Like so many New Yorkers, Lina Frey was born elsewhere. In her case, Alsace, France, in 1903. With hope and luck, tenacity and perseverance, she made her way to the Lower East Side, with help from her grandson, formerly of Boucarou, and, as is the case with lots of newcomers these days, a fashion stylist.
Together, the two poured through her recipes, cribbing classics like duck leg confit and steak tartar, then modernizing them by shrinking portions and serving the sides separately. Finally, they set her up in an airy space, with tiny purple buds poking out of copper pipe fittings and a polished tin ceiling. And the transformation was complete, from stodgy to scenster, and Lina Frey the restaurant was born.
Our grilled baguette ($3) featured fennel, black olives, and red and green peppers. Time in the broiler rendered the bread super-chewy, though the toppings gave the appetizer its true flavor profile: frozen pizza. Bite after bite, and we became convinced that Stouffers had burrowed into Madame Frey's cache for its French bread pizza with sausage. Not possible, we assured each other, and yet...
As we wondered, we looked around the industrial chic dining room, focusing on the immense retractable skylight. In winter, the skylight gets decorated to resemble a chimney; in summer it's au naturel and gorgeous. We sat near the restaurant's front, alongside windows open onto Houston, on wire furniture that could work in someone's garden. Elsewhere, the communal tables' chairs were silver, the floor polished and probably concrete. Noisy at times, no doubt, but that night the restaurant felt like a respite from all that's hectic about the city.
The baby back ribs ($12) had been braised. They were neither the best we'd had, nor the worst. What made them disappear, though, was the small pot of port wine sauce, gravylike and sweet. As a side, we went for the truffle oil fries ($7). For that price, of course, we usually want our fries to sing and tap dance. These satisfied by virtue of their richness, for those who enjoy truffle oil; each shaved spud glistening and rich.
Our second accompagnement was a wonderful roasted cauliflower puree ($7). The veggie had been mashed with cheese and horseradish in various proportions, alternately yielding butteriness and sourness and just plain goodness. Perhaps this wouldn't work as a frozen entree, but if any packaged food companies are looking for more ideas, it might be a good place to start.
We're not sure what happened with the salmon with a mustard hazelnut crust ($14). We bent to inhale and smelled nothing. No thing at all. The sauces' pizazz came solely from their colors; the orange and green evoked only moisture. Although some garlic gave the crust a wee crunch, the dish failed. One more thing: the handful of tortilla chips came topped, curiously, with cocktail sauce. Yes, cocktail sauce.
"This... is not a letdown," one of us said, cutting into the nutella crepe ($7) and letting the warm filling ooze out. No, indeed. Instead, this dessert was pure creamy indulgence. And it suddenly became very hard to stay annoyed at the place who made it. We chalked the salmon-and-tortilla chip faux pas up to a rookie in the kitchen and tried to conjure several more crepes through sheer effort of imagination.
Sometimes you want bistro food without the from-a-kit decor, without all the brass that adorns most brasseries. Sometimes you want to eat out near where you'll be drinking later, without a lot of hoopla, where you can wear flip flops or Kelsi Daggers. While the plates never quite taste as good as the place looks, gentle prices make it worth a visit. Lina Frey is best for: respectable French that's served in style.
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