"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Les Halles - December 10, 2010

I have never watched "No Reservations," nor have I read “Kitchen Confidential.” I avoid TV personalities-cum-chefs, who invariably seem to be more interested in being celebrities than cooking good food. If a chef wants to make money, and by all means they have the right to as anyone else, what should they do? To that question, I have no answer. Cooking is an art; it is a performance art. Therefore, by definition, it is ephemeral and evanescent, and of course, being such, it cannot truly be mass-reproduced (the reason why Hollywood films are such a waste of every resource conceivable). Then, why was I interested in dining at Les Halles, a place filled by either Bourdain-worshippers or after-work crowd? My dormant interest stems back many years when my favorite waiter at my favorite brasserie in Tokyo (Aux Bacchanales) moved to Les Halles, Tokyo. There had to be reason for the move, no? (Or just money?)

Encornets Grillés, Crudité de Fenouil (grilled calamari mixed with fennel and tomato)

I confess that I ordered this dish only in anticipation of two beef entrees (my dining companion often delegates the ordering to the expert), and it turned out to be one of the rare happy occasions when your low expectations were surpassed by the actual dish. The lightly grilled calamari had a nice chew, while the fennel supplied the jovial crunches. Dressed with tomatoes, the dish was a light, pleasant start for the upcoming beef.

Poulpes à la Sètoise (braised octopus with tomato and black olives)

Had I known that “pulpes” would be baby octopuses, I would have forgone the dish. There perhaps is a misconception that “baby“ anything will somehow transform the dish into something more sophisticated. Take human babies; they are nowhere near any form of sophistication (except for, perhaps, baby Dalai Lama). Some big, meaty and mature octopus legs would have fared much better for this type of endurance preparation. On the other hand, since babies are tender, babies need a great deal of care and soft touch. Hence, when you take half a dozen of baby octopuses and braised them in a mysterious brown liquid, the result is some rubbery specimens akin to those preserved “things” in formaldehyde, and just as appetizing and palatable.

Paleron, Sauce au Poive Vert (flatiron steak, green peppercorn sauce)

Isn’t this just a bistro classic? Since Les Halles is so confident of their meats that they even sell them right in the restaurant, wouldn’t your hopes be raised to a dizzying height? Well, the reality is, low follows high. The meat was adequate and average; it did not have a great marbling as flatirons usually do. The meat notwithstanding, the most crucial part is the sauce. Nonetheless, my favorite sauce, poive vert, seemed to have caught a cold; for it had a nasal ambivalence where it should have been piquant, which might be explained by either stale peppercorns or simply the fewness of them in the small ramkin.

Steak tartare, Frites (lean top round ground to order, prepared tableside)

When the condiment cart was wheeled over, the whole table turned their heads sharply. This was promising. A steak tartare, without the inseparable condiments – and I mean, all of them, not just some half-hearted onions and black pepper – is as exciting as a Santa without the presents. You just cannot neglect the condiments; after all, you are consuming that much raw beef so that you need something strong to help you along the way, no? Take sushi, the pungent wasabi, acidic vinegar and spicy pickled ginger were all there as preservatives to fight off some curious and greedy parasites, not to mention, to spice up the rather basic ingredients a little. In any case, following the cart, a tall man in black showed up to perform the mixing. I suppose this is the “cooking” part of the dish so I should entrust it to the restaurant, but in all honesty, I would have preferred to do it myself, especially in a bistro located within the United States.

As it is the rule in life, your worst fear always turns out to be correct. The tartare was over-seasoned: All the garnishes should have been halved, from anchovies to onions. The beef itself was lean, which was good, but it lacked flavor, which was not good. I have encountered on several occasions recently this strange phenomenon of empty, watery beef. Is grass-feeding taking the backbone out of beef? No, that cannot be right because the Costa Rican and Argentine cows, grazing on skimpy-looking grass, seemed to proclaim its bovine identity just fine even when they are dead.

Now the fries, the partner of all beef dishes, are an integral part of steak tartare, or just about any steak. The memory of the fries at Le Paul Bert is still fresh in my memory to this day – crispy on the outside with a surprising inside which was firm and soft at the same time, even a little viscous; and the flavor! salty and yet deeply sweet. A wonderful bistro in Buenos Aires (Petanque) came close in its selection of potatoes but fell short in its execution of the potatoes. Les Halles was close to neither; the potatoes were regular Yukon and fried thoroughly crispy inside out. The fries, which had more characteristics in common with kettle cooked chips, were not inedible; in fact, if they were cut as chips, I would have appreciated them more. However, complementing the steak tartare and the steak, they did absolutely not.

CRÊPES SUZETTE (Crêpes prepared and “flambéed” with Grand Marnier table side)

The preparation, again done at table, was a delightful performance. You will appreciate the effort the restaurant has put into its showmanship (in honor of its iconic executive chef?) – a squeeze of orange juice, a dash of Grand Marnier. But, it was too sweet, without a hint of tanginess to balance it off. Two bites of the crepe and my blood vessels called it quits.

Les Halles
Address: 411 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016
Phone: (212) 679-4111

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