November 4, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Le Bilboquet: If You Dare 

Best dish of the evening: caramelized squid tossed with peppers, tomatoes, zucchini.
Best dish of the evening: caramelized squid tossed with peppers, tomatoes, zucchini.

          Loni, a fixture at Le Bilboquet reports: I was just wildly désolée when Le Bilbo closed last winter. I would meet Muffy and Tina now and then for lunch at Sant Ambroeus but it wasn’t the same. I would see people I didn’t even know. Am I thinner? I think I lost three pounds. I couldn’t eat anything but pistachio macarons. I actually flew to Norfolk to be with Mumsy for a while. But then her new boo kept jumping me in the hall. Not nice for Mumsy. But he was madly adorable. Luckily Kiki had a sweet little corner for me in Montauk.

Looking around the front room of  the snobby Le Bilboquet, I think of Scott and Zelda.

          Isn’t it brilliant the boys found this spot on 60th Street right near Barney’s? We don’t even have to cross Park Avenue. I like that there’s no sign on the door. Makes it harder for the you-know-what-all to bagsie it. Oh goody. Here’s Candy and Mimi and Noona. Is she with Templeton, that faff.? Oh, isn’t this cozy? I think it’s cozy. Yes, there’s a big lot of tables in the back room, room for hundreds compared to just your 35 best friends like before, but we sit at the first tables just past the bar. The other night I saw Hugh Jackman and Sting at Ron Perelman’s table. I tried not to stare. I got up to go to the loo twice. One of them winked at Mia. She wasn’t sure which one.

Forgive my UWS superiority complex, but what kind of gourmand calls it Cajun chicken?

          Of course, it’s not nice at the door. It’s crowded and clausty. You see the terrible expressions on people’s faces, being turned away because no one knows them. Or they don’t look like our kind. It’s heartless. It’s cruel.  But then, someone has to be strong. I count on Philippe to sort it all out. If he nods to a stranger, it will be because they are too beautiful to say no. What do I eat? Love that chicken. The Cajun chicken. It has to do with New Orleans. Chicken is so good for you. Last night I had le poisson du jour, branzino of course.


The signs are not particularly clever, shall we call them ironic?

          Gael Greene chimes in: I can’t say I was eager to try Le Bilboquet. I am an Upper West Sider. I am sure it shows. Look closely and you can see I’m missing a snap on my coat. I’m blonde, but not that blonde. And I do my own nails. Never mind thin, we won’t discuss that. I knew the original Bilboquet as a cramped little sardine can catering to the Upper East social set, whatever that is. I shouldn’t be so snobby. I’m sure they are mostly sincere and do good works.

          But my good pal, Karine Bakhoum, is wrangling the press for Le Bilbo and she wants me to taste. She should know better, but I suspect she is totally mesmerized by the arrival of Chef Julian Jouhannaud, a toque with cred from his Ducasse days to upgrade the menu.  Not that the basic menu inevitables can change. No no no. Le Bilboquet regulars might not appreciate too much change.

          Wednesday night. The door is too heavy for me to pull open. I wait for someone to exit. It is too heavy for her too and she has only to push. But her guy braces himself and voila, I am in. Most of the tables are empty. So is the pewter-topped white oak bar. “C’est La Vie,” announces a painting on the back wall.

          “Are you planning to eat here?” asks a tall, thin, young fop, with an practiced scowl.

          “I am meeting Mr. Chapman,” I say. “You should have his name, I’m sure. I’m early.”

          “I don’t recall seeing that name in our book,” snarls the gangly one, ramrod stiff, starched with indignation.

The dressing and accessories tend to obscure the crabmeat in this dish with avocado.

          His older cohort, Philippe Delgrange, swivels over to see what debris the storm has blown in. He looks at me and looks again. He smiles.  “I haven’t see you in twenty years,” he says, leading me to a corner table against the window. “What do you think about New York right now?” he asks. “Is it okay?”

          “It exciting,” I assure him. “New restaurants are opening like crazy. People are eating out. Everyone is eating out.”

          “I hope so,” he says glumly.

This is a perfectly fine endive salad. What more could you ask?

          My friends arrive. They do not look Bilboquet either, but what can Delgrange do? They are with moi. Carefree and innocent, they are unaware that they have probably escaped a rude expulsion. A Bombay Sapphire and a slug of Crown Royal perk them up. I ask Philippe if we will like the cheapest red on the list, a $65 Simard ‘01.  “Let me bring you the 2000 and see how you like it,” he says.  “It’s a magnum, but you will drink half and I’ll pour the rest by the glass at the bar,” he offers.

