French-Vietnamese Fusion Done Right, a Soho Gem in Rouge et Blanc
Imagine someone caught squid off the Southeast Asian Peninsula and sent it to be cooked in the French Riviera. Say, for example, turkey legs were smoked and served with blue cheese potatoes, Thai chilies, and hot sauce. Or maybe it's easier to picture kale picking up its popular stateside show and moving east, with broccoli in its bindle. Such is the case at Rouge et Blanc, the four-year-old restaurant on MacDougal Street where Macks Collins cooks with one foot in France and the other in Vietnam.
The vibrant, oft salty and spicy flavors of Southeast Asia can command the room, as they do in a plate of Crispy Broccoli and Kale ($9). Florets are oven-roasted until their stalks soften and canopies brown. Roasted kale covers the broccoli like a pile of November leaves. Both vegetables, tired actors really, could win awards under the direction of yuzukosho, a fermented paste made from yuzu peel, chilies, and salt.
Sometimes the French accent dominates, like when Collins sends brick-sized pieces of toasted Grandaisy bread smothered in a whole grain mustard tangy enough to wrinkle brows and bring cheeks together. The bread comes with House-Made Sausage ($17) and goes with everything on the plate. Whether it's fresh goat milk ricotta, cornichons, honey vinaigrette, or the medallions of lamb sausage Collins sneaks a bit of offal into. You may want a bitter pilsner to wash it all down, but a glass of Vin Passion ($12) from Château du Champ des Treilles, with its sharp acidity, is just as refreshing.
Thomas Cregan, the owner of Rouge et Blanc, built the all-French wine list. He also took our order; excusing himself from the guest he was enjoying wine with by a window looking out onto MacDougal Street to do so. The Grilled Squid ($16), he explained after an inquiry, had a bit of spice. The heat hides in a ring of pork neck ragu that's been cooked with Thai bird and Calabrian chilies, lemongrass, tomato, and ginger. A salad of squid, pickled onions, potato chips, dill, and Thai basil crowns the ragu, which is sautéed with a few Shitakes to order. And how well dill and squid play. Those chips are a needed textural element. The squid—bodies grilled, tentacles dusted in cornmeal and flash fried—is tender and delicate. Pickled onions have a soft snap and fresh herbs gently tear.
Raw enoki mushrooms look like fish tank decor. When roasted, they look like something you'll find on Vietnamese Beef Cheeks ($29) at Rouge et Blanc. They're good, but you'll want to brush them aside to watch those cheeks fall apart when you jab your fork in. The flatbread served with the dish is an ode to "one of my favorite things to eat of all time," Collins says, referring to a Caribbean dish of curried goat and green papaya, or paw paw, that's served with whole wheat roti. "I wanted to do something like that but in a Vietnamese way." So he dresses the papaya with nước mắm and braises the beef cheeks in chicken stock with chilies, lemongrass, cumin, and star anise. Shanghai-style rice cakes fit the theme. Peanuts and cilantro seal the deal. If you order to share, plan on fighting over the last bite.
Worldly influences infiltrate the menu, but the room, with low ceilings, dark oak, and intricacies in embroidery and woodwork, suggests a Vietnamese den. On my visit it never got packed, or too loud, or hectic. The pace was slowed down. Which is fine, because debating what you'll order may take time. Once you do, there's no hurry. Courses came out one at a time. We hadn't asked for it that way, but that's the way it's done at Rouge et Blanc.