Like reports of Mark Twain’s death being greatly exaggerated, so too have been the pronouncements of the declining popularity of French cuisine worldwide.
Yet, New York abounds in a wide range of French restaurants with establishments both old and very, very brand new.
In the spirit of today’s holiday, Bastille Day, celebrated throughout France and by Francophiles around the globe, here are some of my favorite French restaurants in New York as they have developed through the years.
This blessed time warp opened in 1960 and remains a ringer for the sort of cozy, slightly dishabille very French bistros, like the Cafe Brittany, Paris Brest, Rey and Pierre, Champlain and Bonats, that used to thrive mostly along Ninth Avenue and in the Theater District in the 1940s and 1950s. Hang your coat on the entrance rack and flip through the copies of Le Figaro stacked on a nearby table. Then choose from the huge menu replete with authentic preparations of frogs legs, escargots, pâtés, coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, and, always, a choice of softly cooked sweetbreads or brains adrift in swirls of beurre noisette. The sublimely cool crème caramel is the best sign-off. While crowded for pre-theater dinners, Napoleon is more accessible for lunch.
The Upper East Side has been home to Quatorze Bis since 1990 and it is in a way a more stylish and updated Napoleon. The cafe-bistro has a smaller menu featuring many contemporary versions of classic dishes, plus a few of the house’s own creations. Top choices include terrines, cassoulet in season, always choucroute garnie, saucisson de Lyon, seafood sausage, calves liver with shallots, salmon in sauce Choron and all of the desserts one has a right to expect.
Bar Boulud by Daniel Boulud
Opened in 2007 by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, this is yet an even more modern version of the Napoleon. Trimly modern at Lincoln Center it is just the right, convenient spot for remarkable charcuterie, escargots, which if not in their former dramatic presentation remain totally delicious, to be followed by a light, flavorful coq au vin and, for me, boudin noir—the chubby black blood sausage that tops creamy pureed potatoes. The dish only could be improved by serving the sausage whole instead of sliced and, sadly, thereby eliminating the luscious squoosh as knife pierces the whole casing.
Benoit is super chef Alain Ducasse’s take on bistro food then and now. Since 2016 it has been delectably interpreted by chef Laetitia Rouabah. The bright, quasi-art deco brasserie is a comfortable setting to choose between the Frenchiest things on the menu: charcuterie, escargots, calves liver with shallots, various cuts of steaks with all of the proper sauces and a daunting but soul-satisfying cassoulet.
Since 1962, this has been the one to beat for high-style elegance both in the flowery decor and in the impeccable food and service. Nowhere will you find better quenelles de brochet whether as appetizer or main course, potage St.-Germain, frogs legs hazy with garlic, impeccable Dover sole meunière finished tableside, braised oxtail and poulet rôti grand-mère. It also serves two of the city’s best desserts: the custardy floating island that is oeufs-à la neige and any of the soufflés, my favorite being the one with the orange-flavored and Cognac-based liqueur, Grand Marnier.
Le Coucou takes us sublimely into the modern era in a soaring, suavely industrial downtown setting. The kitchen is run by American chef Daniel Rose who sowed his culinary wild oats in his Paris bistro, Spring, and came home in 2016 to great acclaim. Presentations of classics and riffs on them may not look familiar, but the totally French flavors are all intact whether one orders the leeks vinaigrette with hazelnuts, terrine de veau, duck with cherries, an epic three-course rendering of lapin and any fish finished with sauce beurre blanc. And for a sweet ending, chocolate mousse and rice pudding.
Le Coq Rico
The star attraction at Le Coq Rico is the rotisserie roasted chicken. The establishment opened in 2016 and is the inspiration of the Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann. Although all the chicken is delicious, it is far outclassed by the guinea hen and the boned squab braised in cabbage leaves like a miniature chartreuse. A great pâtè en croute or assorted grilled tidbits of chicken innards make wonderful lead-ins and side salads and potatoes complement the grilled poultry. But leave room for the larger than life mille-feuille (A.K.A. Napoleon) or the chef’s version of the classic floating island.
Frenchette opened four months ago and has become the most celebrated new kid in town. Chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr who guided Keith McNally’s famous bistros, Balthazar, Pastis and Augustine, are on their own in a trim art deco brasserie setting. The Frenchiest dishes on the menu include a most remarkable blanquette de lapin (the lean tender chunks of rabbit immersed in a creamy sauce along with earthy morels and silky egg noodles). Other neo-classics include soupe de poissons, guinea hen pâté, creamy scrambled eggs brouillade nested with snails, duck frites, calves liver and perfect crème caramel.
Vive la cuisine Française!