West Branch, the Neighborhood Restaurant of a Serious Eater's Dreams
2178 Broadway, New York, NY 10024 (b/n 77th and 76th; map); 212-777-6764
Service: Well-meaning and friendly if not quite polished yet
Setting: A felicitous if familiar combination of wood and leather that is refreshingly not overdesigned
Compare It To: Ouest
Must-Haves: cheddar gougeres, celeriac remoulade, duck confit, fries, crispy fried quail
Price: $20 (a burger or sandwich) to $55 (for three courses) a person
In these uncertain, more-than-a little-scary times, we all tend to seek comfort wherever we go. And when we go out to eat these days, we'd like to be able to roll out of our houses and eat our comfort food in familiar, comforting environs, a place where the burgers are fine, the french fries are fresh, the salads are crisp and fresh, and the food is made with good ingredients, cooked with love and care, at restrained prices that reflect a reasonable price-value ratio. Not surprisingly, this combination is hard to find in any neighborhood, in or out of New York. But find it, I did, at The West Branch, Ouest chef-owner Tom Valenti's new restaurant located a stone's throw from our apartment.
The menu seamlessly weaves through France and Italy, but never feels in the least bit foreign.
If you want a nibble to start have the cheddar gougeres ($6). These little puffs of cheesy, tangy deliciousness are addictive. Bet you can't eat just one. The more substantial mushroom arancini ($8) (fried rice balls) would be perfect if they borrowed a little bit of the gougere's tang.
My wife, Vicky, makes a hellaciously good vitello tonnato ($15), but psst!—even Vicky admits that the version Valenti serves here, dotted with celery, radish and capers, might be better. A haricot verts salad ($9) is simple, has the perfect amount of astringency and just enough snap. Any comfort food establishment these days has to have a Caesar's salad ($8), and the one here, made with housemade sourdough croutons, is deftly executed if slightly overdressed. Valenti likes to add nuts to many of his salads to supply some crunch and textural contrast, and he does so here with the toasted hazelnuts he tosses into his marinated beet, aged goat cheese, and fennel salad ($8).
Valenti is also a passionate pork lover, so pork finds its way into two other salads here, one classic, a country salad frisee ($11) with poached egg and lardons in a perfectly balanced sherry mustard vinaigrette; the other more original, a small pile of celeriac remoulade ($10) served with country ham slices and baguette slices toasted in a panini press. Sounds seriously delicious, doesn't it? Yes, it does.
Wonderfully porky and tender roasted pork shoulder finds its way into West Branch's fine Cuban sandwich ($14), but I must admit that it is the housemade pickle slice made this sandwich for me.
The fancypants burger ($16) is a fine, fine burger specimen, though it strikes me as the one discordant, out of step with the times-priced item on the menu. It's made with ground in-house chuck with a secret ingredient divulged to me with the promise that I would never reveal it. All I can say is that the secret ingredient adds a fine, funky tang to the burger. The fries that come with the burger are of the excellent, not-too-thick-not-too-thin variety, and the housemade pickle is a lovely touch.
There are at least five main courses here I would be happy eating any day of the week: the perfectly battered and supremely crunchy fish and chips ($17); the meltingly tender braised short rib pot au feu ($24); the crispy fried quail ($16), an original riff on Southern-fried chicken served with a warm potato salad I would like the recipe for; a duck confit "choucroute," which has a confited duck leg, housemade pork sausage, and sauerkraut studded with bacon. I know, I know—some of you might be clamoring for a lighter entree at this moment. Valenti's a trout fisherman, so his pan-roasted whole boneless trout with lemon caper cream ($23), served boned and within its skin, is fresh, light, and mighty tasty.
Desserts are not quite as homey, sophisticated, and satisfying as we have come to expect from Ouest's Valenti (who trained as a pastry chef), except for the cookie plate, which has some Mexican wedding cookies, the obligatory chocolate chip, and the best of the lot peanut butter cookies. The desserts tend to the custardy and creamy side of the sweets spectrum. My favorites are the tarte Basque ($8) basically a slice of creme caramel-like custard, served with a blueberry compote, and a cinammon beignet ($9) with apple compote and mulled cider sauce.
If there was a West Branch branch in every neighborhood in New York, our fair city would be better off. A chef who really knows where deliciousness and comfort intersect would be welcome anywhere, for that matter.