The young women in printed chiffon dresses set their Louis Vuitton bags down on the white tiles, sip flutes of champagne and swipe hot fries through maître d'hotel butter. It's dinnertime at Cherche Midi, Keith McNally's newest restaurant on Bowery.
Maître d' butter—a compound butter packed with parsley—along with many other cherished clichés of the bistro, are alive and well, from tiny frog legs swimming in green garlic and butter ($19) to skate wings under a classic sauce of brown butter and lemon ($24).
"May I offer you more butter?" a server asks after you polish off the round of the soft, salty stuff that comes with the giant bread basket of crusty loaves from Balthazar.
Co-chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla are here to celebrate the rich, absurdly heavy stuff of old-fashioned French cooking, but there is a great salad, too, and a perfect dinner here starts with it—a tangle of cold blanched asparagus spears, bitter radicchio and frisée, tons of garlicky breadcrumbs and grated parmesan ($15).
Then you move on to a steak, ideally the dry-aged prime rib ($48), which is exquisite and served with a pile of pommes soufflés. When was the last time you had those thin slices of potato that inflate like little balloons in hot oil and crisp up like the puffiest, fanciest chips in the bag?
Take a look around the room and you'll see a lot of burgers (and pink collared shirts under blazers). McNally's burger at Minetta Tavern has a committed fan base, but the burger here is different: richer and sweeter with a thick, almost miso-y patty made from a mix of aged and fresh prime rib ($21). It's smeared with bacon marmalade and mushrooms, with a bit of melted Gruyère, and it comes on a plate loaded with crisp, awesome frites.
Laura Werts's charming desserts also fit the throwback theme. Crêpes suzette ($10) and buttery, slightly chewy financier cakes with tiny fresh strawberries are a delight. Île flottante, a shallow bowl of vanilla custard with clouds of delicate poached meringue and a tangle of golden caramel on top ($10), is lovely.
Pulino's, the Italian restaurant that served thin-crusted pies, used to be in this same space, but one bite of chilled île flottante in the packed, glowing dining room (those ugly fluorescent lights are gone!) and you can see why McNally has gone back to his particular brand of hyper-Frenchiness: It works.