There may be a great French-Mediterranean restaurant in New York City, but I’ve yet to find it. Sorry.
That’s what I realized while steaming my face over awful bouillabaisse at the otherwise impressive La Mangeoire. The $120 botch preceded my sampling of the same Marseillaise seafood stew at Plein Sud, whose version was awfully boring.
This is an odd culinary deficiency. We love the Cote D’Azur; how else explain Delta’s consistently packed flights from JFK to Nice? We have no aversion to tomatoes, fennel or lavender; the latter, Provence’s signature perfume, is served in no fewer than 90 New York restaurants, a search on Menupages.com tells me.
Yet our city’s only outstanding Mediterranean spot, Marea, is Italian. So the brodetto di pesce available here is better than the local bourride, a soup I fell in love with at Soho’s old Provence, whose new owners have since turned it into an American joint.
Maybe this is why the dowager La Mangeoire on Second Avenue is overcrowded. Or perhaps it’s because the guy who’s been cooking France’s sunny southern cuisine here since last October is none other than Christian Delouvrier, the talented chef who followed Gray Kunz at the late, lamented Lespinasse and worked for Alain Ducasse at the late, unlamented Essex House.
The pedigree is clear when sopping up La Mangeoire’s heady, veal-jus coated snails or when devouring a trio of sardines; the rich fish lie over a deeply concentrated tomato confit.
Delouvrier’s laurels are less clear with the bouillabaisse, which we were told must be ordered four days in advance, for four people or more, at $30 per person. I persuaded the place to serve it to on a mere 48 hours’ notice and the owner now says they could even do it for just two people.
Why the advance hoops to flip through? Would the chef import scorpionfish, sea robin and conger eel, the traditional ingredients native to Marseille? Would an intoxicating saffron broth be served separately with garlicky rouille?
No. And no. What we got looked like any stew from any fish shack anywhere but Marseille. Everything was in individual bowls: a pile of clams, shrimp and mussels along with loup de mer, monkfish and snapper, cooked to blandness. Intoxicating, to be sure: The soup stung of so much Pernod we would’ve failed sobriety tests. It wasn’t pleasant.
Far better -- indeed, very good -- was the Provencal fare we didn’t need to order ahead of time. I’m not quite inclined to say “the best” because a stellar crayfish soup doesn’t taste quite as stellar when a waiter is smoking next to you by the al fresco seats.
How very French. At least the bold, in your-face ingredients stood up to the fumes. Salty crab is stuffed into herbaceous zucchini blossoms. Salmon rillettes exude a clean, oily taste of fresh brine. Baby squid are paired with pine nuts. Not enough flavor? All tables get free ramekins of anchovy oil. And $13.50 seafood soup is so redolent of the Mediterranean you’ll be seeing azure blue.
You don’t expect to find a star of Delouvrier’s wattage at a neighborhood bistro, and you may also wonder how much longer Ed Cotton, a finalist on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” will keep faking it at Plein Sud in Tribeca’s Smyth hotel. I ate there so you don’t have to.
Plein Sud is a southern French spot that’s neither entirely southern nor French. There is, after all, a hamburger on the menu; the tough, flavorless patty arrived medium-well and stuffed with cheesy goop. Does a forgettable steak tartare or coq au vin evoke Cannes? Thai-style mussels mimicked the ones I often eat in Syosset, Long Island.
Since opening back in April, Cotton has 86-ed his gluey egg noodles. That’s good. The replacement: undersalted rigatoni with merguez sausage in a supermarket-quality sauce. That’s bad. AvroKO must’ve designed the non-descript, banquette-laden space with rotating tenants in mind. Not a bad idea after trying the $34 bouillabaisse. The broth was well-balanced but Cotton leached all the flavor out of everything else. The red mullet was bland, the potatoes were mushy and the shrimp tasted as if they’d been plucked fresh out of a freezer bag.
Can I finish with a tarte Tropezienne? Sorry, no longer on the menu. I’ll have to take that Delta redeye to Nice.
Ratings: La Mangeoire: **. Plein Sud: 1/2 star.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most dishes under $30 at both.
Sound Level: Moderate, around 70 decibels at both.
Date Place? Yes for La Mangeoire.
Inside tip: La Mangeoire offers smaller, cheaper portions of most entrees; try the 7-ounce, $22 steak frites au poivre.
Special feature: When the oven works, Plein Sud bakes flatbread pizzas.
Will I be back: To La Mangeoire.
La Mangeoire is at 1008 Second Avenue at E. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-759-7086; http://www.lamangeoire.com
Plein Sud is at 85 West Broadway. Information: +1-212-204-5555; http://pleinsudnyc.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)