Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Slacker New York City Entry #68

Brasserie Les Halles has amassed its share of critics. With über-celebrity-chef Anthony Bourdain as its animating spirit, skepticism is served slathered in butter. Since the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000, Bourdain has been more of a marketing phenomenon than chef, and judging from his account, even when he was a cook, he was a player; stovework bowed to other pursuits of the evening.

A few years before the appearance of Kitchen Confidential with its grand guignol yarns of culinary hijinks, I published Kitchens, a description of work in restaurant backstages, populated with men and women of a serious mien. I watched as M. Bourdain became a millionaire, while I remained, uh, a thousandaire. My imagined adventure in the wilds of TV-land was not seen fit for cancellation. "Survivor Gourmet" seemed the perfect accompaniment for the Food Network. Two teams dropped on a tropical island compete for culinary superiority. I remain convinced that an audience is waiting to watch Richard Hatch whip up a mess o' grubs in the altogether. I come to my review with several deadly sins in play.

Les Halles strives for adequacy. It usually achieves its goal, creating a thoughtless cuisine. The usual failings of a misbegotten restaurant were muted. On a Tuesday night this faux brasserie was not as loud as its reputation. Granted our server appeared and disappeared at odd moments, sometimes hovering, sometimes invisible, but we didn't wait unduly for our meal. Les Halles, not as carefully designed as Balthazar, charms as it mimics American cultural images of French brasseries. Walnut paneling and framed posters lend a touch of the Parisian night. If it felt faintly inauthentic, it was not unpleasantly so. Les Halles has a maudlin appeal.

Duck Confit with Frisée Salad could not stand up to a close inspection. The duck liver pate (assuredly not foie gras) and duck leg were soft, mild, and fatty. Simple and adequate. It was an appetizer that didn't interrupt our conversation for a culinary mind-meld.

The same applied to Hanger Steak and Frites with Shallot Sauce. How many ways to say inoffensive. Hanger steak is not a tender cut of meat, but it is flavorful, and so it served its purpose. Although Les Halles is known for its freedom spuds, Burger King comes pretty close. This generous portion was satisfying, fried in peanut oil, and they were crisp through and through. They just didn't crackle, pop, or snap. I puzzled over the shallot sauce, which I assumed would be a buerre blanc, but turned out to be barbeque sauce with chopped shallots - an odd mix that hid any subtlety that the shallots might have contributed.

For dessert, we chose Crème Brulee. The caramelized topping was just fine, if not remarkably crackly, but the creamy custard had a slight lemon off-taste (perhaps it was an unadvertised lemon brulee). The portion was so ample that four diners shared the ramekin, not quite finishing the pudding.

I have been trying to cut back on calories, but often it is hard to resist cleaning my plate. I had no trouble with this arduous resolution at Les Halles. I didn't desire to return dishes, but neither did I feel a need to finish them. At Les Halles, 60% suffices.

A critic can find much carp about. But I can't deny that I enjoyed the evening, and not only because of my company. Les Halles has figured out just what it must do to get by. It is the slacker of New York City bistros, skating by on roguish charm and good looks.

Brasserie Les Halles
411 Park Avenue South (at 29th Street)
Manhattan (Gramercy Park)

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