268 West Broadway, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-925-1600; barartisanal.com
Service: A little disorganized at this point (but it is early)
Setting: Airy brasserie with high ceilings, big windows, and ceiling fans
Compare It To: Artisanal, Bar Boulud
Must-Haves: Lamb burger, grilled lamb chops (if you like lamb), razor clams, watermelon goat feta, tapenade,
Cost: You can easily eat well for $35 to $40 a person, including a glass of wine, tax, and tip
Terrance Brennan, the chef-restaurateur who is the guiding force behind Picholine and Artisanal, feels our collective economic downturn-generated pain. He wants serious eaters to be able to enjoy his food without running up too high a tab. And he's always wanted to do something downtown. Enter a group of Terence Brennan partners and investors who were not faring well with Trigo, their Italian restaurant in Tribeca. Thus was Bar Artisanal born, the ultimate marriage of restaurateur-chef-investor convenience, a quickie culinary marriage as it were.
The promise of an everyday affordable Tribeca restaurant serving Brennan's classically French-derived but contemporary food was just too tempting for the serious eaters to pass up, so Robyn, Erin, and I hopped on the subway to see if Brennan's budget-conscious food could successfully make the transition to small plates in a downtown setting, to what Brennan himself has described as a French Casa Mono.
Bar Artisanal is in a vast space (unlike the teeny tiny Casa Mono) with floor-to-ceiling, multi-paned windows, lots of wrought iron lattice work, and black-and-white tile floors. The long bar features free chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cut from a huge wheel of the stuff sitting atop a gorgeous wooden table imported from Italy. Chunks of great cheese instead of cubes of commercial cheddar or Jarlsberg. Nothing wrong with that.
Brennan knows more than just about anyone else about artisanal cheese, so he has wisely made cheese one of the stars of the show at Bar Artisanal. Here he sells artisanal cheeses by the piece ($4.50) or by the platter ($30 to $45). Manchego beignets ($9) sound great, but were surprisingly dull and lifeless. Grilled cheese bites ($8) are simply slices of a fine grilled cheese sandwich. Chickpea frites ($9), served with tapenade, could have been crispier.
Tender razor clams, each about four inches long were absolutely delicious in a garlic parsley pistou on top of a piece of grilled country bread. Seriously delicious! They just took them off the menu, which is a shame.
A plate of watermelon, goat feta, and tapenade ($10) reminded me once again what a truly felicitous combination watermelon and feta cheese are.
The gas-fired pizza oven here is turning out pissaladieres, oblong Provençal pizzas. A classic pissaladiere ($12) features caramelized onion, anchovy, and I should have ordered that one as the litmus test, but instead we opted for a mighty tasty version made with sheep's milk ricotta, fava bean pesto, and speck ($12). The crust needed salt and a little more lift, but the toppings were spot-on.
Lamb is one of the stars of the menu here, in many guises. The grilled New Zealand lamb chops ($16), served on an insanely rich Parmesan polenta and a bagna cauda, were tender and plenty lamb-y. Served with the polenta and a bagna cauda, these lamb chops represent a roundhouse right of a flavor punch.
It may sound hard to believe, but the lamb burger ($16), made with extraordinary ground American lamb shoulder mixed with Salumeria Biellese's merguez is even more of a flavor knockout punch. In case it needed a little more tang this lamb burger has a molten goat cheese center.
The desserts (all $8) were a little more elaborate and fanciful than what you would expect, though it was hard to fault any of them. Thin slices of candied fennel, olive oil ice cream, and crunchy pine nuts made up a fine Italian sundae, while the well-executed chocolate mousse, hazelnut crunch, and coffee granite was served with an unnecessary chocolate foam.
Freshly fried beignets, filled with a rich vanilla custard, came with a shot glass of a very berry raspberry shake.
The food at Bar Artisanal is almost always solid, even occasionally inspired, and packs a flavor wallop. Brennan has wisely enlisted the help of former Lever House chef (and James Beard Award winner for Best Chef, Southwest) Bradford Thompson, who will undoubtedly keep the food deeply flavorful and on course. Plus, those reasonable prices don't hurt. Sometimes quickie marriages do work out.
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