March 5, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable
Trading Places

        Like a snake shedding its skin – again – David K’s Café is slithering into its newest identity, Gérard’s Place, a literal translation of Chez Gérard, Gérard Pangaud’s salute to slightly less expensive dining. His new partner, David Keh, is stoutly, resolutely Chinese. Give him coq au vin for dinner and he won’t complain, but he’ll stop by his own kitchen for something decent a man can eat before his nightly mah-jongg game. Pangaud – Paris-born, recently decamped from Aurora – now feels a wee bit Chinese, too. Even for Manhattan, they make an odd couple. And the deal was worked out over shrimp chowchow and Chinese broccoli in 45 minutes with no written contract and no lawyers. Very Chinese. Pangaud likes it.

        It took just thirteen days to open Gerard’s Place, with slim an elegant Michele Pangaud replacing slim and elegant Jean Keh at the stand-up reception desk; another twp weeks for the awning. A new front door is in the works. Keh has always wanted to do something Sino-Gallic, and if this mating works, he and Pangaud may try another. For now, a somewhat French serving crew tends tables in a room that is Sam Lopata thrice removed. The bare bones of the brilliant set Lopata created for Cafe Marimba survive in illuminated niches, the welcoming bar, the gels that throw fascinating patterns on walls and floor. Tapers flicker in clear-glass or pottery holders. Provincial prints pad chunky chairs and banquettes, and the country china is charmingly unmatched, but the room wants color, burst of flowers or fruit, perhaps even rugs to make it warmer.

        “It’s bigger than I wanted.” Pangaud says. “But the kitchen is beautiful, a pleasure to work in.” He cooks “what I want to eat,” he explains, robust peasant food made very elegant, pig’s feet and calf’s tongue, vegetable terrines and classics with exotic spicing. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. That trotter is luscious, meat and gelatin trimmed from the bone, wrapped in a casing, and set on a sticky lacquered sauce with chopped black truffle. Oxtail is boned too, nestled in a cabbage leaf and ringed with shields of rutabaga “confit.” Firm, zestily seasoned cod flecked with fried garlic crisps is served with potato cubes, Brussels sprouts, and ribbons of beetroot. Even with bits of salt pork and pearl onions, the juicy rabbit stew in its handsome giant soup bowl is a bit bland. But one evening’s special veal shank, sliced from the bone and served in a black iron skillet, is rich perfection.

        If that was your meal, you’d be purring and planning to return. But if you opted for a sort of wimpy avocado mousse, boring terrine of cream-lightened Roquefort on wild greens, disintegrated halibut, soggy chicken or smoked salmon with a taste reminiscent of fuel oil, not even the good seared tuna, crunchy with cracked pepper and coarse salt, or its lovely ratatouille and olive-swathed crepe, or nuggets of sweetbread on a wonderful potato galette, could save the day.

        When Pangaud cooks with his soul, he’s a winner. But when he cooks with his intellect, strange things can happen. Like the popcorn at the bar, which tastes as if it’s been dosed with cough medicine. “It’s thyme and rosemary and olive oil,” says Pangaud. “I like it. The people, they like it too.” Do they like the saffron-tinged rice cake with preserved celery? Why not jalapeño sorbet? Happily, there’s a lot of soul on the chef’s newest menu – garbure béarnaise (that earthy soup), monkfish bourride, and leg of lamb that takes seven hours to cook. Austere lasagna of vegetables with a dab of pesto has been replaced by cannelloni with sun-dried-tomato sauce. Cross your fingers.

        Urbane New Yorkers, solid citizens of the Upper East Side – not all of them as fussy as I – seem happy to find Pangaud’s cooking at these tempered prices: appetizers $6 to $9.50, entrées all under $20, gently priced wines on a small, carefully chosen list, desserts at $6.50 (about $100 for two). Visiting pastry cooks from other kitchens stop by on their days off to do sweets, and Pangaud urges his own team to dream up desserts, too. Try the cherry-studded nougat with a crunch of praline in raspberry coulis, or blood-orange terrine, mint-and-spice fruit soup, or the passion fruit charlotte with caramel sauce. And ignore the misspellings. It took you a while to learn English too.

Gérard’s Place, 201 East 65th Street near Third Avenue.


Melrose Morphs into Barrow Street Bistro

        There are days when all the cheerful sugary Eatsworld press releases blend into one big, gloppy tiramisu. But this one from Melrose trumpeting “a new moniker,” Barrow Street Bistro, and deflated prices has a riveting ambivalence. I study the glossy photo of boss Lee Friedman in couturier black leather with a couple of crosses resting on his black tee, the chef leather-bound, too, in motorcycle jacket, apron, tall white toque, and storm-trooper boots. Long ago I flunked a Rorschach test, so I’m hesitant to probe for meaning now. Best be off to the source at once.

        There’s a new banner flapping out front and pin lights on a brave, stunted urban tree to mark the stop. It’s still the shabby, make-do space that never quite worked with Melrose ambition and upscale prices: the claustrophobic parlor, the warped entry, the sticky passage through the cluttered kitchen to the sealed-in garden with its polyester grass and snug booths that seat four in pressed-flesh intimacy. Pin lights flash here, too, and all the trees wear fuzzy sideburns – moss to hide electrical connections.

        But with starters tagged at $4 to $8 and entrées $11 to $19, you don’t expect antique kilims and designer lighting. Astroturf in a Village storefront will do. And you’ll think you’re in Heaven if you order sublime minestrone, smoky from pancetta, with white beans, firm bow-tie pasta, and the soft fruitiness of roasted red peppers under a flurry of Parmesan – especially if you follow it with juicy grilled chicken and shoestring fries, then a bowl of rice pudding for dessert.

        Indeed, you’ll feel happy with plump, tender ricotta ravioli under a savory blanket of basil-strewn tomato sauce, or with decent grilled salmon or very good lamb chops on bacon-and-balsamic-scented lentils with stuffed halves of Italian tomatoes.

        But chef Lynn McNeely, a refuge from Alex Goes to Camp (a romp so brief I missed it), is hobbled by – who knows? – a shortage of talent, technique, or taste. His leek-and-goat-cheese tart is arid. Roesti potatoes and salmon tartare, though good, are a bizarre pairing. Rip open the parchment and his sea bass flakes away like the poorest frozen flounder. Cream overwhelms mussel-tossed angel’s hair. Thick liver steak arrives faintly pink, not “medium rare,” with mashed potatoes sadly parched. Grilled rib eye is a tough and ornery steak, though I love the accompanying potatoes gratin. And the pork chops are so dry we send them back one evening, leave them barely touched on a later try. No one inquires or apologizes, but the leather boys have noticed, and pork is no longer on the menu.

        So there’s hope. Barrow Street Bistro may not be worth a major detour, especially now that a taxi ride downtown costs more than round-trip airfare to Miami. Still, there are more than enough nice wines under $20 to keep the tab gentle. The chocolate cake is stodgy, but the ice cream is fine. There are plans for a new white-tile floor (“like Quatorze”) and mustard-yellow walls, “like Provence and Lucky Strike,” Friedman promises. Perhaps they’ll clean the hall. They’ve already hung worn-out mirrors in the parlor. Shaded lamps are on the way. “We’ve been checking out all the bistros,” Friedman reports. Maybe McNeely will profit from the field trips. Anyone capable of that minestrone might someday truly stir things up.

Barrow Street Bistro, 48 Barrow Street