Like many of the unexpectedly accomplished French-themed bistros that have popped up all over town in the past year, Le Philosophe, which opened earlier this winter on Bond Street, doesn’t look very promising when you first arrive. The gray-colored signage outside looks like it’s been printed up for a movie opening or a trade show and attached to the storefront façade just a few hours before. The windows are half-covered with the kind of white lace curtains you see in the restaurants of provincial, not very distinguished French hotels. Inside, there are rows of sturdy, darkly varnished tables, a hastily remodeled kitchen and bar left over from the previous tenant (a well-reviewed, though doomed, Asian noodle bar), and a large photo-mural comprising the glowering mug shots of French philosophers like Montaigne, Camus, and a pensive, goggle-eyed Jean-Paul Sartre.
At first glance, the menu at Le Philosophe doesn’t look very promising either, unless you’re dying to sample the kind of ancien delicacies your parents used to rave about back when they were footloose and fancy-free on the streets of Paris in, say, 1953. There’s country pâté stuffed with cubes of pork fat on the menu, a velvet foie gras terrine, and stuffed pig trotters plated in the classic way, over a bed of vinegary Le Puy lentils. There are frogs’ legs, and trays of oysters mignonette arranged on a bed of crushed ice for the reasonable bistro price of $18 per dozen. I haven’t seen lobster Thermidor offered at a new restaurant for fifteen years, but you can get it here, along with blanquette de veau, duck à l’orange, and that ancient gourmand delicacy tournedos Rossini, which the kitchen drenches, faithfully, in a rich Madeira sauce speckled with black truffles.
“How do you eat like this every night?” gasped one of my shell-shocked guests as slabs of the excellent pâté were passed around the table, followed by a trio of roasted marrow bones, which the restaurant’s executive chef, Matthew Aita, spreads with a relish of shallots, crushed parsley, capers, and an old-fashioned hint of anchovy. But the frogs’ legs, when they appeared, were deboned in delicate, even dainty little morsels, tossed with sunchokes, and set on a vividly green watercress purée. The potentially deadly stuffed pig trotters are rendered much less deadly by their size (they’re cut in thin little disks, like silver dollars), and instead of being drowned in the usual gouts of egg yolk and brandy, the lobster Thermidor is steamed in its shell, then split in half and dripped with a few gentle teaspoons of Béarnaise sauce folded with bits of melting Piave cheese.
Aita trained with Daniel Boulud, and like other members of this new generation of bistro chefs (Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson at Calliope, Tien Ho at the recently opened Montmartre), he has a knack for infusing these age-old recipes with a streamlined, post-gourmet sensibility. The creamy, sweet blanquette de veau is portioned like a child’s meal and served with fragrant, Thai-style rice. The duck à l’orange is a single, perfectly crisped duck breast cut in half and plated with potatoes mousseline and a streak of beautifully balanced sauce that tastes just faintly of oranges. Only the exceedingly tender, foie gras-capped tournedos Rossini retain some of their famous heft. For maximum effect, follow this classic dish with the plum-size chocolate profiteroles buried in a drift of toasted, crushed hazelnuts.
Once upon a time, Laurent Tourondel was one of the city’s leading practitioners of this kind of old-world, Continental cooking. But when his four-star seafood restaurant Cello folded after the dot-com crash, he turned his attention to the less fickle, more dependable realm of beefsteaks and chops. For several years, Tourondel was the front man for a string of popular, eponymous BLT restaurants (BLT Steak, BLT Fish, BLT Burger, etc.), until he got into a squabble with his partners and left. Now he’s back in the big-money steakhouse racket, this time as the executive chef at the Tao Group’s (Tao, Lavo, etc.) pricey, perpetually mobbed new beef palace, the Arlington Club, which opened earlier this winter in the vaulted, split-level space that used to house François Payard’s namesake patisserie on Lexington Avenue and 74th Street.
I was a big fan of the original BLT Steak, and many of my mother’s discerning uptown friends (along with many discerning critics) have been singing the praises of this latest Tourondel operation. But with the exception of an oozingly tender côte de boeuf for two ($130), most of the dishes I sampled tasted like they’d come off the standard, if grievously overpriced, steakhouse assembly line. My sole “modern” meunière ($59) was oversauced and fatally chewy. The roasted chicken ($29) was bountiful but overbrined, and my friend the Steak Loon declared that his New York sirloin ($54) was bland and “as burnt as a cookout marshmallow.” The usual armada of side dishes have their charms (try the creamed spinach and house fries), but none are quite as satisfying as Tourondel’s famous popovers, which are as big as grapefruits and will last you through dessert, if you husband them wisely.
55 Bond St., nr. Bowery; 212-388-0038; lephilosophe.us
Hours: Dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $18; entrées, $18 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Country pâté, duck à l’orange or tournedos Rossini, chocolate profiteroles.
Note: If you identify all 35 French philosophers on the mural correctly, the owners will comp your dinner.
Scratchpad: One star for the tournedos Rossini alone, and another for the rest of the artfully reimagined bistro menu.
1032 Lexington Ave., nr. 74th St.; 212-249-5700; arlingtonclubny.com
Hours: Dinner Sunday and Monday 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $14 to $26; entrées, $26 to $130.
Ideal Meal: Popovers, côte de boeuf, creamed spinach, house fries.
Note: In the tradition of Tao, this Upper East Side steakhouse also features a large, fairly ordinary sushi menu.
Scratchpad: The room is a madhouse and the prices are extreme, but we’ll give one star for the côte de boeuf, the popovers, and the classic creamed spinach.
*This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.