Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bar Americain: Good Times

When my brother Bill said he wanted to treat me to a late birthday celebration in Manhattan, he told me to pick the place. “Anywhere!” he said good-naturedly. “You’re the birthday girl!”

Bill was serious—he meant anywhere—but with great dining radiuses comes great responsibility. Bill’s an adventurous eater, and he definitely appreciates good food, but what Billy frowns upon are: froufrou restaurants, pretentious menus, miniscule portions, places that don’t offer tap water as an option, or scenes that are hip at the expense of comfort. Come to think of it, I suspect no one would appreciate the above scene, but many foodies—myself included—have been lured to these environments because of the promise of something outstanding. I didn’t want to get experimental on this given night, and witness Bill’s expression if he ordered, I don’t know, a $30 hamachi tuna appetizer only to receive two quarter-sized slivers underneath a sea of flower petals. I simply wanted everyone to have a good time, and eat good food.

Bill’s had a great time at Babbo—excellent food and service, in a classy but relaxed setting—he loves pretty much any sushi joint, and he adores all of those Brazilian meat places where you turn your red and green card to “green” in order to be bombarded with meat on a stick and alcohol. But what kept coming up in conversation lately was his recent trip to Vegas, where a meal at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Caesar’s Palace netted “one of the best dishes of his life,” the Southwestern Spiced Duck Breast, with carrot-habanero sauce.

When Bill hinted that our night of fun should culminate with a screening of Terminator Salvation, it all came together. We would stay in Midtown, try out Bar Americain, Bobby Flay’s American Brasserie, and catch a screening immediately following.

Bar Americain’s big with the pre-theatre crowd. Not the pre-Terminator Salvation crowd, the pre-theatah crowd. How do I know? When I called to make the reservation, the gentleman on the phone asked if our 5:30 reservation was to make a Broadway show. When I called back to switch the number in our party, I again was asked if our reservation was pre-theatre. And again when the restaurant called to re-confirm our reservation the day prior.

Saturday evening, promptly at 5:30, Bill, his girlfriend Lori and I stood at the entrance of Bar Americain, where a pleasant man asked for our names. He looked up with a winning smile. “Is your reservation pre-theatre?”

Never mind. The location is ideal to grab a bite before a Broadway show, and it’s a bustling, cheerful environment. Part European brasserie, part modern American with high banquettes, and an open kitchen to the far right. We made our way to the mezzanine level and took our seats next to the railing, giving us a splendid view.

We all found it funny when our waiter came over and announced, “There aren’t any specials here.” Perhaps it’s because there are Plates of the Day listed on the menu instead, but he didn’t clarify.

Entrees around us looked large, so we thought our party of three would be safe splitting one appetizer and a side dish. Our waiter talked us into one more, saying appetizers were on the smaller side. Here’s what we ended up with:

Gulf Shrimp & Grits, Bacon, Green Onions, Garlic: $15
Crispy Squash Blossom, BBQ Pork, Chile Vinegar Sauce: $13
And, from the “Side Dishes” menu,
Fries Americain with smoked red pepper mayonnaise: $9
All dishes were quite good. The crispy squash blossom was probably the most surprisingly good—the pork inside the deep-fried blossoms was amazingly tender and the Chile Vinegar sauce had a welcome piquant kick.

But it was all about the fries. We couldn’t get enough of them. They tasted exactly like fries, no surprises, just cooked exactly as a fry should be, lightly crisped and spiced on the outside, and the mayonnaise sending them out of this world. A winner.

As we waited for our entrees, our waiter dropped by. He hesitated. “I just wanted to check with you guys… you don’t need to make a show, right?”

Here are our entrees:
Smoked Chicken, Hatch Green Chile Spoonbread
Black Pepper Vinegar Sauce: $28
Skate, Smoked Chile Butter, Capers, Tarragon, Crispy Hominy: $29
Red Snapper, Florida Style: $32
I’d say we were all extremely satisfied with our entrees. Bobby Flay has a very clear idea of what he does well, and he sticks with it: grilled and smoked proteins, with intricate, tangy, colorful sauces. Each bite has a comforting, homestyle, “hot off the grill(!)” taste, but the sauces make you linger a moment as you try to identify flavors that are surprising, yet familiar. The skate was the best I have tasted; the snapper, extremely enjoyable until there was no more avocado (then it was a little bland); and the vinegar sauce pretty much made my chicken dish.

Here’s a look at dessert:
Sweet Potato Pie
Graham Crackers, Cinnamon Ice Cream
Blueberry Lemon Crepes
Brown Sugar, Brown Butter
I wasn’t a huge fan of the crepes, although Lori loved them. I think the lemon filling was too strong, and I would’ve appreciated fresh blueberries. However, the sweet potato pie was lovely, especially coupled with the thick graham cracker crust. Bill stole all the cinnamon ice cream, which he deemed exceptional. (Ice cream is Bill’s favorite dessert in the whole world – any flavor.)

All in all, a good time was had by all at Bar Americain. The food is solid and reasonably priced (with the exception of appetizers: I think the prices could’ve come down a bit, or the portions could’ve come up a little), the staff is proficient, and the atmosphere is happy and comfortable.

Bar Americain
152 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 265-9700

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