When it comes to dining out, it’s hard to beat a cosy French bistro. You know the food will be solid – classics such as roast chicken, white asparagus in season and côte de boeuf that really can’t be improved upon. At least, that was my thought process when heading to dinner at Tribeca’s recently launched Frenchette, an intimate restaurant from celebrated NYC chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson. The pair have been cooking together for two decades, running the kitchens at institutions like Balthazar, Minetta Lane and Pastis – and Frenchette marks their first departure from the fold of legendary restaurateur Keith McNally.
The first hurdle is securing a reservation because, as of now, Frenchette is only open for dinner, though breakfast and lunch are due to follow. Nasr and Hanson want to make sure that everything is perfectly timed, the dishes just so and the vibe convivial before moving to all-day service. On the evening of our visit, the crowd seemed to include young hipster locals, chic financiers and an eclectic assortment of tourists – in short, the varied mix that’s so emblematic of Manhattan.
The space is reminiscent of a traditional brasserie, but with a more design-led approach; leather banquettes are burnt orange with mahogany trim finishes, and the walls are exquisitely hand-painted. The overall effect is bright and buzzy, and the excitement in the bar area and bijou dining room amped up my appetite.
The pair draw on their roots – both trained at Daniel, and they are well versed in traditional French techniques – but there are many light touches that give the classics a lift. Pâté de foie ($16), for example, is served with port gelée and rhubarb. I loved the Mount Desert Island oysters ($20) with chipolatas, spiked with the herbaceous green mignognette flower. Lovers of meat and game are spoilt for choice with Elysian Fields lamb ($32) with a sauce paloise, and stewed rabbit ($36) with morels and egg noodles. I plumped for a tagine of couscous, artichokes, fava beans and preserved lemon ($21), which might have been the best dish of the night. There is a sharing theme here – there are quite a few “for two” options among the entrees, and what I’ll return for is the whole roasted turbot ($88) for two, which caught my eye on a nearby table.
One could easily make a mezze-like meal of the side dishes ($9 each), including delicious charred carrots with labneh, benne and za’atar, plates of shaved celeriac with hints of apple and walnut, and gnocchi Parisienne with a devilishly rich ham and Comté finish. To close, we chose the apple tart that headed up the dessert menu, an untraditional take on tarte tatin served in a sort of rustic slab form intended for further sharing.
The excellent food is matched by a jovial, relaxed atmosphere – there is no pretence, and there is much fun to be had in people watching. The wines are fashionably natural and light but relatively inexpensive (from $50), and thus encourage risk taking. Oh, and the French fries are simply outstanding – perfectly crisp and, of course, also served to share.