Why are we eating at Montmartre, a French brasserie in a city with too many French brasseries?
Because Gabe Stulman and Tien Ho are involved, that’s why.
Stulman is New York’s next Danny Meyer, a young restaurateur whose commitment to hospitality is nearly unrivaled in an era where service has become expendable.
And Tien is one of our best of carnivore cooks, a chef who does epic things with liver, beef and blood.
Don’t expect cornichons or pickles to cut the richness of shredded pork shoulder. Instead, Tien anoints the musky rillettes with creamy foie gras, a fat-on-fat preparation that’s equal parts deconstructed pate grand-mere and porky sundae.
There’s even a cherry on top, in the form of mostarda.
It’s all another victory for Stulman’s Little Wisco empire of affordable restaurants that includes Chez Sardine (Japanese-American), Perla (Italian), Fedora (eclectic), Jeffrey’s Grocery (oysters) and Joseph Leonard (American). They’re never empty.
Montmartre, in Chelsea, is the first Wisco spot outside the West Village. And after an inaugural month, it appeared as if it would be Stulman’s first failure. The kitchen was sending out bland rib steaks and over-salted lamb neck. Wasn’t pretty.
So Tien rebooted and started cooking a style of Asian- and North African-inflected French fare that sets him apart from the Pastis-Balthazar axis.
He gives us luscious black pudding ($14), a delicate sausage that tastes like the maroon stick of dynamite it resembles. That’s because Tien (late of Ma Peche) slicks the plate with Sichuan peppercorn vinaigrette.
He tosses raw Hamachi with apples, chili and kaffir, letting each element speak for itself before the fatty fish dissolves on the tongue. Monkfish, already rich, is suffused with the smoke of chorizo and the earthiness of maitake mushrooms.
Tien bombards moules frites with a heavy handful of clams to double the brine, then finishes it with coconut milk and cilantro. I don’t want mussels any other way, anywhere else.
This is luxurious food in a non-luxurious space. Montmartre looks about as wide as a commuter train car and feels about as comfortable. Stubby little wine tumblers hold a passable, not-quite-cellar temperature Cabernet ($12). And coupe glasses are the (incorrect) stems used for a nimble rose sparkler from the Loire ($12).
No Champagne by the glass, nothing over $89 on the short wine list. Sorry, banker buds; this is for the salary man and woman.
The “Mifflin Street Moonlight,” a mix of Meyer lemon vodka, strega, ginger and honey, has the right zip and zing to keep up with an Aleppo pepper and sumac-spiked quail ($17). Follow that up with beef tartare ($26), not too cold and cut from good Niman Ranch sirloin. What makes the dish great, however, is the fries.
Tien fortifies them with mustard, onion powder, salt and -- don’t cringe -- sugar. The sweet-salty spear is a Gallic analogue to American kettle corn. It will be copied around town in the coming months, but remember, you ate it here first.
Pot-au-feu ($44, for two) becomes pot-au-pho, with cinnamon-clove aromas coming off the beef and intense marrow-spiked broth. It’s loaded with oxtail richness and the clean spank of Thai basil that makes this hot soup okay for summer.
Duck for two ($78) is code for duck tacos, thanks to buckwheat pancakes. Giant slabs of roasted breast meat give way to your knife with ease, while braised leg practically shreds itself after a good stare. Your salsa? Braising liquid made with vadouvan, a French-Indian Indian spice mix.
Finish with coconut rice pudding ($10).
Stulman smooths Montmartre’s casual edges with light touches of fancy. Every guest receives an amuse, sometimes a deeply earthy mushroom ricotta. Every meal ends with a sweet, maybe a caramel chew with that invokes burnished creme brulee.
And every server, bartender and host appears to be genuinely excited to be working here. You leave Montmartre not just well-fed, but happy. Is it an act? I think it’s the tone set by the owners, a slightly hipper, let’s-have-a-beer inflection of Danny Meyer-style warmth. It’s evident at every Little Wisco restaurant. That’s no small feat.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Most dishes $34 or less.
Sound Level: Bustling, around 75 decibels.
Date Place: Depends on how you feel about cramped quarters.
Inside Tip: Skip the ho-hum pork chop and one-note chicken.
Special Feature: Free bread.
Back on my own dime? Yes, especially when the garden opens.
Montmartre is at 158 Eighth Avenue. Information: +1-646-596-8838; http://montmartrenyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)
Muse highlights include Scene and books.