November 9, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

Monte-Carlo: Déjà Vu All Over Again (CLOSED)

When I think of dinner at Monte-Carlo, I remember this amazingly lush Café Liégeois.
When I think of dinner at Monte-Carlo, I remember this amazingly lush Café Liégeois.

          Suddenly, I notice, restaurants want to be French again. I’ve had coq au vin three times this week in a trio of zip codes. And I’ve just discovered barbajuans -- a small ravioli-like pillow filled with greens and fried. An invention of Monaco.

          There were seven little fritters in a napkin bunting ($10) at Maison Hugo where self-styled, deprived Upper East Siders swarmed the close-packed tables Wednesday evening, and the kitchen swooned, unable to handle the crowd.

Share these juicy, greens-and-ricotta-stuffed and fried Monaco barbajuans with the table.

          Next night, I’m not surprised to find barbajuans on the menu of a glowing little café on East 78th Street called Monte-Carlo. Here, ten or eleven lively little puffs -- filled with wilted spinach, ricotta and Parmesan ($12) -- are tucked into the requisite folded napkin. They’re not likely to become an addiction for me, but they’re cute, definitely superior than the stodgy downtown model.

The place stands out like a small white cottage on East 78th Street – good for the neighborhood.

          For those of us who happened to be around when New York’s great restaurants were all French, these menus are full of Remembrances of Things Past. Country terrines with celery rémoulade. Coq au vin. Hachis Parmentier. Duck à l’Orange. Raspberry Vacherin.

On an early visit, the place was half full. Weeks later, the crowd is sparse. Too expensive?

          There is a trio of Upper East Side dowagers at a cloth-covered round in the corner of Monte-Carlo. Anyone remember Bonwit Teller? That’s the look they have. “We’ll definitely be back,” says a 60ish businessman, preceding his nodding wife out the door. The quartet of young men next to me are all in suspenders and bow tie: a choral group, I imagine.

The roasted duck à l’Orange is juicy and richly caramelized. The sauce could be richer.

          Amazingly, no one arrives after 7:30. How can this winsome little white-washed cottage, inherited from Ciano, be so unloved? Perhaps it’s because it’s more expensive that it ought to be, with appetizers and salads $15 to $24 and entrees up to $57 for Dover sole. But so are East Side condos. So are Birkin totes and Hermes scarves.

When was the last time Lobster Vol-au-Vent called out to you from a menu?

          Two of my companions order $14 cocktails. I choose a $49 Languedoc that is fruity and cheerful enough, even with my friend’s lobster vol-au-vent. Those of us who are old enough are thrilled to see it on the menu and amazed to see two little pike quenelles on the plate when the puff pastry structure arrives with only slightly too-chewy butter-braised lobster. But where is the sauce for the quenelle? What proud French chef would leave them naked?

“Half cooked” poached egg tops frisee with “artisanal lardons” and brioche croutons. Good, but $17.

          The coq au vin comes with pearl onions and lardons, the advertised “grand-mère” garnish, the dark meat quite luscious, the breast very dry. I’d suggest the house not serve moules marinières when the mussels are tight and tasteless, though the bouffant bouquet of very good fries almost makes up for it.

The toast is strangely skimpy on a $24 duck foie gras confit with dry fig and shallot chutney.

          A chef friend and I are excited to see calf’s liver on the menu. I’d prefer it sliced thicker, but tonight’s is rare, as requested, delivered with caramelized onions in raspberry vinegar sauce (very Nouvelle cuisine), with fine mashed potatoes alongside.

We’re excited to find calf’s liver, a rarity these days, here with raspberry vinegar sauce. 

          As a former food and beverage director at The Waldorf, owner Alexandra Pollet should be more alert to service snafus. One waiter is not enough to serve the room, even on a quiet night. Oscar is never near when we need something. And other young men standing around look blank when I make a request, as if they have no official function.

Monte-Carlo’s skate is so overloaded, it’s hard to taste the brown butter much less the fish.

          I didn’t notice that from my far corner the first time I came. On that earlier visit, my mouth was already anticipating the nutty brown butter and lemon smashed potatoes of skate Grenobloise, only to feel deprived when the slightly too-cooked fish arrived hidden by a ridiculous salad on top that dilutes the savor of beurre noir.

The house’s Caesar layers baby romaine and bibb elegantly with Parmesan in anchovy vinaigrette.

          But that evening, the stylish Caesar with white anchovies and the roasted duck à l’orange, easily enough for two, made up for the skate betrayal. True, you could find a similar salmon tartare siting on avocado anywhere, but tonight’s is fresh and pretty.

There’s nothing French about diced raw salmon with cucumbers on guacamole; even so, it’s good.

          My companion, just back from diet discipline at the Golden Door, didn’t want dessert.  But I insisted. After all, wanton finales are encouraged by $10 desserts. The profiteroles seemed to take forever.

I complain about the long wait for profiteroles and am told everything is made to order.

          “Everything is made to order,” the waiter explained. “Even the pâte à choux puffs.”  My confederate that night, an Upper East Sider, was eager to return with his wife and rally neighborhood cronies to a local discovery.

Ice cream tops the thin crust apple tart, approved by my friend, the baking professional, at our table. 

          On my most recent visit, I have a professional baker in our foursome. She approves the thin crust apple tart. We try to order something called Chocolate Mi-cuit with bourbon vanilla ice cream and espresso crème anglaise.  “Not tonight,” the waiter advises.

Sorry about the blurred coq au vin. The dark meat is fine, but the white meat is overcooked.

          That’s how I come to discover the Café Liégeois. It arrives in a tall milkshake glass: layers of rich, dark chocolate and coffee ice creams under a pouf of whipped cream. The evening’s ungiving little moules and the arid chicken breast are instantly forgotten in the joy of a marvelous finale.

I hope this close up conveys how very good the fries are that accompany the mussels.

          I’ll avoid Maison Hugo till the chef finds his rhythm. I lost my patience at the stylishly attractive Dominque Bistro on Christopher Street, with its tempting French classics, when I sent back the too- salty tuna tartare, and it was returned water-logged from a quick washing. I’ll certainly continue to take advantage of Michael White’s French vanities at Vaucluse when I’m feeling flush. 

          That leaves Monte-Carlo. I’m guessing it will find its audience if its pricey menu and disorganized service doesn’t chase hungry East Siders away.

181 East 78th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. 646 863 3465.  Monday through Friday 5 to 11 pm. Saturday to midnight. Sunday brunch noon to 4 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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