158 8th Avenue, New York NY 10011 (at 18th; map); 646-596-8838; montmartrenyc.com
Setting: Narrow, loud; comfortable seating.
Service: Friendly but occasionally aloof.
Compare To: Buvette, Fedora
Must-Haves: Cassava chips, Quail Tunisienne, Beef Tarter
Cost: Small plates $8-17, large $25-34
Grade: Recommended with reservations. If Gabe Stulman's other restaurants are filled, it makes a reasonable substitute. Not worth a special trip.
Gabriel Stulman's string of successful West Village restaurants—his Little Wisco restaurant group is up to six and counting—makes you both admire and fear a little bit for the man. How many times in a row can a band release a hit album? Surely there's bound to be some stumble upon the way, one place that doesn't quite hit the mark.
I really enjoy Fedora, his loud, well-priced, amply lubricated tavern which pretends to be a neighborhood restaurant, but is really more neighborly and friendly than actually in the service of local residents. Joseph Leonard is where my wife and I go to sidle up to the bar for a beer and a couple snacks after a night out in the West Village.
Similarly, we've found room in our hearts (and stomachs) for the whole salmon heads and gonzo Japanese food served at Chez Sardine—when we can find room in the tiny dining room. And it seems like we've sent more diners to Perla than any other recently reviewed restaurant.
Point is, each one of these places is distinct in my mind. Each one serves a purpose, has a defined goal, is interesting. With Montmartre, his newest venture, this time headed up by Chef Tien Ho (formerly of Má Pêche), it's more difficult to see where it fits.
In some ways, it's an unapologetically West Village–style restaurant. The coolness with which seasonal ingredients are deployed, as if the plates were saying, "Yeah, I've got first-of-the-season ramps, but they're just folded into the beans. No big deal." The emphasis on cocktails and sharing. The small tables, low lights, and the noise level. But there's nothing unique about any of that.
In other ways, Montmartre is defiantly French by way of North Africa, and here's where it may derive some character. The servers are decent but aloof in that uniquely Parisian way. The menu has some very French touches. No wimpy chopped raw steak appetizers here, the Steak Tartare ($26) is a main course, and unapologetically large; the pommes frites come with mayonnaise; there are rillettes, boudins, and torchons on the menu.
But most of the time, Montmartre has got no direction at all. There is something a little disconcerting when a pile of well-seasoned raw meat is the most exciting dish on the menu, the only dish that really makes me think, "Now that's something."
Excellently fried Cassava Chips ($8) come with an eggplant caponata and a creamy cashew dip. Both are great on their own, but seem to have no relationship to each other on the plate, like somebody consolidated the salsa and hummus at the end of a party.
Executional problems are also common. A complimentary amuse-bouche of tiny squares of a leek tart would have been better off left in the kitchen, unexciting in flavor, more floppy than crisp. A salad of Wax Beans ($11) comes with an egg that should be soft, but was overcooked to a fudge-like consistency. A shame, as the the salad could have used a liquid yolk's richness and flavor-mellowing characteristics. As it is, the dish tasted mostly of sesame seed and soy. A better salad is the White Asparagus ($12), which comes sweet and crisp with a bright, acidic vinaigrette flavored with pistachios and ham.
Perhaps it's a matter of heightened expectations that brought the experience down. It should probably be enough that the Fluke Mouclade ($28) was moist, the mussels and potatoes in the broth tender and flavorful. But it is very no-frills cooking to the point of being stark. A more recent version of the menu mentions coconut, chili, and cilantro in the broth, which may be the boost it needs (though some vegetables would be nice).
I greatly enjoyed the Quail Tunisienne ($17), which came crisp, beautifully tender, and juicy enough that we wound up gnawing on individual wing tips to suck off every last bit of meat. Highlights like this make you wish that the miniature Salt Cod Tartines ($10) were a little more harmonious—the cod itself is fine until you get a bite of clashing chili jam—or that the Rabbit Torchon ($13) were a little more flavorful under its crisp coating.
Of the entrees I've tried, easily the most successful execution-wise was the Pork Chop ($27). It's a thick slab of meat as richly marbled with fat as the best prime ribeye steak, cooked to a perfect medium rare, and glazed with a honey and cider jus. I also appreciated that the flageolet beans underneath were properly cooked—creamy and tender—a rarity these days when young cooks seem to think al dente legumes are desirable. (They aren't).
My one gripe? The pork chop I ate the night I ordered it had no ramps at all. With two dishes not delivered to the table as advertised—one missing a key seasonal ingredient—it seems that there are still more than a few kinks to work out in the kitchen.
Stulman has been pretty clear in interviews that friendly, vibrant, neighborhood spots are his goal, and at that, Montmartre succeeds admirably. Perhaps if he hadn't been such an overachiever with his previous endeavors, its lack of focus wouldn't stand out as much. We're rooting for a quick turnaround.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.