Everyone needs a little French bistro. Even if it’s not in a nearby arrondisement, it’s a place to go in one’s daydreams, to escape the mundanity of vegetable medleys and garlic mashed potatoes. I found one, way not in our neck of the woods, but in a place that’s not totally impossible, at least for some of us.
A.O.C. is on Bleeker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, just where it ought to be. The proper name is A.O.C. L’aile ou la Cuisse.(That translates as “The Wing or the Thigh”.) The storefront sports tall windows. As I sat looking out at the sidewalk, it seemed for a while as though everyone that walked by glanced inside. Between the two guys playing guitars and the posted menu, the place seemed a magnet.
The menu is not totally, totally French – for instance, breakfast, and, yes, they do breakfast, has home fries and bacon with the oeufs sur plat, as well as pastries, granola as well as a tartine. But it’s close enough, especially as the sun continues across the sky, and as the waitress put down our mussels and snails for a first course, the dining companions and I sighed happily.
We all know that snails are mainly a reason to eat a small lake of garlic butter, and the A.O.C. lake was slightly larger than average, lots of extra butter for the sopping up with the warm bread, and a good introduction for the snail rookie at the table. (If you’ve never eaten them, yes, they’re chewy. That’s the nature of the gastropod.) The mussels were huge and sweet and tender, steamed in white wine with shallots and parsley. My sole complaint was that the broth tasted more of wine and less of mussels than I prefer, a problem I’d run into earlier on this trip at another restaurant. Perhaps New York restaurateurs use the broth for other things. But the mussels themselves were exemplary.
More seafood? Sure. Tender, sweet sea scallops, shrimp and a few more mussels lolled in a saffron-laced cream sauce, all encased in a lacy-edged phyllo shell, a ring of spinach around its base. The spinach, too, carried the blessing of saffron, and who knew what a great combination that was? A salmon filet, grilled to the requested medium, had lemon and capers showered lightly over it, and sat on a base of ratatouille not cooked to mush, but with both individual flavors and the harmonizing of them apparent with each bite. There’s meat on the menu, too, and it took a great deal of self-control to pass up both a duck leg confit and some merguez sausage in favor of hanger steak with a rich red wine-mushroom sauce. Happily, the steak arrived already sliced – it’s best sliced on the bias, an angle far easier to find in a well-lit kitchen, rather than under a coat of dark sauce – and it was as flavorful as a hanger, or onglet in French, should be. Alongside was a bit of salad and a magnificently garlicky potato gratin, perfectly cooked with the potatoes tender but not falling apart, all making for an exemplary plate of food.
We succumbed to a single dessert (but I’m coming back for the tarte tatin). Chocolate mousse was dark, dense but not gummy, relatively un-sweet and with a note in there I’m still trying to recognize. Coffee? Just a wee, wee hint of cardamom? Quite worthwhile.
The music was great – they don’t have it every night – sort of Les Paul in the Forties and Fifties, and not once but twice, couples danced on the sidewalk in front of the door, close, romantic stuff, elbows bent and nearly cuddling. Our service was patient and precise, the setting, with the brick walls, just right. There’s a garden in the back, and now they stay open until 4 in the morning for jazz on Saturday nights. New York City is, to me, the best place in the world to stay out all night, and I’d love to give this a try. The kitchen stays open late, too.
Very romantic. But even more appetizing.
ADDED NOTE 10/14/16: That chocolate mousse? I got another chance to taste it. A little coffee, maybe. But definitely a touch of mint. Spearmint, to be precise. I'm more of a peppermint person than spearmint - enough that I'm not big on mojitos - but this was Just Right. Go for it.
314 Bleeker St. (west of Seventh Avenue), New York
Breakfast/Lunch Mon.-Fri., Brunch Sat.-Sun, Dinner nightly
Credit Cards: Yes
Smoking: No (they don’t in Paris any more, either)