308 Lenox Avenue, New York NY 10027 (at 125th Street; map); 212-289-5555; chezlucienne.com
Kids' Amenities: High chairs, stroller storage
Best Dishes for Kids: Saucisson en croûte, mussels, hamburgers, fries
Cost: Appetizers $6.95-8.95, entrees $15.95-21.95, desserts $5.95-8.95
Walk out of the 2 and 3 subway lines' 125th Street stop and even before you reach the Red Rooster in Harlem, you will find Chez Lucienne, a delightful French bistro serving classic dishes in an elegant yet casual space filled with warm and joyful service. Chez Lucienne's food and experience is in one (French) word, correcte—they basically do everything right. The menu is full of typical bistro, comfort food, the dishes are well executed, the portions have some "American sensibility" to them, and the staff is beyond nice.
We called the night of for a reservation at 6:30pm and were accommodated without a problem. As we arrived, the restaurant was lively and almost entirely full of patrons, ranging from dates to groups of friends to families with children, locals and perhaps not-so-locals like ourselves. The maître d' and the servers made us feel welcome right away, cheerfully leading us three to a comfortable table for four, and bringing a highchair for my daughter.
Chez Lucienne has great nightly specials. On Sundays they offer a bountiful $24.95 three-course prix fixe menu; we ordered two, which were just enough for the three of us. The prix fixe choices for appetizer, entree and dessert are actually plentiful, and filled with French classics such as soupe à l'oignon, coq au vin, bavette à l'échalotte, mousse au chocolat, and the like.
We started with an excellent saucisson en croûte (garlic sausage wrapped in pastry) on a bed of green lentils, which was an exercise in subtle flavor and textural balance. The sausage's strong garlic flavors were balanced by the thin, buttery crust of the pastry and by a lightly seasoned lentil salad; likewise, the soft texture of the meat met some resistance from the pastry and from the al dente lentils. We all fought over it.
We also had a tomate au Montrachet, a tomato stuffed with goat cheese and pesto, roasted and then sliced, and served on a vinaigrette sauce. I suspect some varieties of tomatoes lend themselves better for stuffing, and this beefsteak's small cavities really didn't allow for much cheese or pesto; still, this appetizer featured an interesting combination between the acidity of the tomato and the sweetness of its own roasted juices.
I am as great a fan of mussels as my husband is of hamburgers. The moules frites at Chez Lucienne are among the best I've had in New York, for three reasons: they are fresh, they are steamed to perfection (no rubbery mussels here), and in the version I like (moules marinières), the broth is enhanced by a touch of cream (they also offer moules dijonnaises and provençales). They come with "killer frites" on the side.
The beef hamburger was nice and moist, and had a delicious brioche bun. Between mama's mussels (so fun to eat!) and fries, and papa's hamburger, chatty servers and ladies at the next table, my daughter thoroughly enjoyed her food and herself at Chez Lucienne; yet the best was yet to come.
The prix fixe dinner at Chez Lucienne comes with a choice of any dessert from the menu (except for the blueberry tart) and choosing two was hard. We wistfully ruled out the chocolate mousse and the fondant au chocolat because too much chocolate tends to keep the little one awake at night, and went with a tarte tatin topped with vanilla ice cream. The individual tarte was warm and tart, but ended up all sweet from the melting ice cream and caramel sauce.
We ended the meal in a very high note with the profiteroles, two round pâte à choux shells filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce that felt decidedly "American" in its size and sumptuousness. My daughter devoured one, and my husband and I had to be content with sharing the second.