There's Calliope, an East Village spot that has gained a herd of loyal diners who are happy to dig into chefs/owners Eric Karsh and Ginevra Iverson's (and pastry chef Shuna Lydon's) terrines and pâtés. Le Philosophe, Cantine Parisienne and Three Letters are tweaking cassoulets, tartes and frites. The Culinary Institute of America's French eatery was recently given a face lift and reboot as well as new name: The Bocuse Restaurant. Gabe Stulman and Tien Ho's collaboration, a "French-American bistro" named Montmartre is the latest opening to please Francophiles, but the biggest venue is yet to come. Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini's NoHo takeover of the massive former Chinatown Brasserie space, is slated to open in April.
Why is it that a boom of Italian restaurants, gastropubs and "hipster Asian" spots are being followed by a return to French cuisine? Pip Freeman, chef and owner of Clinton Hill's Franco-inspired Three Letters, chalks it up to "culinary hipsterism." He says:
"Two years ago when we were looking at what type of food we were interested in, it was the least cool food you could make. Which means there was a lot of room to play with it…people have so many preconceptions about French restaurants. Anytime I can not give somebody what they think they're going to get, I like it. Most of us have some sort of French training and it's fun to go back to that but with different ingredients."
Just a month out from his new spots debut, Andrew Carmellini took a minute to talk about his motives for going Francophile for his third restaurant:
"I can't speak for everybody, but what made me want to open a French restaurant right now is that it's a return to my own personal catalyst in professional cooking, he said. "First thing I did after my first serious cooking gig at Lespinasse in New York was get myself to France at any cost. I've gone back again and again and have always looked forward to having my own French restaurant. Eating and dining is such a personal, everyday luxury in France and I think you can compare it to New York's restaurant culture in that way - people really, really love eating out no matter what the occasion is."
The chef thinks that it's time to show diners that this cuisine doesn't have to be stuffy. "Until recently, if you wanted to go out and enjoy French food, it was probably fancy with a few exceptions. Lafayette is going to be a place you can go to eat anytime and have a genuine experience, with or without an occasion."
Over in Midtown, chef Delouvrier of La Mangeoire agrees. His eatery has been around since 1975, but it recently underwent a mini makeover, and he echos Carmellini and Freeman's sentiments about going back to the basics. "I think people loved French food before because it is very authentic. It's very fundamental. It makes sense. The taste is great. The classical French was very popular and now it's coming back again because it's all based on classic cuisine. It's very balanced, proportionally. It's built on foundation. It's basic." And for Tien Ho, it's all about going back to her roots. She tells us "I got started in an old school French restaurant in Austin, Texas and it has always been the foundation of cuisine for me."
For Calliope's Eric Korsh, it's not about going back to his roots (though he did cut his teeth under the tutelage of Terrance Brennan at Picholine). He credits the nature of trends for bringing French cuisine to the forefront. "I think trends are cyclical. Culinarily speaking there's very little new under the sun. Maybe less than one percent of chefs that say they are forging into new territory are really doing it. The majority of the food is very traditionally based, regardless of how the PR company frames that cuisine."
Laurent Moisi, a Parisian-New Yorker and founder of the culinary delivery service Chefday, believes that the economic climate also has an influence. "People are willing to do comfort food with a twist. This is what comfort food is but better. Amazing techniques and amazing taste. Plus, some people think that it's very heavy, but the [French] diet is actually very healthy."
Regardless of the reason for the boom, French is back in a big way. If you want to break off a piece of baguette and take a bite of the scene, here are eight places to try:
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1. The Bocuse Restaurant at the CIA: Culinary Institute of America, 1946 Campus Dr.; 845-471-6608
2. Calliope: 84 E. 4th St.; 212-260-8484
3. Cantine Parisienne: 30 Kenmare St.; 212-966-2740
4. Three Letters: 930 Fulton St.; 718-622-4679
5. La Mangeoire: 1008 Second Ave.; 212-759-7086
6. Le Philosophe: 55 Bond St.; 212-388-0038
7. Lafayette: 380 Lafayette St.; 212-533-3000 (opening in April)
8. Montmartre: 158 Eighth Ave.; 646-596-8838