April 3, 2006 | Ask Gael

Send me to a lively French bistro

        I felt a shiver of excitement at Café d’Alsace as I savored a gorgeous soup bowl of that almost abandoned classic, quenelles de brochet, rich and cleverly textured for its 21st-century revival. And the perfection of overgrown heads-on shrimp riding those plump pike-and-shrimp dumplings sidesaddle was the clincher. I just knew there had to be a Frenchman in the kitchen. Though Brittany-born, veteran Philippe Roussel vividly recalls eating the Alsatian dishes of his chef-papa, and he channels them as cook-partner here. A pleasant tarte flambé with bacon. The essential choucroute garni cooked in Riesling. And a savory version of the rustic Baeckeoffe (lamb shoulder, oxtails, bacon, potatoes, and onion braised in Pinot Gris) that Alsace’s gifted son André Soltner used to do for special customers at Lutèce.

        Partner Simon Oren’s collection of jewel-toned seltzer bottles and French-café signs perks up a modest space just south of Elaine’s. Beer connoisseurs will find a list of 118 labels to wallow in. And it’s worth a detour for warm leek vinaigrette (a sensational riff on the classic), lush goat-cheese Tatin, thick and meaty duck breast with celery-root purée, and first-rate hanger steak with “well-done” fries so perfect we called for seconds. Thin apple tart is enough for six to taste, and our cookbook-writer pal is carrying away the blueberry-tart recipe. Happily, Roussel has the credentials to keep it honest, should crowds descend.

        1695 Second Ave. at 88th St. 212 722 5133

Cafe Fiorello