November 13, 2006
I will return to Café Cluny. I will return because I liked the food. It’s solid bistro fare— simple and approachable, but articulate and refined. I will also return because I liked the vibe—effortlessly, elegantly hip. None of this trying too hard stuff. But most of all I will return to Café Cluny for the lighting. I want to live in this lighting forever. I tell you, it’s miraculous. I fell in love with myself. Actually, it’s not really lighting as much as it’s an amber glow that warms the room, washing faces in this sort of golden twilight. It’s gorgeous, really. Gaze around the room, and you feel like you are looking at an old sepia-toned photograph of a snug, romantic, out-of-the-way little bistro in Paris. It makes you feel pretty but sexy; and like you should have a cigarette, full, pouty lips, a Vespa, and a lover (pronounced, of course, luvahhhh). The front room, cool in cream and taupe tones, contains a collection of slim, leather-lined wooden tables and an L-shaped bar. An exhibition of clay birds fills one wall. A wide framed diorama of stuffed birds that looks like it was snagged from the Museum of Natural history hangs on an opposite wall near the bar. I made a comment to our waiter about the clay pigeons on the wall behind our banquette. “Oh, those are doves, not pigeons,” he said. “Oh, really?” I replied. “They looked like pigeons to me, but I guess one woman’s pigeon is another man’s Dove.” Not sure what that says about me, but anyway, they’re Doves. The bustling Dove-filled front room, in constant motion from hordes of beautiful people entering, leaving, air-kissing and breathlessly uttering darling, opens to a back dining room that the same gorgeous glow, but with a slightly more sedate vibe. Café Cluny is the latest project from Lynn Wagenknecht, the owner of Odeon and Café Luxembourg and partners Judi Wong and Steve Abramowitz (who is the general manager of the Odeon). The nice thing about Café Cluny is that the buzz the restaurant has generated is not just smoke and mirrors. These are professionals. The restaurant is run with warmth and care and a sincere dose of hospitality.
The menu was developed by Odeon chef Vincent Nargi and is executed by Cluny’s chef de cuisine Phil Conlon. Like the Odeon and Café Luxembourg, the hook here is unfussy bistro fare, yet the dishes at Café Cluny seem just a touch more refined than its siblings. The kitchen strays into a bit of French, a little rustic American, and also offers some hits from Spain and Italy too. There’s the requisite frisee salad with lardons and a poached egg ($12), a roasted all-natural chicken with autumn vegetables ($23), a duck confit with brussel sprouts and jus ($23), and a hanger steak frites with Swiss chard and garlicky butter ($25).
Kiri and I were there for dinner last week, and we started with a beautiful salad of baby beets in garnet, ruby, gold, and rose. The jewel-toned roots were piled into a neat circle topped with sweet, fleshy mission figs and slivers of mild aged goat cheese (($12.50). The salad was beautiful, like something from a new bauble line from Harry Winston, but it could have used a bit more balance against the sweetness—some fennel, some citrus, some spark. The celery root soup ($9) however, was perfect. It was creamy and silky, and topped with torn pieces of duck confit. Hidden in the soup’s velvety depths were firm little nuggets of caramelized pears, little treasures that gave the soup a nice note of texture and added a dimension of sweetness.
The moment our appetizers were cleared, however, our entrees arrived. We didn’t even have time to order another glass of wine, which was a little upsetting. The kitchen’s timing is a little off, which is understandable at such an early stage, but we did feel rushed. We wanted time to sit back and relax and talk and people-watch in between courses. Kiri had just gotten back from some exotic travels and we had a lot to catch up on. So we had a few bites just to make sure we got some food while it was hot and then sat back, talked and observed. A few girlfriends were huddled at the bar pulling lean golden frites from a silver cup and nibbling on plates piled high with frisee. A party of six, who had walked in without a reservation, was enjoying some cocktails as the manager graciously accommodated them without issue. Two very handsome men who looked famous waited at the edge of the bar to be seated. They looked only at each other. The air in the room was hazy and golden. It felt like a clip from an old foreign movie.
After our sightseeing break, we dug in. Two big hunks of braised short rib ($28) were paired with a slab of nicely seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, glossy potato puree and roasted root vegetables. The short ribs were good—fork tender, but not overly so. They had some heft and muscle that I liked. The grilled squid “paella style” risotto ($13/$24) was a bit disappointing. The rice was silky yet chewy and was cooked in a seafood stock that was thrown into carnivore’s territory with the addition of rich smoky bacon. But the grilled squid piled up on top of the rice was charred on the outside but somehow the interior was quite slimy. The cod, however was terrific—pan-roasted so it had a crispy skin, it was topped with a sweet piperade and set on creamy polenta ($24).
And our sides were mighty fine—roasted brussel sprouts tossed with double smoked bacon and apple butter, and bright snappy haricots vert, generously salted and sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts ($8). I love good sides. There are nights I think I could just eat sides and be happy. (With a bottle of wine, of course.)
The restaurant was in full fabulous mode by the time our dessert—a Concord grape tart with peanut butter ice cream—arrived. Every early Winter fashion trend was on display—skinny jeans, opaque tights, long knit tunics, vintage boots galore. Sadly, I was in none of these. I felt like the new (pre-makeover) girl at Conde Nast. But Kiri and I were quite enjoying the people watching. And we hoped to get some more in before dessert arrived, but it flew out of the kitchen arriving just minutes after we ordered it. The tart was beautiful, and quite dainty. It was tiny actually, and resembled a mini linzer torte, with a dark delicious jelly center and butter cookie crust. While the pastry crust was too dry, that peanut butter ice cream was damn good.
As we lapped up the last of our ice cream, a manager who was setting the table next to us leaned down and asked if we had enjoyed our dinner. We told her that we had, but we did also tell her that we did feel rushed, that the food was coming out too quickly. She was genuinely apologetic and assured us that it was a mistake and that they were not trying to turn tables quickly. She invited us to linger as long as we liked. And I felt like she really meant it. (With breakfast and lunch on the way next week, she needs to because there will be ample opportunity to linger over coffee and croissant and the morning paper as well.)
And so I had a coffee (dark, hot and great), and Kiri ordered a glass of dessert wine, and we lingered. Why not? We had lots more to discuss—Italy, Spain, doves, pigeons, life, work, writing, love (not necessarily in that order). And the glow was there for the taking.
Café Cluny is located at 284 West 12th Street, corner of West 4th Street, 212-255-6900.