Last week I had a quick business trip to New York. Since here in San Francisco we don't really have anything like it, I wanted to go to an old-fashioned French restaurant. I posted a question on this board and got many suggestions. I'd like to thank everybody for offering their opinion.
There were three of us and armed with this board's suggestions we decided to go to Pierre Au Tunnel. We got there on Friday night at around 7:30 PM. The place was quite full with what looked like a bussed-in New Jersey crowd getting ready for their Broadway shows. In about ten minutes they all left and the restaurant got much quieter and emptier.
Unfortunately, as we discovered, a lot of the staff left too, leaving us with the B-team. Our young waitress was perfectly charming but didn't seem to know much about the food and definitely nothing about the wine.
They only do a prix-fixe menu and it's a good deal at $34. That includes an appetizer, a salad (offered only after 8 pm, after the theater crowd leaves), a main course, desert and coffee.
Every category has many choices, some with additional surcharges. Lots of pates, terrines, onion soups, etc. in the apps. Since we were doing the old classics, two of us went for the escargots (an extra $6). They were very good. Served with tons of garlic and hot butter, they (six per order) were meaty and substantial. The third person chose a tarte à loignon, which he didn't find remarkable.
For the mains, one of us went for the special, a red snapper dish presented in a rather modern-cuisine sort of way. The fish pieces were layered with the side dishes of potatoes and (I think) kale and built-up as a tower (or a hill) in the middle of a large white plate. Quite a departure from the old ways, I thought. Tasted good, though. The fish was firm and moist with a slight nutty finish.
I went with tete de veau (the main reason I wanted to go to this place to begin with) and was very happy. They give you lots and lots of pieces of brains, beef cheeks and tongue, all accompanied by the crucial side sauce of vinaigrette, capers and ground vegetables. The sauce was nice and tart cutting through the rich calf pieces. Before this visit I thought the art of making this dish is either dying or already dead, but not to worry. The only thing that could destroy this dish is the fear of mad cow's disease. If customers don't order it, restaurants won't make it.
The third person (the same one who ordered the tarte) chose a canard a l'orange, but it really wasn't his night. He struck out, the duck being rather dry and the sauce totally indistinct.
Thye have lots of choice for desert. Napoleons, fruit tartes, chocolate cakes, a modest cheese course, etc. They were pretty good, but not great. Coffee was decent.
The wine list is rather weak. The wines were mostly French and mostly from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The list generally did not list the producers, but at least they showed the vintages. Prices were not particularly expensive, generally between $40 and $80 a bottle. We had a '99 Puligny Montrachet white ($50) which was OK but without any pronounced character and a pretty good '96 Beaune "Les Mouches" Pinot Noir from Chanson ($60). (To his credit, the Beaune was chosen by the guy who ordered the tarte and the duck, thus recovering some of his reputation as a savvy restaurant goer.)
All in all, we had an enjoyable and unpretentious dinner. The restaurant never filled up after the theater crowd was gone, so it was easy to enjoy the food and have a good conversation. Just what the doctor ordered.