March 28, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Le Coq Rico: The Sky Is Falling

It’s the whole bird, a 110-day-old Brune Landaise, raised now in Lancaster, more than our four can eat. 
It’s the whole bird, a 110-day-old Brune Landaise, raised now in Lancaster, more than our four can eat.

          I can’t remember why I didn’t write about dinner high up in Montmartre at Le Coq Rico last September with a Parisian friend who is a regular there and loves it. Was I ambivalent? Concerned that I wasn’t properly thrilled?  I uploaded a rave for the three-star L’Epicure and marveled at a thrilling lunch at Le Grand Restaurant Jean-François Piège, just opened that week. I reported on Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy at the Monnaie.  But not a peep about Antoine Westermann’s “Bistro of Beautiful Birds.”

Here’s a thick slab of the fine terrine we shared at Le Coq Rico in Montmarte last September.

          Googling around this past weekend, I find that the little white cubby in Montmartre is one of the critic Patricia Welles top ten favorites, but is reviled by Alexander Lobrano who writes “Hungry for Paris.”  Lobrano, who salutes Westermann as “a delightful man and seriously gifted chef,” is outraged by the white-washed aery he sees as a “hollowed out sugar cube” for selling 96E birds to the one per cent.

Chef Antoine Wessterman seems to be amused by my French. I’m not sure what I said.

          “Almost any rotisserie chicken in Paris is excellent,” he writes. Almost any rotisserie chicken is as good as this expensive and overcooked one that took forever to reach his table, he rants. And why is the tiny bowl of macaroni extra? He asks.  “Le Coq Rich, indeed,” Lobrano cries.

The chef welcomed my guests when they arrived early and stops by now to see if they’re happy.

          Was that why I was feeling splintered at Manhattan’s Le Coq Rico a few days after it finally fluttered open in Flatiron? I had expected to gasp and sigh and be enchanted by the purity and the Frenchness of it, and that I would be inspired to deliver a glowing first impression. Not this strange ambivalence.

“Fowl is a world unto itself,” the chef writes and as this sketch on the wall across the room suggests.

          Mirrors try to make the back room larger, but it’s tight: Captains showing off birds in pots wiggle by, but bussers and new arrivals bump and jostle us. Diane across the table is getting bruised. We try turning the table, pressing together to escape the traffic.

Artichokes barigoule are tossed with slivers of guinea fowl, Parmesan and baby greens.

          The sommelier arrives at my request so I can ask which of the less expensive reds will be fruity, round and ready to drink. It’s my usual gambit when we’re a mixed group sharing the bill  -- though I don’t need an excuse to pinch pennies. He agrees that the Famille Perrin $31 Cote du Rhone will be wonderful, and it is. 

For $96 dollars, your bird will make a preview appearance in hopes of exciting umms and ahhs.

          Our whole, roasted, 110-day-old $96 Brune Landaise, raised in privileged conditions by an Amish farmer on request from Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan, looks a bit pale, but still important in its official presentation. After a few bites of perfectly juicy leg, I find myself thinking yes, okay, very good. It’s chicken. Tell me, Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?"

A busy rendition of seared foie gras with poppy seeds, roasted Gala apple, arugula and cherry vinegar.

          Our town is rico, rico, rico, already with fabulous birds. In my BITE lamenting the fuss and arrogance of Lowlife, I couldn’t contain my swoon over the Sasso chicken Yakatori ($59 the whole). At Laurent Tourondel’s L’Amico, I must have his wood-oven roasted chicken ($25 for the half). The whole roasted “Poule de Luxe”-- Zimmerman farm chicken with wild- mushroom-stuffed breast, now priced at $36 per person, brings me back often to Rotisserie Georgette. And I won’t get started on fried chicken.

The macaroni gratin and vegetable fricassee we ordered sits alongside the bird and free salad.

          Why is the macaroni gratin so pallid, so demure…so small? Well, alright, it’s just $9, cross out small. My less-indulged companions are wild about the seared foie gras with poppy seed crust.  What’s wrong with me? Unmoved by foie gras, usually overdone, tonight maybe not done quite enough.

I won’t say you can’t be my friend if you don’t love offal, but you better be a great dancer. Or…

          Except for those spooked in childhood by a chicken liver, most of us are more or less thrilled by the offal platter – duck liver, apple and chicken heart speared on brochette, roasted chicken livers on horseradish toast, fatty glazed chicken wings, the crusty spiced croquettes.

That first night, the bird did not excite me, but this free salad on the side was thrillingly perfect.

