Rebelle, newly opened on the Bowery, has an effortless, new wave, French bistro thing going on that could easily make it blur into all of the other Francophile restaurants currently big on duck a l’orange and ile flottante. Instead, it shines brighter than the lot of them. That’s because the food at Rebelle is fresh and modern, referring to the Parisian bistro without a hint of blurry eyed nostalgia. And when a restaurant refuses to be sentimental, it can get on with more exciting things.
Take the wildly delicious chicken: a slender compression of dark and white meat with crisp, golden skin. To make it, a whole bird has been deboned and roasted, then poached in tarragon-infused butter. It comes with a few potatoes made tender in rendered chicken fat and drippings, a dab of preserved lemon, and a puddle of sauce running through it all, like a fine chicken liqueur. That's it. The flavors are rich but mellow, and—as with perfect Parisian rotisserie—so cozy it’s not always clear where the meat ends and the potatoes begin.
Rebelle means—yes, obviously—rebel, but there’s nothing hostile about the service or food. Rebelle’s resistance is subtle, against clichés. Although the restaurant is run by Americans, it’s French in a way that sets it apart from more nostalgic French-American joints, such as Keith McNally’s Cherche Midi, or Major Food Group’s Dirty French. There are no cheesy, Disney-fied gestures at Frenchness, no swirling fonts or gilded mirrors to confirm the outdated image of a Parisian bistro. Instead there is a short list of consistently good food and warm, unobtrusive service in a spare, high-ceilinged dining room.
The lamb tartare, with green chickpeas and capers, is clean and bright, with a soft, almost floral acidity. The sweetbreads, served in big pieces under a glaze of lobster sauce, get across their luxurious texture but don't carry any extra weight. You’ll find leeks vinaigrette: cold sliced leeks with a round, bright mustard sauce and broken-up soft boiled eggs. It’s a bistro standard—but so good here, you'll feel like you're meeting it for the first time. Not because of the smoky garnish, those feathers of char on top. It's because Rebelle’s kitchen is smart and sophisticated, running with energy, rigor, and style.
It might not come as a surprise that the chef, 32-year-old New Yorker Daniel Eddy, previously worked at Spring in Paris, an American-owned bistro in the 1st arrondissement. And Rebelle's owners, Patrick Cappiello and Branden McRill, come from Pearl & Ash, just next door. Cappiello’s style of wine service is unceremonious and unstuffy, easy to enjoy—especially if you aren’t dipping into the four-figure grand crus, and you allow him to lead you toward scrappier, more interesting bottles such as a $44 Gamay from Edmunds St. John in California.
There are a few seats at a wide marble counter overlooking the kitchen, which is set back and slightly lower, so you can look in without quite being in trenches. Things are smooth and professional but, like the rest of the dining room, aggressively casual: When you order something the waiter likes, he’s likely to nod with approval while writing it down and say, “Yeah, good move! Ooh, yeah!”
Some cooks swear by thermometers and timers, others push their fingertips into a slab of meat to guess at the rareness inside. In a more intimate gesture, the meat cook at Rebelle, his arms striped with scars, pulls a fine steel skewer from a whole pork loin and runs the metal along his lips. A thermometer would give him the temperature of one point in the loin, but the range of heat on the needle tells him more. That is how he knows it needs a little more time in the oven before it rests, before he slices it, before it comes out to the dining room on a jumble of garlic scapes and spring onions with a roll of fried head cheese.
I rarely suggest the cheese course because it often doesn’t show off a kitchen’s skill, but the one at Rebelle really deserves your attention: wide, milk-pale ribbons of raw Comté that dissolve like savory crystals on your tongue. There is an option to get a glass of oxidized white wine from the Jura region of France with this. Unless you have to be somewhere extremely important, you should definitely get it—and take your time.
With cheese this good, you could skip the bread entirely, but give it at least a taste—the chewy sourdough comes from Austin Hall at She Wolf, and he's one of the best bakers in New York. Go for a stroll before getting to the dessert course, and you’ll notice the entrance to the bathrooms, off in a corridor, are decorated with old portraits of food heroes and American Francophiles. (Julia Child is on the ladies room entrance, James Beard on the gents'.)
The Saint Honore dessert is very pretty, but the pastry is a bit tight, tougher than it should be. The apricot is a more exciting option, with a dense ice cream made from an infusion of the crushed-up pits, and diced raw fruit—an apricot-plum hybrid—tart, with a fleece of fuzz. The cherry clafoutis is what you’d get at a great home cook’s dinner party in France, family style, delicious. The custard is tender, pulled from the oven before it considers cracking along the top. The sour Rainier cherries have plumped and softened. At the edges of the pan, all the juice has caramelized. Rebelle's update is almost imperceptible here, but you'll be grateful for it: Against tradition, the cherries baked into the dessert have been pitted.
Rebelle is at 218 Bowery (Nolita); +1 (917) 639-3880 or rebellenyc.com
Rating: Three Stars (Excellent)
What to Order: Leek vinaigrette ($12); Lamb tartare ($12); Sweetbreads with artichokes ($16); Chicken with potatoes and sorrel ($24); Pork with headcheese ($24); Duck breast with smoked almonds ($24); Comte cheese course; Cherry clafoutis
Who’s Next to You: Eager young couples at the chef’s counter; Wine nerds in linen suits; Wine nerds in sneakers and jean shorts
Need to Know: The menu is divided into four unnamed sections, and you’ll be gently encouraged to order a dish from each. If you’re planning to order an extra course, such as the chilled foie gras torchon with fried toasts or the excellent cheese course, you could easily skip one of the four categories. And if you just want a quick dinner: steak bordelaise and a glass of wine at the bar will do you nicely.
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