For reasons that elude me, the city is drowning in moderately priced Italian restaurants while French restaurants of the same ilk continue to diminish.
Fortunately, there are a few hardy souls still striving to bring us classic French bistro fare, among them restaurateur/chef Didier Pawlicki, a whirling dervish who manages and does a lot of the cooking in three small restaurants (presumably with still reasonable rents) in the East Village and Soho. He commutes between them on his motorcycle.
La Sirene, at the corner of Varick and Broome (near The Film Forum), is celebrating its eighth year in business, and dinner there will tell you why it continues to succeed when so many others fail. The food is wonderful, authentic, home made and portions are generous. It may not be in your neighborhood but it’s my definition of a great, unpretentious neighborhood bistro, a place you can take a date, meet friends or share dinner with colleagues (as a long table of women were doing the night we were there).
At a recent press dinner we each ordered what we wanted off the menu, then shared and sampled each other’s dishes.
Our appetizers were varied. One of us, a vegetarian, ordered a Baked Goat Cheese Tart with Shallots, Truffles, and Grape topped with a layer of aged Gruyere. ($16.95) It was delicious, and almost a meal itself.
I ordered a Home Made Country Paté with Cornichons, pickled onions and a lovely salad with a touch of cubed fruit. ($9.75) It was out of this world. Pawlicki makes his Paté with a variety of herbs and cognac but, for me, what made it exceptional, was the touch of cloves that added unusual depth. The dish is a bargain, and soul satisfying, especially slathered on the warm French bread whose basket kept being refilled.
Everyone loved the Roasted Escargots with Butter and Garlic (1/2 dozen in the shell for $13.95). I would have liked more garlic but others loved it just because it wasn’t too garlicky. Chacon a son gout. The Sautéed Baby Octopus with Garlic, Parsley, Olive Oil, Tomato and Mushroom over a salad ($14.95) was soft, subtle and – if you are an octopus person – also outstanding.
I’ve sampled other appetizers on the menu at Le Village, Didier’s other restaurant, including French Ravioli Stuffed with Comte Cheese in Truffle Cream Sauce ($15.75) and the chef’s home made Fois Gras ($25.75). They are both extraordinary and, in themselves, worth a special visit. Salads, a variety of Mussel dishes and, of course, French Onion Soup round out the traditional Appetizer side of the menu.
Our main courses were across-the-board excellent, but some were a bit more indulgent than others. At the top of the what-the-hell-let’s-go-for-it list, is the Tornedos Rossini. ($36.) As the menu accurately says, this signature dish is “absolute luxury.” A seared piece of Filet Mignon is topped with the chef’s meltingly rich Fois Gras, and then smothered in a deeply rich sauce of Shallots, Port and Red Wine Truffle Sauce. It’s definitely heaven for meat lovers.
Somewhat lighter is the chef’s Gnocchi Parisian, a sumptuous mix of Gnocchi with Truffles nestled in a Swiss Cheese White Sauce or – as he puts it – the French Mac and Cheese. I think it’s a lot better than any Mac and Cheese I ever tasted.
For my money, the chef’s other signature dish, his personal version of Cassoulet Toulouse style ($32.50), is the best – and most unique — main dish of the house. If you are counting calories, then it’s not for you. But if, for one meal, you want to indulge – or perhaps share the Cassoulet with a friend, since it’s a huge portion – you will not regret it. The mix of cannellini beans, carrots, tomato, garlic duck confit, bacon and pork sausage braised in Duck fat, stock and the juice of Fois Gras is amazing. A bit crispy on top, the ingredients, cooked for hours, meld until what emerges are subtle hints of pork, bacon and fat while the beans remain intact and not at all mushy. An especially great winter dish, Pawlecki says it used to be served for “Warriors to defend their Village.” Personally, after devouring it, I’d be ready for a nap.
Rabbit, in any form, is a rarity on a New York menu. La Sirène’s Rabbit Stew, ($28.50) braised with wild mushrooms, white wine, carrots and herbs, is an excellent choice. Equally delicious – and on the lighter side – was the filet of Black Sea Bass served atop a beautifully prepared Beurre Blanc with Capers. (Priced according to the Market.)
What would a French restaurant be without wonderful desserts? We each picked one of our favorites, then happily sampled.
Not surprisingly, our tastes differed. My favorite, hands down, is – and has always been – Pawlecki’s refined Tarte Tatin ($9.50), especially after a large meal. His version is a thin-crusted, caramelized upside down apple Tarte – delicate and delicious – topped with a scoop of his home made ice cream. Perfection.
My second favorite is the Banana Brulée. Others preferred the Choux – puff pastry stuffed with Vanilla Whipped Cream – another rarity on a New York menu.($8.50) and the chocoholics among us loved the Lava Chocolate Cake. ($12.75)
La Sirène has a full Wine, Beer and Spirits List but, due to a lack of space, does not offer cocktails. Anyone can bring a bottle of wine per couple, with a $10 corkage fee.
The restaurant offers a bargain-priced 3-Course Early Bird Dinner from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.
For those, below and above Canal Street, who love real French food, La Sirène is a great bargain and a great find.
558 Broome Street
Hours: 5 – 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday
5 p.m. to Midnight, Friday and Saturday