          A toss of perfectly-dressed greens comes free alongside the bird. I’m not sure you’ll ever trust me again if I say that was the dish I loved most that night. Yes, more than the very good fries, more than the rhubarb soufflé – the thrilling first rhubarb of spring for me. The house-baked baguette is exceptional too We manage to put away two baskets’ worth while waiting for our bird.

I’m a big rhubarb fan and not just because it signals spring, but it doesn’t show well in this soufflé.

          I ask Ariane, a few tables away, not to out me to the house, but why wouldn’t she? Chef Westermann comes by with copies of his pretty “Little Poultry Book.” One is signed to “Gayle Greene.” In the shopping bag with our leavings comes the chef’s recipes for “How to Use Leftovers: Poultry Broth Bouillon with Seasonal Vegetables” and “Seasonal Salad with Croutons and Parmesan Shavings.” (I’m telling you this in case you’re not the type that takes leftovers home, but thrive on the pithy details.)

Back to sample the chef’s Alsatian baeckeoffe made from the same 110-day-old Landaise bird.

          I know I must return. I figure I owe it to you, I owe it to myself, I owe it to this sweet and serious man who once got three stars from Michelin in Belgium and has immersed himself in the American terroir and our farm-to-table movement. It seems, the text has it, that he spent more than a year traveling across the Northeast, focusing on the Hudson Valley and Pennsylvania, to get to know farmers and their philosophy on raising poultry. “Fowl is a world into itself,” notes Westermann. “Its flavor and texture change depending on the region, breeder, age and style of farming used.”

Left chicken liver with hummus and mâche, artichoke toss above, deviled egg fantasy right.

          A friend bullies the manager into giving her a table for 5 at 7 pm on Saturday. I call ahead,  using her name, to order the chef’s $120 Baeckeoffe: a whole Brune Landaise bird baked in traditional Alsatian earthenware with artichokes, potatoes, onions and Riesling.

A close-up of the splendid eggs on octopus and cabbage salad with crisps. We got 3 halves to split.

          I persuade my pals to let me order, a repeat of the offal, of course, and then the sautéed chicken liver salad with hummus and mâche, and artichokes à la barigoule with slivers of guinea fowl (overly-vinegared for me). Indulgent, now they know it’s me, the kitchen sends out an extra deviled egg half on a fluttery carousel of marinated octopus and cabbage salad with cumin. Of course, where there are birds, there will be eggs. These are not just Best-Dressed, but also delicious.

The foie gras terrine en croute tasted overcooked to me.

          We have to ask for bread. It’s not warm tonight, but even so, it’s still very special (another two baskets disappear, even when the wait is considerably shorter). Midway through dinner, servers finally realize we want serving spoons for the dishes we’re sharing. The terrine of duck foie gras en croûte is not very pink.

We could barely taste the Catskill guinea fowl with caramelized sauerkraut after the baeckeoffe.

          A busser shows off the baeckeoffe in its earthenware pot for Instagrams. Some time later. the stew returns in five plates, carved, and banked with vegetables. The dark meat/white meat hassle is moot, since each of us has both. I contemplate trading a very dry breast for somebody’s dark meat, but after just one leg and part of a thigh plus onions and potatoes, enlivened with bits of lemon confit, I cannot eat another bite.

          Did the bird have five legs? I decide not to ask. The Catskill guinea fowl piled on caramelized sauerkraut is white meat -- and much too dry. Two of us are sipping Riesling by the glass.

Floating island is such a rarely revived French classic, some at our table had ever seen it.

          The macaroni is more carefully browned tonight, and the fries are even better, extra-well-done, as I requested, but soft inside and properly salty. I didn’t order potato puree, but here it is, gift of the chef. There is no free salad with this bird, so I order one, $6, excellent again. The waiter now passes around the table, dropping two quills of pasta onto each of our five plates (like a doting mother, not willing to bring a single mostaccioli back to the kitchen). 

Beer brioche French toast with beer ice cream, another Le Coq classic, here with an underpoached pear.  

          Desserts are quite pointedly French classics that not many restaurants dare to offer anymore in an era of insolence and fuss. I urge my friends to choose. Two of them have never seen floating island before. There are bits of red praline in the crème anglaise. I’m glad I have a spoon nearby. The beer brioche French toast with beer ice cream and a not-quite-poached-long-enough pear stirs many remembrances of French toasts past. By the way, dinner for four with just one $31 bottle cost $275. Five of us drinking cocktails and that $31 bottle spent $510.   

          The chef comes outside to say goodbye. I can’t say he will do that for everyone, but you might want to conspire to get a table while he’s still here. He may greet you himself, as he did my friends. The bird may be a bit dry, but not Chef Antoine Westermann.

30 East 20th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway. 212 267 7426. Noon to 4 pm. 5:30 to 11 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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