New York – It’s quite possible that you don’t know where Alsace is. Sometimes the Alsatians aren’t quite sure where they are. It’s not that the area moves around, but it has changed hands back and forth between France and Germany and probably some others more times and more rapidly than the proverbial hot potato. I have an indirect connection to Alsace through my stepmother, whose family is from there, and used to hear stories from her mother – usually in a mildly disconcerting mix of English, French, German. In the same sentence. I visited Alsace a few years ago, on a press trip, a terror laden voyage that at one point required me to take a white knuckled hot air balloon ride. I don’t do heights. Most of the rest of the time we seemed to be eating pork in one form or another. Even the vegetarian on the trip was served pork – just a little bit in her vegetables, “for seasoning”.
My friend Eileen suggested we face my fears and head to the new hot spot Alsatian bistro, Cafe d’Alscace, 1695 2nd Avenue at 88th Street. That seemed safe enough. Frank Bruni reviewed it recently in the New York Times, giving it two stars and carrying on about his inability to detect differing flavors in the beers recommended by the restaurant’s “beer sommelier”, not to mention not knowing his lagers from his ales (Frank, not the sommelier). Gael Green raved about it for New York magazine. With recent reviews, and rumors of a packed house, we made an early reservation and went. The place was nearly empty. That lasted about fifteen minutes, apparently we’d arrived at the forefront of the wave of folk headed there. By the time our appetizers were on the table every seat was full, the bar was three deep with people waiting, and there were more folk out on the sidewalk peering wistfully in.
At Cafe d’Alsace beer is king. Not that they don’t have a winelist – they have an excellent selection of small production wines, mostly from Alsace, and also other areas of France. They have a menu, with every classic Alsatian bistro selection one might think of. And, they have the beer list – a daunting selection of roughly 125 ales and lagers that indeed warrant a specialist in-house. We didn’t encounter the sommelier. We did encounter a perky waitress who recited specials of the day and special wines of the day along with detailed tasting notes – she wasn’t reading them off her pad, she had those paragraphs memorized. And she maintained her perkiness when we didn’t follow her recommendations for food, or wine, and ordered other things. She assured us we’d made wonderful choices, amazing pairings with our wine and beer selections. That was very reassuring.
We started with some classics, including the tarte flambée which was disparaged in the NYT review as “onion laden”. Ahh what a shame, to order an onion tart and find it laden with onions. It was also laden with bacon and cream, as it should be. Have I had better? Yes. Though, of course, sitting on a hillside cafe in Alsace looking out over the vineyards may have had an effect on my perception (this was prior to the hot air balloon) versus sitting on the corner of 2nd & 88th looking over the asphalt. It was good, and just what it should be.
A selection of five different sausages are offered, all homemade. It’s possible to order a platter of them for your main course, or for a small group to share. It’s listed there on the main course side of the menu. But it comes with all the fixings. I just wanted a couple of sausages on some sauerkraut to start. Luckily, they’re available individually, from the appetizer menu. Good sauerkraut. A wonderfully light seafood sausage made with shrimp and scallops, scented with saffron; and another nearly as light, a veal boudin blanc, both grilled lightly. Paired, by the way, with a Karmeliet Tripel Ale, a medium bodied, lightly fruity, truly delicious beer, that was, indeed, an amazing pairing.
I felt a shiver of excitement at Café d'Alsace as I savored a gorgeous soup bowl of that almost abandoned classic, quenelles de brochet, rich and cleverly textured for its 21st-century revival. – Gael Green
My camera’s batteries died. I didn’t have any spares with me, and I wasn’t about to jump up from the table and run down the street for more. You’ll just have to trust me that that the quenelles de brochet were beautifully presented in a large bowl. Four perfectly shaped, plump, ethereally light quenelles of pike, tinged with carrot, onion… wait a minute. I just realized that the French stole gefilte fish and gave them a fancy name! So a lovely bowl of four perfectly shaped, plump, ethereally light gefilte fish atop a bed of baby spinach. In fact, so light they recalled my trip in the hot air balloon, thankfully without the accompanying screams for help. A trifle too much spinach for the dish, but it looked really pretty. It went quite well with the delightful lightly sparkling Lornet Cremant de Jura Rosé, a fairly obscure sparkling wine that I’ve not seen here before.
Likewise the properly cooked medium rare duck breast, fanned out across the plate, topped with a light cherry sauce. Paired with a Chateau Potelle Syrah from Napa Valley that according to my companion was delicious. The real test was to come, with desserts – Eileen is a pastry chef of some note herself. The “thin caramelized apple tart” was good, but the crust wasn’t quite right – a trifle doughy we both thought. The mandiant, described as a “warm brioche cake with griottes” (the latter being small brandied cherries) was good, but not particularly brioche-like – instead a sort of crumbly, dense cake with the cherries on the bottom and topped with straw- and blueberries. Both good, though a trifle disappointing after how good the appetizers and main courses had been.
Delightful all around. A bustling, noisy, classic bistro feel. Good food. Lots of beer and wine to choose from. And clearly a money machine for its owners (who also own other restaurants in New York, like Marseille and Nice Matin). Would I stand wistfully on the sidewalk for hours, hoping to score a table? No. But with a reservation and knowing that I had one scored, I’d go back.