(New York, NY) There is something magical about New York City. It might have to do with the mythological landscape, the incredible bustle of activity, or how lucky we get with the weather every time we visit. This trip is no exception. I shed my coat and enjoy near-70 degree sunshine in Central Park before hoofing it two miles for my solo lunch appointment (Juliet is tied up with business) at Les Halles. I am anxious to find out if Anthony Bourdain’s French brasserie stands up to scrutiny, or succumbs to cliché...
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From the outside, Les Halles represents that pitch-perfect brasserie you’d find on almost any street in Paris. Many people in dark glasses are clogging the patio tables, enjoying the sun under sheltering umbrellas. I doubt I’ll be able to score one of these seats, but that’s okay. I’m a bit sweaty after my two mile jaunt.
A smiling hostess greets me just inside, where all is dark wood and cool comfort. She leads me all the way in the back to a small table, where I squeeze into a booth seat. I do find it curious that I’ve been given a place tucked away, but don’t dwell on it. (As I experience later, this seems to be a theme for nearly all of our OpenTable reservations. Are restaurants segregating us, or is it my rampant paranoia?) In fact, it’s nice to be somewhat secluded and I get better shots of the restaurant.
My server arrives to ask if I’d like anything to drink. Heck yes! I need water after the long walk and some sparkling rosé to stir the palate. He brings me a pink wine and I take a sip. No bubbles? Maybe I ordered the wrong thing or he didn’t hear me correctly. A young lady who looks like the assistant manager sees my look of consternation. “Are you ready to order?” After I query which is better–the grilled calamari or the braised octopus–I ask if I’ve been given the sparkling rosé. Nope. She takes it away, and moments later my waiter is back with the real thing, all apologies. No harm done.
In no time at all, the braised octopus (her recommendation) comes out of the kitchen. I had expected some unique preparation or different cuts of tentacles, but these seem to be simple unbreaded calamari in a dark sauce. The sauce is amazing, with tomato, black olives, onion, and wine. The octopuses are a bit overcooked, however. I chew (and chew and chew) them half-heartedly before sopping up the sauce with the delicious French bread slices.
Then my one true love comes calling: Croque Madame. Ever since I had a slice of Juliet’s sandwich in Las Vegas, I’ve wanted my own. Ham and melted Gruyere between grilled pieces of bread, over which a sunny-side-up fried egg has been carefully perched, so that when you slice down the middle, the yolk runs into the center, coating everything in silky smooth golden richness. After the first bite, the octopus is forgotten. Salty, ephemeral ham mixes with slightly crispy cheese and butter-soaked bread. I am transported back to France and nearly giggling with delight like a love-stricken schoolgirl. The pommes frites are likewise amazing: evenly cut, crispy exterior, creamy potato interior, perfection.
There is some confusion over a glass of Côtes du Rhône I order with another server, who checked up on me when my waiter was otherwise engaged...but then he comes back to ask if I’d like anything else to drink while I’m still waiting for the wine. I get the distinct feeling that (a) he’s new, (b) he’s avoiding me, (c) there’s not much communication between staff. The confusion intensifies when another gentleman, who I take to be the manager, asks if I’d like dessert. No way, I think. I’ve got a big dinner tonight and more meals over the weekend. No way I’m ordering dessert. “What do you have?” I hear myself asking. Must be the wine talking.
Not long after this revolt of my splintered psyche, dessert arrives in the form of a traditional apple tart with vanilla ice cream on top. This is something Juliet would order, ordinarily. Maybe she’ll be jealous when she hears about it. It is warm and comforting...much in the way that Les Halles must be to some folks who yearn for straightforward Parisian fare. There’s nothing fancy going on here and despite some server incongruities, I’d love to try Bourdain’s old haunt for dinner (or breakfast!) sometime when I’m next in Manhattan.