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Chef: Didier Virot
Cititour Review:The Upper West Side has always been the Bermuda triangle when it comes to culinary invention. Anything that even remotely echoes ambition is shunned with a Scarlet A. Do people up there sign a pledge to eat only Chinese, bagels, sushi, Italian, and burgers till death do they part? I mean it’s sort of ridiculous at this point. I applaud Bill Telepan for making it work. He was smart. He is offering a three part menu of small plates, apps, and entrees in an innocuously presented menu that includes pastas, braised dishes, eggs, smoked fish, and the like in a casual setting that perhaps allows those timid Upper West Siders to feel like they can handle the roster of seasonal ingredients and Telepan’s considerable kitchen talent. Tom Valenti is also the right sort of chef for this population of dull diners. His restaurants are perfect for the UWS mentality—gussied up comfort food in lively convivial settings.
But Aix, a Provencal restaurant headed by chef Didier Virot, who made a name for himself as Jean Georges Vongerichten’s executive chef, didn’t want to play by the Upper West Side playbook. Virot had a serious vision for his food and his restaurant, and it did not include dumbing anything down. After three years of trying it his way, he and owner Phillip Kirsh decided to evolve and meet the neighborhood half way. They have removed the carpets, and stained the floors a dark espresso color. They have stripped the tables of white tablecloths and replaced them with glossy wood ones instead. They have removed the high art from the walls and replaced it with vintage French posters. CNN and ESPN still play in the bar, but now the lounge menu of burgers, pastas, and sandwiches has been folded into the main menu, and fries top mostly every plate in both the bar and the dining room. They changed their precious Aix of haute cuisine into a casual neighborhood place they now call Aix Brasserie, a place that boasts crowd-pleasing plat du jour like Coq au Vin ($27) on Wednesdays and a smoked Peking duck with braised red cabbage and apricot jus ($32) on Thursdays (that is calling my name).
The change is working nicely with the neighborhood. When I went in last week with my friend Diana we found the bar filled with a mix of handsome grey-haired couples, sexy burger boys glued to the hockey game, and pencil thin women sipping martinis and nibbling on lettuce (and their boyfriend’s fries).
After a drink at the bar, Di and I moved to the dining room, into a snug little booth made for two. We settled in, ordered some wine, opened our menus, and then she handed me a slim rectangular book and I almost jumped out of my seat with joy. It was a collection of photographs taken by documentary photographers around the world and two of her photos were chosen and included in the book. I was blown away. I am so proud of her. Diana is one of my dearest and oldest friends. She started her career as a chef in New Orleans and then New York, and decided to change her life about ten years ago. She is now a documentary photojournalist and the founder of Faces of Tomorrow, a project that brings the voices of our world’s children to life through the lens of her camera. People, she is an amazing photographer. I know I am biased but her photos really capture that limitless, almost inflatable sense of hope that is so unique to children. She has traveled to Turkey, India, Brazil and Africa and all of her photos are on her website, www.facesoftomorrow.com. I was glued to the book, but soon, we agreed it was time to stop kvelling, and start eating. I was hungry. Shocker. I think I am hungry every hour on the hour. I am like a newborn on a feeding schedule. Seriously pathetic People, I know.
The new menu is quite extensive and now straddles the line between brasserie and Aix’s former haute self. Now you’ll find crowd pleasing eats like the Aix burger with house pickles and fries ($16), a salmon burger with green apple daikon, and arugula salad, tartar sauce, and fries ($18), and a fat and crispy roast chicken ($26) stuffed with Comte cheese with wild mushrooms with a puddle of a terrific sauce of vin de jura—a slightly sweet wine sauce made from grapes that are dried on straw mats and left to sweeten in the sun. There are also pastas like a stunner of wide sheets of housemade papardelle tossed simply with nutty brown French butter, fresh cracked pepper, roasted garlic and a chiffonade of arugula ($17). Virot’s signature gnocchi parisienne ($20)— made from choux dough so that they are almost as light as whipped cream—are still on the menu but they are now served with julienned Serrano ham, firm English peas, and a rich and creamy Parmesan emulsion that I might as well have applied directly to my hips. I feel sorry for my body sometimes.
