After 16 Years, Lucien French Bistro Still Has Plenty to Say

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[Photographs: Craig Cavallo]

The conversation starts shortly after you walk through a heavy red drape, dramatic and split in two like a stage curtain, hung by the door to keep the cold out. The room you enter is timeless, though over time, the walls at Lucien have succumbed to a collage of pictures. Jean-Luc Godard. Actors. Headshots. Famous folk. Introverts. Smiles. The only break in 8x10s is for the occasional Lillet advertisement and dusty mirror.

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Lucien is the sort of place you can go when you know what you want to eat, so long as what you want to eat is classic bistro fare. The menu is so joyously predictable someone should talk to Merriam-Webster about it. But there is great risk in running a menu like the one at Lucien. It's all about dialogue. The food needs to be articulate and speak to guests in special, intimate ways, less the whole concept prove hollow and soulless. Lucien opened in 1998. After 16 years, the restaurant's got a way with words.

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The dialogue comes in waves. First as triangles of lightly spiced Pâté Maison ($11) with snappy cornichons and pink peppercorns. A basket of warm bread is served in synch with your choice of water and its contents take to the creamy pate with risqué enthusiasm. Frisée aux Lardons ($14) are served on a plate that reminded me of something from Kenny Shopsin's kitchen: strangely decorated, oddly sized, and ambiguously kitschy. The plate, unlike the chilled one with the pâté, was the same temperature as the runny poached egg and chunks of rendered bacon.

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We turned to Salmon Tartare ($14) and Moroccan Merguez ($14). We talked about pieces of fresh pink fish chopped just right so that each once graciously melted on the tongue. Capers popped here and there and half a lemon was offered to draw out the fish's bright flavor.

The conversation was dry when polenta came up. A warm disc of it sat beneath two homemade lamb sausages that otherwise had plenty to say, charred on a hot grill with a balance of savory spices within. But yellow polenta seemed tired and in need of a bed. Either that or a pad of butter.

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There was one last thing I wanted to talk to Lucien about: Steak Frites ($28). The restaurant says the steak should only ever kiss the grill, really just as long as it takes to warm through. Frites aren't frites unless they're cut thin, fried hot, and salted well. Lucien serves a butter-based sauce with the steak frites. It's loaded with cracks of black pepper and hit with a dash of brandy before it comes off the stove. You might think there's too much of it given its richness, but you'll find yourself smashing the last of the frites into the ramekin's corners in search of the last drop.

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Lucien runs off an old, seemingly forgotten, formula from a time when nasturtium and nettles were just weeds. The food is reliable, seasoned well, and portioned with hunger in mind. It isn't necessarily progressive or trendy or challenging, but that's exactly why eating there is so great. A meal transpires with ease and no forced conversation. After all, 16 years is a long time to keep the talk going.

About the Author: Craig Cavallo is a writer with an addiction to New York City's food and drink. Learn more about his problem at digestny.com.

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