A packed restaurant can be an enigma. Sure, we all get why there are lines outside Do or Dine or Red Farm, Katz's or John's. But Le Grainne Cafe, a French bistro in Chelsea? What's up with that? We decided to find out, paying an early visit on a Saturday night. There's no need to thank us for attempting to unravel this mystery; eating at Le Grainne was our pleasure.
Named for the owner, this restaurant on a nice block of Ninth Avenue is open everyday from 8 AM to midnight, and it is pretty much consistently full of single women, couples, and groups. We skipped starters, including escargot and quiche lorraine, and went straight to entrees. Our first, the merguez sandwich ($12.50), isn't what's drawing the crowds, alas. Everything tasted fine, but there simply wasn't enough sausage to soak up the incredibly strong mustard. A few allergy-related snuffles disappeared after three bites, if you catch our drift.
We supplemented the sandwich with a side of ratatouille ($7.50), a stewed jumble of squash, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, and lots of rosemary. A nice side, a flavorful way to get vitamins and minerals, but ratatouille, no matter how good, can't be a destination dish. Can it? We were getting closer, but we still hadn't found the reason for this place's popularity.
People might be lining up for the papillotte ($21.50), tilapia and shredded carrots, potatoes, onions and herbs in a white wine sauce steamed in parchment paper. Alongside were a scoop of mashed potatoes and several string beans and tomatoes, nicely salted and peppered. The fish was hypermoist, rich without being cloying. We would happily wait for such a preparation again.
To end the meal, we ordered a Nutella crepe ($7) from the long list of savory and sweet versions, and unequivocally found our answer. Aha! Our crepe was so hearty and grease-free we could almost delude ourselves into believing the dessert was actually a whole-grain health extravaganza. Obviously the great smears of Nutella counterbalanced any possible dietary benefits. If only we'd gotten a dollop of ice cream on top, you know, for the calcium.
After an hour, we reached our unscientific conclusion: people come for the crepes, and stay for the comfortable albeit lively atmosphere. If music had been playing, we couldn't hear it over the low, pleasant rumble of conversation, like the subway gently idling outside of the station. Le Grainne Cafe has an open kitchen, creamed corn-colored walls and pressed tin ceilings, as well as a solid selection of French staples. It's best for: a date who stands out in a crowd.