My friend Penny B is on a diet. She is almost always on a diet, except when she is binging in Paris. But she had already lost four pounds since her last pilgrimage to the holy city and she needed to lose two more. It doesn’t matter that Penny B is thinner than almost everyone I know. She always needs to lose the pounds she gains in Paris so she can eat when she goes back to Paris. She doesn’t mind not eating in New York. Nothing in New York tastes as good as it does in Paris, or so she complains.
From our marble four-top we can see Broadway traffic and Red Farm across the street.
Of course, I don’t agree with her. But she’s a very good friend, and Friday night I thought I would indulge her obsession with dinner in the café at Maison Kayser. Having established himself as an artisanal boulanger in Paris, Eric Kayser has been seeding his dough to rise around the globe. Last winter, he came to town to run the marathon and light the fires of a new branch on upper Broadway.
Kayser’s recipe for bread includes water, yeast, salt, flour “and a lot of passion.”
There are tables for lunch and dinner in a glass-wrapped stretch of the Kayser bakery that hugs 76th Street. With sunset, waiters in French Navy striped tees and navy suspenders would set out votive candles for dinner traffic.
I won’t be able to resist this bag of bread: raisin, olive, quinoa and sour dough.
I sent my assistant to a press breakfast and to preview his holiday specialties. (Click here for her report.) She came back to the office with two bags of goodies and gave me half a loaf of quinoa bread and a few pastries, with a bite or two already taken. I was annoyed, but I didn’t complain because I go out for dinner six nights a week and I don’t dare go overboard with sweets that flow into my office in hopes of a tweet.
Dominick looks great in French navy gear and seems smartly trained for a bakery gig.
I figured I’d hike to 76th Street one evening and sample dinner. But every time I walked to 76th Street, I crossed Broadway and immersed myself in dim sum at Red Farm. Well, now I needed a light supper for Penny. With a Paris label thrown in and a possible blog for me. My new friend Bette had been hoping for something more gourmandlich, but she was game to join. The place did not serve alcohol. Penny agreed to bring a red which, alas, is not on her denial regimen.
Is this woman the manager? She is definitely French and insists I accept the gift Gigondas.
We settle at a bare marble four-top, looking across the street at Red Farm. Our waiter, Dominick, introduces himself. He actually looks like a waiter from the Folies Bergeres. We ask him to open our bottle. A tall blonde with a proper French accent appears, clutching a different bottle -- it’s a Gigondas from Guigal. A wine I love from an area I often look to on a wine list. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre. A gift from the house.
“This is our famous baguette,” a server notes, dropping off a warmed half-length with butter pats.
“It’s a Gigondas,” the blonde says, reciting a memorized paragraph. “It’s a French wine from the Côte de Rhône. You will get tastes of berry and licorice.”
“Very kind, but I am so sorry,” I say. “I do not accept gifts.”
“It’s already open,” Penny chides me. “You have to accept it.”
It was billed as a tajine of green vegetable on bulgar but Penny doesn’t eat peppers so she sent it back.
Trapped. I accept it. Confession. Penny sips her ice tea, smiling virtuously. She scarcely makes a dent in her multifaceted salade printemps, a complexity of field greens, feta, favas, snow peas, asparagus, English peas, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, breakfast radish, pine nuts, mint and lemon vinaigrette. You can’t say the salad spinner lacks imagination.
Both women had the multi-faceted salade of spring, but Bette added roasted salmon.
Bette has the same amalgamation with roasted salmon. The fish tastes fresh enough, but too cooked for my taste and lackadaisically bland. The small mesclun salad alongside my quiche Lorraine is wonderful though, full of flavor…anchovy, maybe. The quiche seems a little clunky, the gruyere-and-lardon filling overwhelmed by too-thick pastry.
I hadn’t had a quiche in eons. This one was mostly crust. But I loved the mesclun salade.
In its orange oval ironware cocotte, my poularde “bourgeoise,” with tender cuts of carrot, pearl onions and overcooked asparagus, looks easily worth $21, especially with mashed potatoes in its own black iron casserole alongside. The bird is good enough, not as good as Costco’s $5 bird, but more elegant than Fairway’s rotisserie crunch.
Nothing seriously wrong with the poularde “Bourgeoise,” but nothing seriously right either.
But never mind me. Just listen to Penny dissolving into a rave. I insisted she order a second dish. Now she is carrying on about the discreet charms of her chicken-quinoa salade in its delicate molded tower. “It’s so French,” she cries. “I could be in Paris. And look, there are three sauces. The green sauce. Crème fraîche. And this.” She tastes. “Mustard, of course.”
A lot of leeks, perfectly done, with expert French flair.
How happy she is. How happy? She even takes a sip of the Gigondas. “Bette’s leek vinaigrette is so French too,” Penny exalts. “As soon as I tasted it, I thought, we could be in Paris.”
By dessert time, the pastry display was a bit meager, but no problem for me with my eye on chocolate..
As you can imagine, the dessert menu is not for amateurs. I note they offer “Café Gourmand” for $9, a daily selection of mini desserts served with an Espresso or an American coffee. But I have more of a Grande Dessert in mind.
I’m pleased to know I can walk four blocks in any crisis and find an elegant chocolate tart waiting.
I certainly won’t ask Bette to choose. She isn’t obsessive enough. And no point in Penny choosing what she would eat if she were eating. I step to the pastry vitrine to see what’s left. If Dominick were Gene Kelly, he would have urged me to choose dessert two hours ago.
Not the best brownie I ever had; the French don’t necessarily understand the brownie, but not bad.
But no problem. There’s still a serious chocolate tart left, with a chocolate-coated truffle hiding under its tilted lid, for just $4.75 in the bakery, $5.50 at the table. The brownie noir de pecan ($4.25) will do. I happen to love the almond paste texture of a financier. But Kayser’s financier praliné is more like a muffin, Cinderella dressed up for the ball. Not my idea of a financier, but I’d mind waking up at 6:30 am a lot less if it were my breakfast.
I’m not sure why this is called a financier, but nevermind: I would love it with my morning espresso.
Bette buys a tart to take home for her guy and we exit. I’m carrying a shopping bag of leftover bread. It’s actually a shock to step out onto Broadway. For a moment I imagine we are on the Boulevard Raspail. Penny blinks.
2161 Broadway, NW corner of 76th Street. 212 873 5900. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Sunday 7 am to 10 pm.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
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