          Got it? They never really stop pouring.  I’m officially on the take, wouldn’t you say?  As if that would ever filter my judgment. I study the menu. It’s very tailored, as taut as the door guardian’s pin stripes. I ask my friends to each order something different so we can pass and share. I let them choose first. At the end, I can’t decide what to order myself. The menu is too boring. Le tabbouleh. La salade vert. Le saumon fumé. I’m not in the mood for risotto. As if the market had not evolved in two decades. Not that I miss the kale.

The foie gras is a tad too cold and a bit too firm but it’s foie after all on lovely toast.

          I order “Les Encornets aux Herbs.”  I wonder how many people in the room know that encornets are calamari? It’s a long wait, but never mind, I don’t expect dash from a brand new kitchen.  Finally, the runner brings starters, each one delivered to the wrong person. Never mind that either. I’ll give them time. What startles me is that I am looking at a slab of foie gras when I ordered calamari. Maybe someone in the kitchen doesn’t read French either. I signal frantically. The entire staff is whizzing in the other direction.

          At last, our waiter turns his head in passing. “I ordered encornets and I got foie gras.”

          “I’ll take care of it,” he says. No apology. No nothing. I am looking at the blushing pink liver. I cut off a triangle and put it on a piece of lovely brioche toast. The foie is cold and a bit too firm, but rich and good. My friends help themselves too.

          A busser brings my calamari salad in a deep white bowl. He looks confused. “Looks like we’re tasting the foie gras,” I say. He leaves it. Is that why they charged us for both on the bill, $30 for foie gras, $18 for the calamari?

This isn’t the best tuna tartare I ever tasted nor is it the worst. It’s good enough.

          The small calamari ringlets are wonderfully crisp, caramelized in a black steel pan --tossed with a mix of bell pepper bits, zucchini dice, Italian parsley, a touch of garlic, tomatoes, shallots, lemon and olive oil. The best dish of the evening. Not that there’s anything amiss with the properly dressed endives au Roquefort, the crab and avocado in a creamy foam or the tuna tartare with waffle chips. I cover my glass with my hand to get them to stop pouring.

I’d like more broth and more flavor in the broth of the mussels.

          The mussel broth is nothing to brag about and the frites are good but as pale as can be – “I should have asked for them well done,” I apologize to my mates.  I want ketchup, but I must admit I’m actually too intimidated to ask.

If you are limited to 250 calories for dinner, this bland halibut is perfect for you.

          Clearly the fiercely bland halibut is the designated bow to dieters. I try to imagine what a big lump of butter stirred into its watery broth might do. Butter certainly enhances the sex appeal of the Cajun chicken, smothered in a creamy sauce.

This thick and meaty strip steak au poivre is a seriuos steak, not the usual steak-frites.

          My thick “NY Strip” is nicely cooked too, seared and subtly peppered, rare, a smart cut above the usual steak frites. but not to compare to a classic steakhouse cut.  The waiter recites desserts. I need a knife and a chisel to cut the stern crust of the lemon meringue tart.  The luscious looking but mushy tarte tatin might improve with a more flavorful apple. 

The tarte tatin looks promising but could be more caramelized and lacks apple flavor.

          I didn’t notice the $30 charge for the foie gras (plus $18 for the encornets) till I looked at the bill next morning. Add tax and tip, dinner cost $105 per. When I checked out the old menu against the new, I was shocked to see how prices soared just by moving three block downtown: The $18 mussels are now $28. The $20 Cajun chicken is now $29.The Black Angus pepper steak was $24 compared to the $31 strip now. Probably Loni and her pals never notice. Like Eloise, they just say “Charge it,” and a trustee pays the bill. Certainly I’ve heard no bleating from Bilbo’s regulars. The investors that greased the wheels of the move – Ronald Perelman, Eric Clapton and Steve Witkoff  – are not likely to grouse. (Real estate biggie Witkoff flipped a Sunset Lake mansion in Miami Beach for $14.75 in July, a $5 million profit.)

          Several dozen more seats to fill has not sweetened the tone at the door. The unrecognized editor of Departures was met recently with a snarl of indifference. And at lunch, the self-styled arbiters of birth and beauty turned away a prominent restaurateur and a powerful hospitality diva whose cries of outrage could be heard across the Park. 

It took a steak knife and a little pounding to cut this lemon meringue tart in four pieces.

          I can survive knowing that I am not Le Bilboquet people, so I won’t be back. But I will definitely be seen often across Madison at 16 East 60th when Georgette Farkas opens her Rotisserie Georgette at any moment. No need to be bruised in the Salon de Refusés when I’m sure ever west-siders with chipped nail polish will be welcomed by Miss Farkas.

20 East 60th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. 212 751 3036. Open from noon till 11 pm every day.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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