Sunday, April 22, 2007

Une nuit à Marseilles

Dining out in New York City is so difficult.

I know, don’t I sound like a spoiled princess?

But what I really mean is that there are so many options—way too many, especially when you’re just in town for a couple of days. OpenTable alone lists 737 restaurants, and of course there are many more that aren’t part of that system.

So do you try something new each time, or go back to a place you’ve been before because you want to try everything on the menu?

We’ve pretty much fallen into the former category. There was a time when every NYC trip had to include a visit to
Les Halles, but then Bourdain became too big and they couldn’t keep up with demand (on our last visit, they kept us waiting until 10pm for an 8 o'clock reservation). And we figured, hey, there are plenty more French restos in town.

So last night we went to
Marseilles (the restaurant, not the city). Given its location so close to Africa (the city, not the restaurant), the local cuisine is a blend of classic French, Mediterranean and Moroccan influences. And the menu at the place on 44th and 9th was a creative take on this cultural mix.

The interior is typical French bistro: weathered mirrors, oversized-globe Deco lighting, an artfully lit and inviting bar. In the center of the room, red leather booths form a circle around an impressive pillar and break up the large space, making it feel smaller and more intimate.

When we arrived it was pretty quiet—surprising for 8pm on a suddenly warm Saturday—but the tables filled up quickly. We were between two parties of four, which would have driven me nuts, but the room was loud enough to drown out most conversation (though I did have the pleasure of listening to the guy at the next table tell his friend, in detail, where both veal and foie gras come from).

We started with cocktails: a Marseilles Martini for The Boy and a Pamplemousse for me. I don’t normally go for drinks with salted rims, but the salt brought out the sweet-tartness of the grapefruit juice in a way I didn’t expect.

For the app, we shared marinated sardines, grilled and chilled and served with a Meyer lemon curd, raisins, walnut panko and thin curls of raw leek, each ingredient serving as a pleasant foil, in taste and texture, to the next.

And then The Boy went for the short ribs, which came as a single chunk of meat—seemingly formidable, but actually fall-apart fork-tender—on a bed of root vegetables with a thick slice of cheesy Roman gnocchi. And I ordered Saturday’s plat du jour, the duck couscous.

I was expecting a plate of meat and veggies and couscous piled up together, where the only way to pick up all the flavor is by wading through the grains. What I got was a deep bowl of duck stew, with generous chunks of tender meat, baby onions, asparagus and cashews in a rich, dark broth, all topped with fresh cilantro, which brought a bright, lively touch to the complex flavor. The couscous came on the side, so I could add it as I went along, soaking up as much broth as I wanted without it all disappearing into the starch.

We weren’t going to have dessert, but then we saw that the poached pear came with olive oil ice-cream. How often do you get the chance? So we went for it. The olive flavor came through convincingly, and worked pretty well, but the texture was a little heavy, with slightly too much emulsion and slick oiliness. As The Boy said, you wouldn’t want to eat a bowlful, but as a sidekick to the pear (poached in white wine and finished with a red wine sauce) it was just enough.

Would we go back there? The Boy says yeah, it was really good. I liked it a lot, but there are more than 700 other restaurants to try. And we can only do one a night.

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