With nearly 20,000 restaurants in New York City, it was all rather a bit startling to dine at the same restaurant three times over the course of one week.
And yet, this should suit Le Midi Bistro’s owner, Andrew Song, just fine.
In fact, if he has his way, (and one soon learns he usually does), this recurring phenomenon will morph into a habit and then voila – just like in France – you’re a regular at his French-inspired bistro.
But this is no holodeck of a French restaurant.
Rather it is an elegant yet casual and welcoming downtown eatery: big café style windows that open onto the street, a huge marble bar with black & white film noir style movies projected onto the high wall behind (sans sound).
There is music – a nice selection of snappy classics that allows conversation.
And the dining room that is concrete floors but topped with linen-covered tables.
See, in an over-caffeinated, fizzy, breathless, eatery-of-the-moment that is so Gotham, Le Midi Bistro is that rare jewel – a consistently great menu for lunch, dinner, bar, Saturday and Sunday brunch, and take out; inspired service, white tablecloths, reasonable prices and sturdy portions, fine décor that lets the food take center stage not the other way ‘round where the interior design is over-the-top – taunting the food in order to win its own James Beard award.
The provenance of this Provence-inspired restaurant is that it was a loading dock for Woolworth’s Union Square.
And Le Midi is the colloquial French for the region in the South of France – the French Mediterranean coast from Italy across to Spain – embracing beaches and the Alps and myriad cuisine and wines.
And that is where the story of Le Midi, the downtown New York restaurant starts.
If one considers the South of France/Le Midi touched by the hand of God for its beauty and climate and food, then surely all things divine touched Song as he bicycled his way throughout the region on weekends – having hopped over from his London base where he works in financial services.
His sojourns to the region served his insatiable curiosity and quest for learning.
Soon he was cataloguing the local dishes and wines, becoming an enthusiastic Francophile of homegrown everyday French food – as opposed to the haute cuisine usually associated with French fare and Paris.
Much like Mario Batali and his teams who shone a spotlight on rural, homegrown Italian dishes, Song is on a mission to deliver French country food to his New York customers.
At first it seems crazy or naïve to think Song can succeed in the competitive, hyper “du moment” mentality that is the world of New York restaurants.
But then, it doesn’t.
It seems to make more sense that the three things that fuel his outlook for the restaurant: pure unadulterated love of food and drink, especially wine; his experience as a customer or consumer (think all those high end client meals in New York, Paris, Hong Kong and so on, where the expense account is limitless); plus his global travels and the informed culinary culture are a recipe for success.
This reverence for the food and the atmosphere makes for a potent and enduring combination that can only serve to satisfy Le Midi’s customers.
Here is a perfect spot for a business meal, a date, a recommendation for out-of-towners (who won’t see a check that rivals their first year of college tuition) and well, a local neighborhood haunt.
At Le Midi Bistro, the food is priced to allow regulars to come and dine often. “I don’t want this to be a special occasion restaurant,” noted Song.
Further, he explains that “excellent” needn’t be “high end” when it comes to execution. There is no pretension at Le Midi.
Song is a calming, thoughtful presence and his restaurant reflects that aura. Having worked in corporate world, he is also a team player and leader who respects his staff. (He continued to pay his employees post-Sandy even when the restaurant couldn’t operate and most restaurants couldn’t or wouldn’t do this.)
He also knows how to select the best professionals and then let them do their job.
Classic New York service is embodied in the charm of Marwan Halabi, the manager and maitre d. Halabi is a cross between a favorite uncle and a bit of the royal prince’s manservant. His resume is all-pro: Montparnasse, the Waldorf=Astoria as special advisor to the Saudis (just think how demanding that tribe might be!) Tavern on the Green, and the Ritz.
After some growing pains in the kitchen (not all James Beard chefs are created equal) Song determined chef David Ferraro is an ideal fit for Le Midi. Ferraro too hails from restaurants with great New York pedigree including a clutch of prominent bistros, Montparnesse, Quartorze, and Porterhouse, too.
“They act like owners,” Song said. And they understand his philosophy.
The thread running through Song and his team is they want to please the customer.
Sounds simple. But the Zen of this quality is remarkably difficult to achieve.
Le Midi has it nailed.
The menu is driven by Song’s culinary travels, his respect and interest in culinary history, particularly of the Le Midi region.
You can’t go wrong with any of the menu items. Really.
The dishes are authentic, layered, nuanced and the ingredients harmonize.
The rotating menu changes naturally, with the seasons.
Further, unlike many traditional restaurants, especially the old-world New York restaurants, Le Midi does insist on serving only humanely reared meat – mainly from the Hudson Valley, though they do serve farm-raised fish.
The Skate au Beurre Noir was fantastic and Song insists its sustainability platform is worth it.
One could eat here every day and the taste buds will still be dancing.
For Starters, the Country Duck Terrine, for example, is a classic and yet not easy to get in most restaurants these days. Especially at $11. It is made with Armagnac baby greens and cornichon. The terrine is rich, peppery and robust.
The Seared Diver Sea Scallops come with celeriac puree and lemon caper butter ($14) and are fresh and rewarding.
