The Sunset Menu offers one, two, or three courses plus a drink from 5 to 7 pm everyday. For $21.75 apiece, we received three courses plus a glass of house white (good) and house red (better). In addition, we were given excellent service—including a waiter who delighted in his job (or pretended to), our presence, the misty evening, even the photographs we took of the food. "That's going to represent this place quite well," he intoned as we shot the snails. Does it? We hope so, because Flea Market Café, a French restaurant in the East Village, deserves kudos of all kinds.
Tchotchkes like an old-fashioned bicycle, scales, toys, and ads adorn the walls. If you're from France, signs for Le Bouillon Kur or the Rue Chinard might come off as overdone or hokey, like a diner that advertises Chock Full o'Nuts in neon, has polished miniature jukeboxes, or features jokey "antique" plaques ("Beer... it's what's for breakfast!") might to an American. The overstuffed atmosphere will strike some as just that. Others, particularly fans of Amélie, will feel the opposite. One man's trash is another man's way of indicating his restaurant's credibility.
The traditional oven-baked snails came soaked in parsley, butter, garlic, and Parmesan. Served in an escargot plate, naturally, they required a bit of dexterity to pop out, the effort yielding chewy, slightly pungent bites well-balanced by the garlic.
The cooks have the good sense not to fuss much with the roasted butternut squash soup. We took ours with a dash of pepper, but that only emphasized how straightforward it is. No flavors compete with the restrained, nutty sweetness typical of butternut squash. Similarly, a scattering of seeds highlights the baby's skin smoothness of the soup.
We rarely talk about whether a dish was attractive, so focused are we on gobbling, but the entire effect of the crusted-pistachio salmon was lovely. The nuts' earthy tones played off the fish's pinks, all piled atop a plump bed of carrots, zucchini, asparagus, and onions. Luckily, the taste lived up to its presentation. The veggies' lemon dressing lent the fish its acid, while the pistachios offered some pizazz.
At first, the chicken cordon bleu reminded us of a model used in junior high science to illustrate the earth: a circle cut in half, exposing the concentric layers within. In place of molten lava, Swiss cheese; in place of the rocky shell known as the mantle, ham. Then we started eating and all we could think about was just how good the chicken stuffed with cheese and ham actually was, flavors that belong together. It's no wonder this dish became a classic.
While the warm chocolate cake hardly oozed, disappointingly, the crème brûlée cracked like winter's first ice, as it should have. Come to think of it, with the exception of the cake, everything we ate here was cooked as expected—an observation meant not as a knock but as an example of the care the cooks put into the food. This isn't the place to find newfangled French or fusion.
A few weeks ago, Flea Market Café caught on fire, possibly the result of arson, according to police reports. The tremendous outpouring of sympathy that resulted was disproportionate to the damage, which thankfully wound up being minimal, but illustrates the devotion the restaurant inspires in its regulars. With its low-cost, conscientious takes on French staples, Flea Market Café is best for: a date with a penny pincher who has a big appetite.