Play that game where you try to rapidly list all of Danny Meyer’s restaurants, and chances are that recalling North End Grill happens last, if at all. Though it’s been around for years, it’s often overlooked on the edge of Manhattan’s Battery Park City, where it occupies a large dining room that is catalog-model handsome: well-groomed, cartoonishly attractive, and forgettable.
Still, there are many reasons to go. Last week, amid the nasty, post-blizzard slush, mine was the French onion soup. Oh sure, you know what to expect when it comes to French onion soup: some kind of fortifying, burly liquor of beef stock and onions pressed under the substantial weight of melted cheese on bread. This one went above and beyond all reasonable expectations. The broth was as pale as sunshine through clouds, thin but tenacious. And there, in the center, shining gloriously and dripping with melted fat, was a roasted bone full of hot marrow. You could spoon some out onto the cheesy toast or mash it like softened butter into the onions and thyme leaves along the edge of the dish. It was messy business, but the bowl was anchored with a folded napkin to minimize disaster.
This sort of straightforward, generous, user-friendly cooking has become North End Grill’s strong suit. It was amplified last week, when the bar served an abbreviated menu of bistro standards for a French-themed popup while the main dining room closed to build a new private dining room. Eric Korsh’s eloquent American variants on French cooking at North End Grill often feel like luxuries.
Take the lovingly rendered oeuf en meurette, which appears leaner and prettier than the version you’d find at a bistro in Burgundy, where the dish originated, but still maintains the intensity and charm of the original. The duck egg is poached softly, so the yolk spills into a dark moat of mellow red wine sauce, thickening it and giving you something to really mop up with the softened toast. The mushrooms are fairy-wing thin. Atop it all is a flutter of black truffles. This is hefty winter sustenance, somehow made elegant.
Korsh has been streamlining the menu since he joined two years ago. (Since the restaurant opened in 2012, Floyd Cardoz had been chef.) Now you’ll find that the open kitchen and its oak wood-burning grills and mesquite charcoal-fueled ovens are turning out excellent, simple compositions—exquisite whole fish on the bone, thick, juicy pork chops, and sardines split open on toast under a confetti of celery leaves. An appetizer of two fat artichokes, served so you can pull them apart petal by petal and scrape the sweet, smoky meat off with your teeth, seems almost too hands-on for this posh, polished dining room. But this is one of its fundamental pleasures.
The restaurant draws all-male groups in suits for dinner and magazine editors from the World Trade Center for lunch. The bar area occasionally feels like an extension of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., especially late at night, when it’s packed with suits from nearby offices, shouting their reasons for marrying Asian and ordering whiskey and steak.
Although the restaurant is not a steakhouse, the kitchen knows how to cook one. The porterhouse for two, aged for a month at Pino's Prime Meat Market, is one of the more satisfying steaks I’ve had in ages, the meat fiercely brown and smoky, served mid-rare in a plate with its own running juice. Like many of the best dishes at North End Grill, the serving is dead-simple, just meat tweaked with time and fire and salt. That doesn’t mean you should skip things that don’t come from the grill, such as the fries crisped in duck fat, or a side of the French-style cheesy mashed potatoes known as pomme aligot, which stretches scientific law to hold more melted comté than seems possible.
Desserts were stronger, more modern and playful, when pastry chef Tracy Obolsky was in charge of them. (She has since moved on to Cookshop.) The desserts are fine now, just not so cheerful and lavish. Though you’re likely to find a baba au rhum, it’s not delivered as accurately as it used to be at Calliope, where Korsh cooked previously. The waiter splits the airy, warm brioche a little awkwardly by the table before dousing it in rum, then spoons over some whipped cream that was, on two occasions, over-whipped until it went tense and grainy. It was a rare mistake, magnified because the dish was so familiar. (As when your out-of-tune friend risks Whitney’s I Will Always Love You at karaoke).
Classics like the baba au rhum aren’t novel or cutting edge, but this is part of their allure. It’s easy to forget that a restaurant such as North End Grill — where you can count on the standards being sung gracefully, most often in perfect tune — is rare.
North End Grill is at 104 North End Avenue (Battery Park City); +1 (646) 747-1600 or northendgrillnyc.com
Rating: Two Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Beef Carpaccio ($17); Duck egg in red wine sauce ($19); Wood-grilled sardines ($16); Charcuterie (especially the trotter torchon and the country pâté with pistachios); French onion soup ($15); Porterhouse for two ($118)