When we discovered that the family behind beloved cheese-and-sandwich shop Lamazou opened a bistro down the street, we looked forward to frilly curtains, mismatched plates, and other elements of an overstuffed, comforting vibe. After all, Lamazou is the kind of place that rounds down the price of your order, telling you to make up the difference whenever, or that takes the time to patiently explain the subtle differences between obscure cheeses, a queue out the door notwithstanding. But the newly opened Bistro Lamazou wouldn't be out of step in Las Vegas or in a 1970s acid trip. It's pretty off the hook.
The restaurant specializes in broadly Mediterranean cuisine, featuring cheese, meats, appetizers, salads, and entrees from southern Europe and northern Africa. Our meal skewed French, with straightforward takes and reinterpretations. For the first course, we chose the cheese and charcuterie sampler ($24), an excellent deal for the price. "Let me give you a little tour," Nancy Lamazou intoned, as she arrived holding a platter with both hands. In the center, an oversized martini glass brimming with feathery, silky-as-a-whisper Prosciutto di Parma and melon balls on sticks. Beneath were slabs, slopes, and slices, beiges and ecrus and dark pinks. Too often, such plates lack harmony, or feel slightly piled on, the selections a result of what random portions are kicking around the counter, rather than thoughtful consideration. Lamazou's had a clear raison d'être: to relax and please eaters, via an array of discrete soft, semisoft, spicy, salty, and oozy. The cheeses, meats, and little basket of cornichons complemented one another perfectly, like an old married couple.
Talking about cheese turns everyone into a sensualist. We drank deeply from our ham glass and let the fat globs from the finocchinoa (fennel salami) burst in our mouths, as we listened to the cheesemonger's descriptions. We spread the creamy, vaguely acidic cabécou, made from the "milk of young goats," and the pliable troubadour, whose mustiness hinted, nicely, at the barn in which it no doubt matured, on slices of bread. One cheese had been cave-aged, then "rubbed with olive oil," while another was stuffed with olives and a third would be "heaven and earth" once we tried it. Such talk will put anyone in the mood.
Less romantic, perhaps, is the decor, a blend of yellows, reds, and browns, a melange of fake flowers and neon. Colorful bubbles effuse off the walls, logo-like. Lava lamps and moon chairs wouldn't be inappropriate. Wait.. is that an impressionist print hanging above a large booth? Are those tables draped in stiff cloth? The front says Murray Hill highlife, while the back says Upper East Side propriety, like a reverse mullet. There's a lot happening here, none of it soothing.
As our second appetizer, we had a Tunisian brick ($10), whose stuffing changes daily. After the extremely attentive waitstaff took away our cheese plate, we went back to being literalists. As such, we sweated the arrival of an actual brick, rectangular and dense as an unambitious meatloaf. So we were delighted when two light logs arrived, waxy phyllo wrapped around ground beef and gruyère, a combination that's tough to complain about. Here was French food sheathed in colonialism.
Another course, another take on the French presence in North Africa. Our Casablanca cous cous ($18) arrived dry beneath a heap vegetables, including mushrooms, carrots, and tubers, themselves topped with caramelized onions. On the side, vegetable broth and bright red, fiery harissa; we used both, on our server's wise recommendation. A simple dish, a satisfying one, and big enough to split.
For dessert, a return to the continental classics: lavender crème brûlée with homemade madeleines ($9). Topped with a sprig of basil and three blueberries, the sugar extravaganza smelled great. Tasted that way, too, the custard smoother than the lines starting to make an appearance up and down the avenue, as the bars grew jammed. Sweet custard beats "Yo, bro!" and "Come here often?" every time, and the light, fluffy madeleines conjure Combray amidst the crowds.
In between customers, the hostess read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Later, maybe, the candles adorning the wrought-iron chandeliers will be lit, letting this bistro stand out from the other neon-inflected bars and restaurants along its stretch of Third. On the other hand, perhaps the candles are simply yet another decorative element. Bistro Lamazou surprised us: in the decorations, which were, um, pretty cheesy, and the food, which ranged further and farther than its humble shop origins would imply. It's best for: a new direction with an old friend.