Lunch entrees run from $13 to $36 with an $18.95 prix fixe that includes a hearty choice of Soup or Baby Lettuce Salad; the Main selections offer a choice of Omelette du Jour, Steak Frites, or Coq au Vin with Yukon mashed potatoes and bacon – you can dunk the sinfully good French bread that is made for them and finished baking at the restaurant so it’s super fresh, light, crispy, served warm and perfect for sopping up all that good Vin sauce (that bread also makes the mussels worth ordering even if just sitting at the bar – but that’s getting ahead of things)
The dessert choice is Sorbet or ice cream.
Double dare you to beat that combination.
And it’s all delicious. How do they do it?
No histrionics. Just good food and good wine and good atmosphere. ahhhh….
The $24.95 Dinner prix fixe runs from 5pm to 6:30pm and it’s well worth an early scheduling.
The Starters are the Country Duck Terrine (have it twice a day!) or Baby Lettuce Salad at dinner includes Manchego cheese, fine herb and a sherry vinaigrette.
The Mains include a choice of Roast Salmon with red lentils & lemon tarragon emulsion or Risotto sweet pea, asparagus, gulf shrimp (serious flavor combos) or Steak Frites hangar steak, red wine sauce and pommes frites that are salty and crisp and nestled next to that juicy steak.
Desserts are a taste-defying choice of Assorted Sorbet/Ice Cream or Crème Brulee or Dessert of the Day.
That harmonizing of flavors noted earlier is best exemplified by the Daube de Boeuf – a classic Provence recipe (and a change from their winter Boeuf Bourguignon which is served with bacon and pearl onions.)
The Daube de Boeuf country stew they serve cooks up a squadron of fresh vegetables, spices, herbs, beef and olive oil and wine. The complex flavors are allowed to mellow. The aroma is heady. And because it takes more than a day to prepare and cook – face it, you’re not making this at home.
Indulge in at Le Midi.
The arugula salad was fresh and crisp and spicy served with warm shaved fennel and just a sprinkling of melted goat cheese.
The Escargot is yet another French sparkler with a lighter, American, Le Midi twist – a wistful whisper of parsley and garlic…
The in-season Pappardelle with braised rabbit, roasted tomato and fennel ragu is over the rainbow and worth a visit or three.
The seared duck breast and confit cassoullet is superb. The faro and sautéed spinach was enhanced by Song explaining how the restaurant uses every part of the duck at Le Midi – from the pate to the entrée.
Hot tip – when asked by this Examiner about a charcuterie menu offering – Song offered that they would soon provide.
Be still my heart.
For the starters, Song suggested Albarinho wine – a lovely discovery for this Examiner. Albarinho is a food friendly wine that hails from Spain’s coastal region and is in keeping with the Le Midi philosophy focus.
In total, Le Midi offers some 50-plus wines.
And here’s the thing – it’s a huge Lucky-Strike extra that Song is a wine genius and has that gene to provide value to his clients/diners.
So customers get to indulge in wines and champagnes that are modest yet excellent – and again won’t break the bank with prices from $34 to $90 and the median in the $40-something range.
One can look very refined and generous at Le Midi when ordering the wine.
And if it couldn’t get better, the wines by the glass are outstanding. From Prosecco at $10 a glass, and a Riesling Pffaffenheim (great with oysters and mussels) at $11 to a Malbec, Chateau St. Didier-Parnac Cahors at $9 – it’s wine heaven.
Eager to share his wine prowess, Song recommended three wines: La Mission Haut-Brion: a younger vine wine from Bordeaux and Chateau Angelus – a Saint-Emilion grand cru classe (and a super, long-time favorite of this Examiner) and wines from Brouilly, the largest wine area in Beaujolais.
These are not overly tannic wines and terrific with most menu selections.
And be sure to take advantage of the dessert wines.
This Examiner loved dessert wines from time spent in school in Switzerland and traveling the world but Americans seemed to have gotten away from this singular, sensual delight.
Leave it to a Francophile like Song to help re-energize the custom.
Experience Le Midi’s Muscat, Domaine De Fenouillet Muscat from Loire with expresso or cappuccino and conversation. From $11 a class to $38 a bottle.
Enjoy a glass of Sauterne, too, with dessert.
And do not overlook the Calvados! This is a French or Le Midi tradition that surely needs resurrection and devotion.
Song explained how he keeps the wine list condensed and approachable.
He offers five appellations of Bordeaux Loire Valley and Burgundy and all with similar value price points as the food.
It would take two or three more news posts to illuminate the input and care and thought put into curating the menu and wine list.
But you know what?
This Examiner will get off the clock and leave the rest of the discovery to fan food readers.
Café Society blossoms at Le Midi Bistro.
As if it couldn’t get better, Le Midi makes their own ice cream and sorbets.
The desserts are glamorous and an elegant finish to the noteworthy entrees.
Seems disrespectful not to experience the finishing flourish to the well-orchestrated meal.
Take the time and enjoy real, authentic dessert.
You will be richly rewarded by making Le Midi your go-to bistro, favorite restaurant.
It is French-inspired; New York homegrown-styled.
(Does Lady Liberty get time off for meals? This is her kind of place: French yet so American)
Le Midi Bar & Restaurant
11 East 13th Street
New York, NY 10003