Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Miscellaneous Food: New York 4

Having been fortunate enough to be sent on an all-expense paid trip to New York for a week, I was even more fortunate to arrive in the middle of Restaurant Week 2008, a wonderful biannual event where some of the top restaurants in New York serve a prix fixe menu at steeply discounted prices. With an opportunity like that, clearly I would have to spend the week eating quite well, and so within minutes of checking into my hotel, I was online looking for suitable places to have some very good food.

Brasserie Les Halles

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Best known as the home base of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and the kitchen which produced the recipes contained in his Les Halles Cookbook, Les Halles is the popular midtown eatery famous for serving traditional French brasserie food like coq au vin, and particularly, its steaks.

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There is this strange hang-up about dining alone, which I've never understood. It's unbelievably easy to get a reservation when you're a party of one, so getting a table at Les Halles only two hours in advance was no problem. When I arrived, the restaurant was already pretty crowded, and I was glad I had made a reservation. Les Halles has got the brasserie persona down pat; with the exception of their waiters, who are dressed in rather shabby dark blue polo shirts and jeans. The restaurant itself is pretty capacious; with a de rigour bar area for those who enjoy some stiff drinks with their dinner. Art deco lighting and long, leather-backed benches complete the look.

Les Halles bustles with frenetic energy – not only is the kitchen extremely efficient in churning out dishes, the restaurant itself is also open seven days a week, from 7am to midnight, which is always a good thing if you feel like some late-night or earl-morning steak, but must take its toll on the staff, I imagine.

I have found, however, that I am not very fond of the bread that is served in New York restaurants. They seem to be invariably variations on hard, crusty sourdough or pain de campagne, containing more crust than crumb, which I am not a fan of, as I have tender gums and dislike having them impaled by sharp brittle shards before a meal.

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Served in a fetching earthenware crock, the soup is topped with a round of bread and gratineed with cheese, very classic in appearance. There is something very comforting as your spoon breaks the surface, the stringy cheese clinging to it, as you ladle up a mouthful of scalding hot soup, onions, soggy bread, and melting cheese. The problem I had with the soup, however, was not its composition or temperature, but its texture and taste. I thought the soup lacked body, and was surprisingly watery. While it was rich and hearty, it lacked the distinctive unctuousness and umami that typically characterises onion soup that's been made with a powerful, concentrated stock. Also, the soup tailed off with a strange sweetness that was much stronger than I would have expected from onions. While not unpleasant, it was surprising in what I had thought would have been a much more robust and earthy starter.

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No complaints as far as the main course was concerned, however. Onglet steak, medium, served with a shallot sauce and fries. Onglet is a great cut of meat, as it's full of flavour on its own, and Les Halles clearly produces good steak. Expertly cooked, my steak was bursting with that meaty richness you get with a steak that's been in good hands. The shallot sauce was an intense affair, served in a small ramekin that, despite its size, packed a punch. The flavour of the red wine base shone through, tempered and rounded off with the beef stock to give it depth and richness. The shallots lent the sauce a mild oniony taste, as well as a sweetness that complemented the steak and fries. While the fries were a bit skinny, it was a generous helping, and I was not able to finish them all.

Les Halles's desserts are nothing surprising; the usual bistro classics like crème brulee and profiteroles are on offer, as are slightly posher options such as crepes suzette and a warm banana and chocolate tart. I was feeling quite full by this time, and decided to pass on dessert, though my curiosity was somewhat piqued by the "fallen" chocolate soufflé, which seemed like a contradiction in terms to me, or perhaps it was just a strategy for disguising any soufflé that failed to rise.

Brasserie Les Halles
411 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10016
Tel: 212 679 4111

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