I have always wanted to dine at Les Halles and finally had the chance the other night. A longtime fan of Anthony Bourdain and his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, I was disappointed when I learned he had passed the executive chef torch down to someone else. And even though I was well-aware of the mixed reviews amongst foodies, I was still curious. I also had a birthday coming up, which coincided with an intense craving for steak tartare, so I booked a reservation.
Prior to my birthday I scanned the boards here at Chowhound. I found the expected praise for their steak frites and steak tartare, but along with every high note came a series of low ones: too loud, terrible service, dark, etc. Adding to my dismay was the restaurant’s website, which listed Bourdain as the “Chef-at-Large” (whatever that means), featured a “merchandise” link, and was overall way too franchise-y for my liking. By the time my birthday rolled around, I was a little uneasy.
Upon entering the restaurant (we went to the Park Avenue location), I was surprised at how dark it was – the Chowhounders were spot-on with that criticism. It was dark to the point of seeming almost dingy. However, after all the things I had heard about the “surly” service, I was surprised at how pleasant our hostess was. We had a reservation and were seated right away, and this was on a Friday night. (Granted, it was only 7pm on a Friday night).
The dining room of Les Halles is sort of split into two parts, and we had a very nice table in the center of one of them. Warm, crusty bread and butter were brought to us right away, along with the wine list, which seemed very reasonable. I wanted a Bourdeaux, and our waiter suggested their house bottle, St. Emilion. I appreciated the fact that the waiter didn’t recommend one of the hundred-dollar bottles, and was also impressed with how many good bottles were offered for under sixty dollars. We went with the waiter’s suggestion, and all of us enjoyed it. My only complaint was that the glasses were a bit too small for this wine, but what can you expect from a bistro that has cartoon cows on the website. ;)
We started with a mesclun salad, dressed simply with a light, mustardy vinaigrette, the grilled calamari with shaved fennel (delicious, and a nice portion), and the real stand-out: warm potato and black olive salad, topped with goat cheese gratine. It was wonderful, and a great price at $8.95.
Prior to the arrival of our main courses, a man came out of the kitchen and wheeled a cart over to our table. This was my steak tartare guy. He asked if I wanted it “mild, medium or spicy?” which I had never been asked before, in relation to chopped beef. I went with medium, as I didn’t want too many things to take away from the clean, smooth taste of the raw meat. (What am I, a werewolf?) The tartare contained all the usual suspects: raw egg, anchovies, mustard, ketchup (which I always thought was weird), onion, capers, etc. It was fun watching the guy make it in front of me.
Interestingly, the tartare was not served with toast or any vehicle to eat it with, aside from a fork. However, as I prefer to eat tartare on warm, buttered bread, I simply asked for another basket. It was a huge portion of tartare, very good, with a spicy bite to it. It was also a great deal at $18.50, which included a plate of their famous frites. (Turns out the frites were great, and I believe their secret is that they fry them in peanut oil).
We also tried the flatiron steak with bearnaise, which was nicely done and quite juicy, and the Choucroute Garnie, which was so-so (the sauerkraut was pretty bland, and they could have done more with it). I think the thing to come here for, as far as main courses go, is really the beef.
Although many items on the dessert menu spoke to me, which doesn’t usually happen as I am not much of a dessert person, I had my heart set on a cheese course. It was in this moment that the absence of Anthony Bourdain became abundantly clear. I asked the waiter to tell me some of the daily selections, and his response was, “well, we have a goat…we have a sheep…I believe we have a couple of cows….” I (politely) cut him off, and asked that he get a little more specific than that. He ran away, and emerged a few minutes later with a hand-scribbled list in his hand of the day’s offerings.
When the waiter returned with my cheese, it was a lovely presentation: four heartly slices of various cheeses arranged on a plate with walnuts, quince paste, and slices of pear. My only disappointment was that the waiter did not take the time to go over each cheese, which I find to be an integral part of any cheese course. I also knew that had I asked him to explain each one to me, even briefly, he would have run away again and I didn’t want to make him feel bad. But I had a sneaking suspicion that when Bourdain was hands-on, the waiters were more knowledgeable.
For dessert my sister had the “fallen” chocolate souffle, which was huge, warm, gooey, delicious, and incredibly rich without being too sweet.
Overall, I enjoyed the meal here. I would definitely come back for the warm black olive salad, the tartare, and even the cheese. I think for New York prices Les Halles is reasonable, and I also think the prices are appropriate for the overall level of quality and somewhat lack of sophistication. Bourdain has obviously removed himself from the daily happenings here, and if you were to enter the restaurant not knowing that, you would probably think he was extremely overrated. But even in Bourdain’s absence, I think the restaurant stands on its own.