200 Lenox Avenue (at 120th Street; map); 646-756-4154; barawine.com
Service: Friendly and attentive
Setting: High-end neighborhood bistro
Must-Haves: Macaroni and Cheese, Branzino Provençal, Hanger Steak
Compare To: Maison Harlem, Lido, Chez Lucienne
Grade: Recommended. The epitome of a great neighborhood restaurant.
Three and a half years ago, the fancy French wine shop on 129th Street and Lenox Avenue closed because, as the owner told me just months before folding, "nobody here likes to drink wine." And while a good wine shop has yet to take its place within walking distance of my apartment, it's now easy to find great wine by the glass, and judging by the full tables at Barawine, a new wine bar and bistro on 120th and Lenox, it's only going to get easier.
This is that increasing rarity in restaurants. It's the kind of value proposition that comes only when folks with experience and know-how combine it with a personal stake in the neighborhood to create a true gem. Did Fabrice Warin, who brings a front of the house pedigree that stems from Le Cercle Rouge to François Payard, have to open a wine bar in central Harlem? No, but it helps that he lives a few doors down.
The space is all modern French bistro with walls and floors lined with dark painted wood and wine bottles, tables and laid with gray tiles, brass steam-punk lighting fixtures, and a wide, high, communal table that occupies half the space. It's the kind of room that not only makes dining alone possible, but actually invites it.
To put together the menu of simple French bistro classics with a few nods to Asia and Harlem, Warin enlisted the help of Christophe Bonnegrace, former chef at the West Village's La Villette. There's nothing mind-blowingly creative or overly complex here, just simple things done well. It's the kind of food my wife and I would eat on an impromptu weeknight, or perhaps alone with a book and a glass of wine on a Saturday afternoon. The wine selection, by the way, is easily best in neighborhood both in terms of absolute quality and bang for the buck with dozens of glasses available in the $9 to $15 range.
I think there's a law that requires every restaurant in Harlem to serve macaroni and cheese, which wouldn't be bad if it were all as good as Barawine's. Their Macaroni, Ham, and Cheese ($12) is worth breaking promises for. Pasta shells cooked to just past al dente (as macaroni and cheese should be), are tossed with bits of fatty French ham and flecks of black truffle, with just enough bechamel to bind the massive amounts of gruyère that tie the thing together. In five visits to the restaurant, I've never seen a neighboring table not order it.
A crown of finely shredded arugula tops a simple salad of Roasted Beets and Boursin Cheese ($13) with bits of charred corn and a hazelnut vinaigrette. It's a little surprising this day and age to find a modern restaurant that doesn't stick to the seasonal mantra, but the corn is plenty sweet and flavorful. Corn makes another appearance in the Spicy Corn and Poblano Soup ($9). Sweet, not-too-thick, and packed with fresh corn flavor, it'd be perfect in the summer, but does just fine in the winter too.
A bit more appropriate for mid-January is their French Onion Soup ($9). I've been enjoying the recent resurgence of classic French Onion Soup in New York restaurants, and Barawine's is about as classic as you can get, with a rich beef broth, sweet, melting onions, and a crisp crouton with a cap of gratineed gruyère.
The menu's at it's best when it sticks to classic French bistro fare. A perfectly cooked Hanger Steak ($24) comes a buttery medium-rare with roasted potatoes and shallots in its own jus. It's all you could ask for in a bistro steak, and the Roasted Duck Breast ($25) is all you could ask for in a bistro duck. Barawine uses a magret, the extra thick and fatty breast of a foie gras duck and serves it with a bright and jammy port wine sauce. The lentils it comes with are uninspired, but who cares when the duck is so tasty?
There are few real duds on the menu. The closest you'll get is a Fluke Ceviche ($13), which is fresh but dull, with none of the promised citrus or ponzu flavor. If you need a raw protein fix, you'll do much better with the Beef Carpaccio ($14) or the Beef Tartare ($15), both of which are bright, meaty. Eating them reminds me of why these dishes are classics.
The Lobster Carpaccio is similarly delicious. Tender, paper-thin slices of lobster is served with a bright mayonnaise flavored with piment d'espelette.
Also skippable: the Peruvian Pink Scallops ($16), which are cooked just fine, but come with ratatouille and a raw tomato sauce, two preparations which don't work with insipid winter tomatoes. Those same tomatoes are easier to push aside on the Branzino Provençal ($26), which is served pan-seared, crisp-skinned, and perfectly moist with asparagus, black olives, and some excellent olive oil.
On the dessert front, there's always a selection of pastries from François Payard (as the owner told us over dinner once "François takes care of his own"), a fruit tart, a sabayon, an intense vegan chocolate mousse (served with unfortunately forgettable vegan doughnuts), and a great chocolate bombe (which recently replaced an equally good tiramisu).
More than anything, it's the smiling, easy, comfortable service and reasonable prices that have brought me back here several times over the last few weeks. There are other great restaurants in the neighborhood (and more all the time), but none that have made me feel as comfortable or offer the same kind of value for someone who enjoys good wine and good food. I hope this is the beginning of a trend.
Barawine is not the kind of restaurant you'd ride the 2/3 line up to dine at if you live downtown—which is good news for folks like me who enjoy that rare New York experience of being able to walk into a restaurant un-announced on a Thursday night and enjoy a fantastic meal without the hassle of a long wait or shoulder-bumping. It's the kind of restaurant that makes me happy to live in Harlem.
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.