Philippe Feret has discovered the secret to success. Not only has his restaurant, Brasserie Julien stayed open for over five years -- a lifetime in restaurant terms -- but he even managed to pack the crowds in on a summer Saturday night on the supposedly deserted Upper East Side. While Feret's formula is hardly revolutionary -- fine food, relatively moderate prices, and a charming, Parisian-inspired setting (complete with live jazz music on some evenings) -- it clearly pleases the local.
Being in a brasserie setting made it almost imperative for one of my guests to sample the French Onion soup, which was thick with cheese and heady with pepper. A much more summery starter was the delicious salad Elena, which consists of a sliced grilled Portobello mushroom topped given bite by a tangy, onion-rich dressing, flanked on the other side of the plate by a lightly-dressed tangle of lettuces and slices of flavorful prosciutto.
While most entrée selections top the $20 mark, bargain-hunters will find some first-rate values on the menu. Mussels not only come in a variety of preparations, but the house offers free refills for hungry diners. And the enormous bison burger, piled high with lettuce, tomato and cheese and accompanied by good pommes frites, is unlikely to leave anyone satisfied. A slightly less delicate (and considerably pricier) option for carnivores is a hearty bowl of fork-tender short ribs in a slightly sweet sauce. I enjoyed the duck a l'orange, though I found the less-than-classic presentation a bit perplexing: one large plate consisted of the breast, sliced and beautifully cooked, fanned out atop an intriguing polenta cake dotted with pieces of root vegetables, while an accompanying smaller plate boasted the leg -- tasty but not at all crisp-skinned -- which sat atop a pile of green vegetables.
The Marquise cake was also not what we expected, but we were far from disappointed with the three squares of fudge-like "cake" topped with chopped pistachios. An even more pleasant surprise was the key lime and mascarpone custard, which is feather-light, slightly tart and just the right side of creamy. As they say in Paris, ooh la la.