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My Dinner at Cercle Rouge I think it’s safe to say that the French bistro model has pretty much been done. From Balthazar to Bistro du Vent, New Yorkers are not unfamiliar with frisee salads, steak frites, and faux distressed vintage mirrors. So really, a new bistro is usually not much reason for excitement. But when the chef in the kitchen is David Feau, who cut his teeth at Guy Savoy’s Bistro de L’Etoile in Paris and then worked as executive chef at Lutece, well, you pay attention.
Cercle Rouge is owned by Georges Forgeois (Jules, Café Noir), and managed with charm, grace, and many air kisses by Fabrice Warin (formerly of Orsay). It is as beautiful a bistro as any in the McNally chain, but it is a bit more elegant and not quite as crowded and frenetically paced. It is decorated with real vintage mirrors (as Keith’s places are), and potted palms, with glossy dark wood floors, long cozy banquettes, and sturdy wooden tables. The room is crowned with tin ceilings, and whirring ceiling fans. If you are more comfortable dining at the bar, there is a long and sexy one in the casual café up front, and there’s plenty of outdoor seating reached through French doors that open onto the street. Taken all together, the décor and the atmosphere of Cercle Rouge makes you feel like life is a leisurely act to be to be filled by consuming Kir Royales, reading, having lots of sex, and occasionally shopping. And so I was surprised that in such a beautiful restaurant where I felt so absolutely gorgeous and so much like a close relative of Catherine Deneuve, that I would find myself licking my fingers and in need of a tub of wet naps after tearing into a plate of the most unbelievable chicken wings I have ever had the pleasure of consuming in my life.
Honestly, I don’t know why they were on the menu. It doesn’t really make sense in terms of the concept. Cercle Rouge is a French bistro featuring classics (raw bar, skate, steak frites). I strongly doubt that fiery lollipop style chicken wings have ever graced a bistro menu before, but here they were on the appetizer list at Cercle Rouge, tucked between the Chopped Vegetable Salad ($8.50) and the Clam Chowder with Chorizo “New England Style ($11.50). In fact, they seemed so out of place that I didn’t even notice them until I asked to see the menu later on in the meal. But they have changed my life. For my next hangover, I will be at the bar with several plates of these and a pint of cold beer. In fact, I may go now, as soon as I am done writing this. But the wings came later in the evening. Let’s start at the beginning. Jamie and I were feeling quite festive at dinner at Cercle Rouge last week. For no particular reason, just because. Which is nice because this week the chef and I broke up, and I was not (and am not) feeling so great. I really hate this part—when it ends. The part when it begins is just so much better. I think it would be nice to find relationships that only begin from now on. No more endings, please.
Anyway, last week, at dinner with Jamie, I was feeling no pain. We were seated in a great little corner table, and Jamie suggested we start off with two Kir Royales, and I raised her with caviar service and blinis. The Kirs were perfect—pretty, pink, fizzy and just intoxicating enough. The caviar, however, was flat and mushy. It was American caviar, from the Yellowstone River in Montana ($62/ounce), which I picked because the Russian stuff is (a) way more expensive, and (b) on its way to extinction. There are some amazing domestic caviar producers but this one, sadly, was not one of them. It was quite disappointing. It needed salt. How is that possible? And aside from the salt issue, the roe had no pop. These roe were quite dead. But the act of fixing yourself blini with sour cream and caviar (even if it’s lousy) while sipping champagne cocktails with your best friend is not a bad way to start an evening. We could not have been happier.
After the caviar was cleared, we tried the frisee salad ($8), which was littered generously with lardons and dressed with a sharp, slightly acidic sherry vinaigrette. While I thought the salad was good, I had two slightly nitpicky issues with it. First, the croutons were very crunchy and oily and seemed like they came from a box that might have read Pepperidge Farm. My second issue was that the salad was topped with a poached egg that was way too small. I think it was a quail egg or just a runt of a chicken egg. Throw a larger egg on there, so that it can really run down over the greens, and become part of the dressing. But there was nothing negative to say about a remarkable dish of baked clams in a chorizo sauce “New England Style” ($11.50). The clams were chewy and briny—but that sauce was the winner. It was a rich deep red fish stock, given some frantic heat with slivers of spicy chorizo. We ordered a basket of bread just to sop up that sauce. It’s incredible.
Entrees come in the mix-n-match format, a la BLT and Craft, etc. I am not a big fan of this format. Both Jamie and I like the chef to figure out what we should eat. So we made our choices from a section of already assembled meals. We chose the Certified Angus Steak Frites ($23) and the Pan Seared Skate Fish with Artichoke Puree and Lemon Butter Sauce, plus two sides—haricot verts ($6) and creamed spinach ($7)— that we felt would give us an idea of the strength of this chef’s bistro skills.
The haricot verts were gorgeous—delicate, thin, bright green, and lightly sprinkled with sea salt. They were perfectly cooked to dente, so that they burst in your mouth with a snap. The creamed spinach, however, was bitter and murky and I could barely get through my first bite. The skate was even worse. We actually pushed it aside because it was about to turn rancid. It was so salty, acidic and intensely fishy that it tasted unsafe. Skate is a tough fish; it turns fast and it stinks. That was when we asked for the menu again. We wanted one more thing to try and we had remembered reading that Frank Bruni had loved the wings. So we put in our order and while we waited for our wings, dug into the steak—a tender, very well seasoned, if slightly dry slab with glorious crispy fries. Just as we picked the last fry from the plate, our wings arrived. Insert Chicken Wing Aria. There were four fat ones-—the meat pulled down to the end of the bone into a blow-pop shaped lollipop. The wings are tempura battered and deep-fried so the juicy meat is wrapped in a crunchy robe of breading before being smothered in an atomic hot sauce. I dipped my wing in the thick, cold blue cheese dressing (love that it is cold! It is the right counterpoint to all the heat coming off those wings) and there I found personal enlightenment via the chicken wing. I felt like Steve Carrell in the 40 Year Old Virgin. I was ready to sing “Age of Aquarius.” While I contained myself and did not break into song, we did finish every last winged morsel on that plate. I can just imagine the waitstaff looking at us in our corner table and thinking: “Those girls started their meal with Kirs and caviar and now look at them: Dunking wings into blue cheese dressing and wiping red hot sauce off their cheeks, tearing meat from bones. What a pair.” Indeed. We were in heaven. While heaven is an easy place to find when you are with your best friend eating the world’s best chicken wings in a gorgeous new bistro. Heaven quickly leaves when you order the thin apple tart for dessert as we did. It was burnt and graying and it tasted like an old piece of fruit roll up. Bummer. Next time we will just order another plate of wings. And perhaps a few beers.
Review By: Andrea Strong