September 15, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Dirty French: The Carbone Brats Go Gallic

A 21st Century duck á l’orange has breast enhancement and gets rotisserie-slow-cooked.
A 21st Century duck à l’orange has breast enhancement and gets rotisserie-slow-cooked.

          Arriving at the back door of Dirty French in the Ludlow Hotel, I brace myself. It’s the house’s first Saturday night. I don’t have a reservation and I wasn’t very kind to Carbone in my BITE.  I got a giggle from the Torrisi crew’s homage to 50s Little Italy and red sauce immersion on Thompson Street. I actually liked the $55 monster veal Parmesan decked out like a voluptuous pizza, but I was annoyed by sleazy waiter tricks and never went back.

“French” it says at the front door, not to “Dirty” Ludlow street.

          Now I’m anticipating more creative rottenness at Dirty French from chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone with their aggressive business partner Jeff Zalaznick in this spottily gentrified new playground of the Lower East Side. “It’s a roughed up Gallic bistro,” they told the Times. How rough? I wonder. Already too busy to answer the phone. Already totally booked.

Are the black eyes and bloodied noses on the shelf above a warning of mayhem ahead?

          On a shelf above a rustic wood wall, a lineup of heads and torsos with bruised black eyes and bloodied noses suggests possible mayhem. But no. That’s art, curated here as it is at Carbone, by Vito Schnabel, son of Julian. The trio suggest the food is dirty like a dirty Martini, because Daniel-trained Torrisi adds Moroccan and New Orleans touches -- fun and whimsy -- to the classic French bistro.

A smartly dressed frog and roosters everywhere greet you at the welcome stand.

          It’s early Saturday. Not yet dinner time for the ranks of youngish fabulosity I expect will soon own these 90 seats. In an old-fashioned bistro this would be a sea of white. But here the empty tables are bare wood (or is that formica). Still, it takes Zalaznick, conferring with manager Gregory Tomicich, a punishingly long interval to find me a table the house can spare.

The sommelier, dressed as Little Bo-Peep, seems deeply hurt that you don’t want to order wine.

          We are seated at last at a minuscule two-top. My tall and fruity Zaragoza Reposada Tequila cocktail is like an ice pack for my bruises. My friend and I muse on the philosophical possibilities of dirty. It can’t be the well-dressed frog on a pedestal next to the maitre d’ stand. He’s cute. And the big tilted mirror framed with lights is not particularly cruel.  I’m near-sighted so I can’t see if it’s a fun house look. The ostrich banquette does tickle a little.  Maybe it’s the adorable sommelier, not in predictable licorice slasher boots, but in a floor-length dimity frock. Channeling Little Bo-Peep perhaps. She seems offended, even near tears, when we don’t order a bottle of wine.

The waiter does a show-and-tell of the day’s oyster offering in a big silver tureen on ice.

          The waiter parades a selection of the day’s oysters opened on ice in a silver tureen with hand-lettered labels. The large ones can be grilled Bourgogne-style, he recites. “Like snails,” he explains.  At least he isn’t insulted when we demur. He rattles off a list of available hams. Not tonight. My pal sends his banana-chip black rum-coffee-bean vermouth-amaro drink back – “I wasn’t expecting anything so…medicinal,” he complains. The waiter suggests the Monte Cristo instead -- also banana, but long, on crushed ice.

You’re meant to tear the house “flatbread” with your fingers, then drag it through the fromage blanc.

          Next he delivers a tiered silver tray with “the house flatbread” and herbed fromage blanc. We ask for silverware. “That’s the dirty part,” he sniggers. “They want you to eat it with your fingers.” Never mind. It’s delicious. Alas, my pal’s dank and salty tuna tartare is almost hidden under a flying carpet of dried-out crêpe Indochine.

The boudin with Créole relish – a blood sausage of the French diaspora – will be spicy.

          Now we get the drift. That’s why there are Berber spices in the roast clams almondine, the foie gras comes with a crispy Algerian pancake, and Cajun spices heat up the porgy Provençale. It explains the Créole relish on my very good peppery boudin.

A cauliflower side is salty, crispy and perfectly cooked.

          Are you old enough to remember the classic duck à l’orange? A “Dirty” duck is just the breast itself (a 42D, I’d say) -- marinated for hours with the chef’s version of the North African spice ras el hanout -- then cooked for hours and served with preserved orange. I could quibble that there is too much -- too sweet sauce, too much fat -- and even with a fork, my fingers are sticky.  But the skin is crisp and the flesh so moist and rare, I’m too happy to complain.

Cumin-rubbed saddle of lamb, cooked rare as requested, gets a side of crisp pommes Anna.