Virot is also offering a Craft-like section of expertly grilled steak, fish, chicken and lamb to match up with sauces (Vin de Jura, Dijon, Bearnaise, etc.), and sides like steamed asparagus, grilled Neuski Bacon, and yes, French fries. The steak we tried—an all-natural Cedar River Farms strip—was flawless: juicy, smacked with flavor, with a nice salty char. It was textbook perfect. On the side, we ordered some wonderfully meaty sautéed wild mushrooms, and a crock of aromatic French lentils served in a little Le Creuset pot that were as delicious they were adorable.
But Virot is not ready to give up on the neighborhood completely. A few of the dishes we tried were quite complex and intensely fabulous. We loved the Moroccan spiced lamb loin ($14), an appetizer of four slices rich with cinnamon, coriander and cumin flanked by creamy-soft Medjool dates. The house smoked trout salad ($13) was folded with mustard cream and diced celery with some sliced purple potatoes, and Bibb lettuce. If I could have gotten my hands on a couple of slices of Pullman bread or a Pumpernickel bagel (I could have just walked across the street), I would have had one find smoked trout sandwich. Forget tuna people. From now on, I am all about the smoked trout salad sandwich. I also loved the zippy Peekytoe crab salad ($14)—big sweet lumps of meat tossed with julienned cucumber, watermelon radish, and cilantro, dressed in a vinaigrette of red pepper and jalepeno, with a side of smashed avocado and a long sesame crisp for scooping.
One of my favorite dishes on the menu was the steamed wild bass ($28)—a thick glossy filet on a mound of silky basmati rice and sautéed black trumpet mushrooms set in a brothy puddle of white wine and clam jus. The flavors were clean and bright—the cold waters of sea mixed with the dark warm earth. Diana was more partial to the Parmesan-crusted Dorade ($27), with a tile-like tart of sliced zucchini and a tomato-anchovy compote—a much more assertive dish with pungent, brilliant flavors.
After dinner, we shared a chocolate tart topped with bruléed and caramelized bananas (very good) and a Meyer Lemon soufflé (not so good) and surveyed the room. It was packed, and equally divided between burger and beer crowd, the white wine and seared scallop set. Diana (who is married) noticed a guy sitting to our left. Diana is always trying to fix me up and this was her latest attempt. The guy was handsome, and he seemed to be having dinner with his dad. How sweet. “Honey, he is cute, you have to meet him,” she said. I laughed. “Di, you are funny. He is having dinner with his Dad.” She gave me a look. “SO! You’ll meet his Dad too. Come on. You’ve gotta meet him.” It reminded me of the last time she did this. We were at Casa Mono and she made me send this guy sitting alone at the food bar a glass of sherry. It actually worked out quite well. He was sweet, funny, not to mention McDreamy, and we ended up going out a few times. But he was only in New York for a few days on vacation. Hey, at least we had fun for a few days. Anyway, as Diana was insisting on the meeting, I finished off the rest of the banana-chocolate tart. She was not letting this one go though. He and his Dad were finishing up their dinner and got up to leave. “Honey, look! He has a great butt! Come on! Go!” I looked at her: “Di, do you actually think I am going to get up and run after this guy just because he has a cute butt?” “Yes,” she said, adding: “Well, I would. I am a total ass woman. I love a nice ass.” (Yes, Diana’s husband has a very nice booty.) I was cracking up. “Di, I like a nice ass too (and she was right, he did have quite a fine rear), but I am not chasing him, his nice ass, and his father out of this restaurant.” She seemed to relent and we collapsed into our banquette giggling like teenagers in homeroom. Gotta love Di.
As we left the restaurant, I was still laughing about the guy with the cute ass. But soon I tore myself away and thought more about our dinner. I was very impressed with the food at Aix Brasserie. Virot is quite a talented chef, as is his number two in command, chef de cuisine Dan Levy. And while I think Virot is doing an admirable job of balancing his need to do “his” food and the neighborhood’s desire for something a little less precious, I do think the menu should become more a singularly brasserie in style than what it is now, which is really two concepts—high and low—in one. Virot is holding onto some high-end fare that while quite delicious, seems a bit out of place in the Brasserie setting. I’d also lose the fancy flatware, and take the food presentation down a notch to match the brasserie concept. Other than this slight menu dichotomy however, the newly conceived Aix is a very appealing restaurant with wonderful food that makes a lot more sense for the neighborhood. In fact, if it were closer to my neighborhood, I’d be there once a week sitting at the bar with a juicy burger and a cold beer or a bowl of that amazing homemade papardelle in French brown butter and a glass of wine. And maybe then I’d meet the guy with the cute butt.
Review By: Andrea Strong