted to devise new tortures of exclusivity for restaurants yet to emerge in high rent playgrounds, you might be sorry you ate dessert here. As we all know, one can never be too young or too thin.

85 West Broadway between Chambers and Warren. 212 204 5555. Breakfast 7 to 11 am. Lunch 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Dinner 5 to 11 pm. Saturday and Sunday brunch 11 am to 4 pm.