The other day I was having lunch at City Bakery. I had been running around and realized it was nearing 2 o’clock and I was famished. (I am like an infant; I need to be fed every few hours.) I stopped in for a cup of tortilla soup and grabbed a seat downstairs. I didn’t have a magazine or a book with me, so I just ate my soup (so good) and observed. On my right was a woman in her fifties. She had her feet up on the chair facing her, was working through a plate of mac n cheese, and had the New York Post open to Page 6. While eating, reading and lounging, she was having a rather loud cell phone conversation that I gathered had something to do with someone in a hospital.
To my left of me were two dark-haired women in the early 30s. They could have been sisters, or just good friends who kind of look alike. One of the women was recounting a drama about a guy she was dating. “I mean he should call more and be more interested,” she said, sinking her fork into a plate of roasted beets and greens. “He says all the right things when we are together and we have a great time, but then I don’t hear from him. I mean, I feel like I am waiting around, and I am sick of it, you know? It’s been like this for like three months.”
She looked distraught, her brow was all knotted up and I could tell she was in need of a friend to listen and help her sort this through. Rather than give her the "you deserve better" talk coupled with the “He’s just not that into you” speech, her friend was busy on her iPhone, tapping and scrolling. She nodded and gave her friend an occasional thoughtless, “Mm Hmm. Yeah, I know, he sucks.” Wow, that’s comfort. Nothing like a lunch with a friend to really cheer you up.
Meanwhile, on the other side of me the woman’s conversation was getting scary. “She’s still on the respirator, and it’s not like she’s wheezing but she’s near the end,” she said, taking a bite of her mac n cheese and turning the page of her Post. Then she said something that almost had me choke on my soup. “The thing is you really don’t know when the right time is to kill your mother.” Yes, my neighbor at City Bakery was talking about euthanizing her mother on her cell phone, while reading the Post and eating mac n cheese. I was horrified. I finished my soup (it was delicious) and went home, disgusted.
Later that night, Craig and I were meeting our friend Sanjit for dinner at Belcourt, a lovely bistro, or gastro-bistro if you will, from chef Matt Hamilton (ex-Uovo, Prune and Five Points). It was a cold rainy night and the wind was whipping so hard that the raindrops felt more like stones than soft spheres of water. But Belcourt was cozy and warm (and dry), with the lights turned down, candles flickering in vintage glass votives, and tables of friends lounging, chatting and sharing platters of cheese and bottles of wine. There were no phones, blackberries in sight. Just people conversing and sharing. It was the antithesis to the scene at City Bakery. Amen. Belcourt is a convivial neighborhood place that occupies the former Frutti di Mare, with an inviting bar, and a classic bistro set up—a long wall of banquettes, marble tabletops, tin ceilings, and dishtowel napkins, tiled floors. Adding a bit of old-world charm is a collection of rare antiques—wrought iron doors from a French post office, deco-period lights, and a 19th-century refrigeration system—that owner Mehenni Zebentout (Nomad) hand-sourced in Paris.
Belcourt is a sweet place that knows what it wants to be and that’s somewhere in the middle. This isn’t a Westville, but it’s not quite Smith’s either. Like Back Forty and The Smith it’s a casual, easygoing, reasonably-priced joint (someone here realizes our economy is slowing) where you’ll get a good meal and be able to enjoy your company. You might pop by for a platter of cheese and a glass of wine, or meet for lunch of escarole salad with cured olives and sherry vinegar ($7) or a juicy well-seasoned lamb burger with goat cheese topped with a zippy house-made tomato ketchup on a freshly baked bun ($16), or have an afternoon snack of house-cured duck prosciutto with spiced persimmons, mascarpone and lamb’s lettuce ($12). It’s a really comfortable place to hang out without the madness of, say, City Bakery. And, yes, the food’s pretty good, too. Hamilton’s background cooking at places like Prune and Five Points have made him a Greenmarket junkie and at Belcourt he’s tackling the seasons with dishes from France, Italy, and Catalunia. Nodding to Spain is the oil-poached octopus served with cardamom-pickled carrots, salsify and a coriander dressing with olive crisps ($10), leaning toward France is a fragrant bouillabaisse-like stew loaded up with monkfish, brandade dumplings, baby fennel, manila clams and orange aioli ($18), and winking at New York is one of my favorite dishes on the menu—a simple house-made hot dog ($9). But this ain’t like any ordinary dog you’d fish out of a steamy water tank from a street vendor. This one’s a boudin blanc, and it’s slim and snappy and packs a nice punch of spice, served on a bed of kraut with whole grain mustard wild pepper potato chips. I’m also partial to the spinach salad, a bowl of baby green leaves punctuated with hunks of grilled Greek manouri cheese (think feta but in the form of mozzarella), showered with toasted pine nuts and cracker bread croutons and dressed in a lemony sumac dressing ($7).
Hamilton has never seen a sweetbread he didn’t like, and here’s he’s turning them out in a unique way that I loved. He marinates them in lemon and garlic and grills them. Maybe it’s the marinade, but they are remarkably tender, which I liked but Craig prefers when they’re crisped up and fried. The sweetbreads are skewered and served with a few pieces of grilled flatbread, a ramekin of roasted garlic butter and dollop of quince preserves. The best way to experience this dish is to get all the flavors together so you should slather the warm flatbread with garlic butter and preserves and top with a sweetbread for a sort of open-faced sandwich.
Hamilton’s passion for offal may only be matched by his love affair with pork belly ($19). He serves a massive hunk of it—it’s the size of a pocket dictionary—that’s ridiculously fatty. (Even for me.) The meat I did find in between layers of creamy fat was wonderful, but it was really hard to get at. But the accompaniments: sauerkraut, spaetzle (softly perfumed with lavender) and house-made sausage—a fat short link—were terrific. A rabbit casserole ($23), topped with a blanket of biscuit as a crust (fabulous idea), made it more like a potpie. It comes filled with braised rabbit in a chestnut and mushroom broth which I found a little too soupy for a casserole, and a little bland, but that biscuit crust was worth the price of admission. The hanger steak though was impeccable. It had a nice salty char, and was cooked spot on to medium rare ($20). It’s topped with your choice of marjoram butter or bone marrow sauce (we went with the latter) and Hamilton’s riff on onions rings—tempura-battered scallions. And to gild the lily even more, we added a side of polenta topped with gorgonzola ($6), a necessary evil, I’m afraid.
Desserts are simple affairs—puffy ricotta fritters with dark chocolate sauce ($6), a rich chocolate pot de crème ($7), and a saucer of Persille de Malzieu—a ripe and spicy gorgonzola cheese—topped with walnuts drizzled with honey to be eaten with a spoon and a glass of Dow’s 10 year Tawny Port ($12).
We lingered over dessert, scraping the bowl of gorgonzola clean, while finishing our various conversations. We went through the spectrum from a lengthy discussion of the democratic nominees, to movies (There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men), and the exhaustion and wonder of being a father (Sanjit and his wife have a gorgeous baby boy) and planning a wedding (yours truly). There were no interruptions, no phone calls, and no texting at our table or miraculously at anyone else’s. Belcourt had managed, for that night at least, not only to be a good call for dinner, but also to be a telecommunications-free zone, where the sanctity of the dinner table was honored. I like that. I’m all for communication but I’m a purist when it comes to the dinner table. Read: No phones, no blackberries or whatever it is you use to be reachable 24/7. You’ve got plenty of time to be in touch. The table is the time for being with the people sitting around it, not those clacking away somewhere else.