          My companion’s cumin-rubbed saddle of lamb -- once I can get him to share it -- is a similar triumph of nuance and slow cooking. The potatoes Anna alongside are deliciously crisp. Even the too salty cauliflower is otherwise splendid. It’s almost 9:30 and the entitled troops have invaded. The lights are lower, the thrum of 80s rock is more intense.

The bowl of frisée aux lardons with fried giblets and a sherry vinaigrette is enough to share.

          Rum raisin ice cream topping pineapple and banana tarte tatin is unforgivably dirty. but even with that hiccup of an ending, I remember to ask for a reservation as I go out the door. Much to my surprise, the answer is yes.

I expected a puddle of garlicky snail butter, not this ill-conceived grilled oyster abuse.

          It takes a while for some new restaurants to find their mojo. Others burst forth in astonishing glory. Once my friends get over the small pour in their glasses and the insult of only two vodka labels in house, all of us are gobbling up the unusually addictive bread. My friend Peter G. asks the waiter for more. That’s when we learn it’s a batter made to order for each table like pancakes in a skillet. Torrisi, unrecognizable at first out of his whites, explains one cook does nothing but oysters and bread all night. I for one feel obliged to dig in when the fresh batch arrives colliding with starters.

Parisienne-style gnocchi made with pâte à choux get pan-sautéed, then tossed with great tomatoes.

          Sherry vinaigrette makes the frisée aux lardons with grilled giblets and egg taste fresher than the classic. I order grilled oysters for my friend Peter K., expecting to revel in puddles of garlicky snail butter. But they arrive overwhelmed in a dirty, grassy swabbing. I comfort him with a share of my pan-sautéed gnocchi Parisienne tossed with smoked cherry tomatoes that burst with the sweet and tart tingle of summer in a bowl painted with labneh.

An outsize mustard-doused pork chop is delivered moist and pink.

          Peter K. is already exclaiming over his smudged and dirty pink pork chop. And the short rib au poivre mesmerizes the often querulous Peter G., when the waiter sets a glass dish of radish thins and herbs on the table. “This means the chicken is coming,” he announces.

A mysterious glass bowl of radish thins and assorted herbs announces that chicken is coming soon.

          “I don’t understand. Why does a dish of radish and tarragon mean the chicken is coming?” The waiter  covers the dish: Now it’s a gleaming  glass chicken. Then two bussers arrive with a duo of voluptuous breasts, neatly sliced in a puddle of creamy mustard jus in a black iron skillet to be eaten like Peking duck.

The first service of chicken is a duo of breasts with condiments to wrap in paper-thin pancakes.

          There are condiments -- harissa, mustard, tamarind and apricot chutney -- and crêêpes wrapped in paper tied with string. Tricky to untie. I tuck two slices of white meat into half a wrapper, brush them with all three sauces and stuff in leaves of basil and mint, marveling how moist and delicious white meat can be.

At first sooty deep-fried chicken claws are scary, but be brave enough to start chewing.

          “Where is the dark meat?” I ask, with a hint of paranoia. It’s coming, I am assured. That’s the second service. Sure enough, I’m absorbed in rolling another chicken-breast toke when a waiter rushes up with a second skillet. He dumps blackened thighs on top of the remaining white meat and plants two long sooty chicken legs complete with claws alongside. There are yecchs and eeeks.

Flying saucer-like fried potatoes are excellent with crème fraîche, sweet paprika and chive.

          While the rest are still gasping, I grab a leg and begin chewing on deep-fried, juicy anatomy.I snare part of a thigh. I regret the too much I’d already put away. Is this the best chicken I’ve ever eaten? Hard to say. There have been a clutch of great birds lately. Our team manages to stop chewing once we agree to divide the leftovers, and then manage to do justice to the very light and sugary beignets – one each -- smeared with a delicate caramel sauce.

          The Dirty crew gathered around, basking in our exuberance, no longer seem like evil pranksters but rather, devilish co-conspirators.

If you’ve survived the fatty overkill, a plump and sugary beignet with caramel can’t hurt.

          I can’t tell you what size your duck breast will be in October or whether the chicken in two services will be the triumph we tasted the second week of Dirty French tricks. Hearing the intricacy of its preparation, I can imagine the kitchen forced to simplify rituals one day when The Major Food Group generals move on to their High Line adventure, and the envisioned world domination of their Parm, and playful truculence not yet imagined. Unless you’re a bit stuffy and loathe to wallow in chicken fat, you might want to start plotting how to land a reservation sooner than later.

180 Ludlow Street just south of Houston. 212 254 3000. Hours to come. Dinner Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 pm. Closed on Sunday.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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