June 23, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Brasserie Cognac Defies the Age of Neophilia

Brasserie combines Balthazar reverie with a look of its own. Photo: Steven Richter
Brasserie combines Balthazar reverie with a look of its own. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s no cinch to grow up the offspring of charismatic parents.  Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon is a bit gangly in its Balthazar overcoat and britches – its admiring evocation of tin ceilings, zinc bar, gold handwriting on vintage mirrors, menu graphics, even the bakery next door with its carry-out chicken.  Not that owners Vittoria Assaf and Fabio Granato - hyper successful multipliers of Serafina - haven’t made a valiant stab at that brasserie mode, signing Alain Ducasse stalwart Florian Hugo (a certified Victor Hugo descendent, for goodness sake) to oversee the kitchen. They have even (rather belatedly) hired Rita Jammet to apply the cosmetic glow of La Caravelle, the classic she and her husband kept alive with a series of gifted chefs till it keeled over in an age of neophilia. If a Keith McNally can do brasserie, why not a duo of clever Italians?

Weary leeks at lunch did not match the dinner leeks perfection. Photo: Steven Richter

        How many times have I wished for a Balthazar uptown?  That we have Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s passionate charcuterie reverie at Lincoln Center, should not dilute New York’s affection for a really deft version of leeks vinaigrette or a well turned out duck a l’orange.  Even Ducasses’ smartly discounted Benoit, stylishly installed at the sprawling spot where La Cote Basque expired, with its Cote Basque legacies (including workaholic chef Jean Jacque Rachou himself occasionally overseeing his cassoulet in the kitchen), shouldn’t preclude yet another brasserie on Broadway just off 55th.  Benoit may have the more gnarled French roots, but it’s still finding itself too.

        At a recent late lunch, a month after an uneven dinner – too early to stick a pin in Monsieur Ballon or certify its loftiness - I find Brasserie Cognac still struggling and insecure.  It’s almost 2 pm and, except for a large French group cutting up happily at a sidewalk table, the place is almost empty.  Yet my guest is waiting for me at a prim little table for two, a failure of imagination where gracious hospitality is needed.

        “Unless you are expecting a huge crowd in the next half hour, perhaps we could have a bigger table,” I suggest to the woman guiding me toward the pitiful two top.

        “I’ll check with my manager,” she says, disappearing toward the welcome stand.

The croque monsieur and salad make a perfect lunch.  Photo: Steven Richter

        But I’ve been spotted.  That is Signor Assaf himself lunching just ten feet away in the corner. So of course we shall have a table…any table in the house, please…nothing is too good for us now, though a certain attention to detail is still elusive.  My guest’s half-used gougères are moved to our new post.  Not remarkable to begin with, still, they might have been better warmer.

        The weary and
Octopus and calamari. Photo: Steven Richter
waterlogged leeks vinaigrette that begin this lunch suggest that the leeks’ astonishingly crisp perfection at dinner in May might have been a mirage – or for whatever reason, impossible to guarantee - though its nest of shallot marmalade mixed with walnuts and grain mustard is still oddly delicious. The attractively mounted grilled octopus in a tomato tapenade with a toss of fried squid is a nouvelle brasserie notion that works, and chilled sherry-flavored gazpacho with islands of cantaloupe and watermelon is refreshing.  All the shellfish and chunks of fish in my bouillabaisse, Friday’s lunch special, are carefully cooked though the broth could be livelier.  What I can’t stop eating is the marvelous rouille on thin baguette crisps, sometimes throwing slivers of gruyère on top – perhaps I might better have stirred both into the broth.  (Later at home, I spy notice of a $24.95 two course prix fixe lunch with limited choices tucked too discreetly on the back of the one-page menu.)

        At that early dinner, the Bibb lettuce Caesar with croutons and scattered caviar was a winner. A wooden board of lush croque monsieur cut into ribbons alongside a lively little salad could make me happy anytime.  Picture perfect navarin of veal, pale and wan, lacks the voluptuousness of heavy cream and seasoning that might wake it up.  Normally I’m a pushover for macaroni but this macaroni and cheese “gratin” was minus the gratin as well as the promised truffles. (Of course it’s not truffle season, but then why even mention them?) That too thin steak frites, cheap enough at $24, has an unpleasant after-taste, but the burger with tarter sauce for the first-rate fries could be a good fallback.

Lemon meringue tart and proper profiterole blur the faults.  Photo: Steven Richter

         Lemon tart and what some New Yorkers (well, me for one) consider a proper profiterole (stuffed with ice cream rather than custard and doused with much too much dark chocolate) lift the mood.  And the tarte tatin has that savor of buttery apple you want.

        “But it’s not caramelized to a crackle,” I complain to my lunch companion, a celebrated pastry chef now retired, as I revisit the upside down apple tart.  “Shouldn’t it be brûléed?”

        “Yes, it should,” she agrees.  “But it doesn’t always work that way.”

        “Am I sending my readers here?“ I wonder out loud. We agree that an owner checking out lunch is a good sign of serious purpose.  “He made a nasty face when the waiter delivered the chicken,” my friend reports. “I got the feeling he didn’t like the look of the plate.”

        I’ll hope that the generals and troops of Monsieur Ballon agree with me that this is still a work in progress. Mouths primed for shock and invention - hot mayonnaise enclosed in a rubbery membrane or gorgonzola sorbet – may not have the taste memories to crave brasserie tradition but there are still a lot of New Yorkers with credit cards who do…if it’s really good and not too pricey.

1740 Broadway at 55th Street. 212 757 3600. Dinner, appetizers $12 to $20, entrees $20 to $35.  



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