Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I had bypassed an invitation to Le Philosophe on one prior occasion: the menu read traditional, classic (read: uninspired?) French bistro, and at the moment was seeking a little more vim and buzz.  But as Le Philosophe began creating it's own buzz, it seems the menu belies its intrigue.  Located in an increasingly restaurant-centric hub (although, where isn't?) in NoLiTa, its unassuming facade is similarly modest.  Inside is dark and loud.  The decor is minimalist aside from the east wall featuring immense portraits of notable philosophers.  Rumor has it that if you can name all the philosophers, your meal is free.  So while that sounds like a lot of work (I think I maybe positively identified one), your reward would fully warrant the effort.

The staff circulates the room but seems to be preoccupied (perhaps they are pondering more existential conundra?), but will eventually lay down menus with negligible fanfare.  In fact, there is a list of "Plat du Jour" on the wall, but the plats are listed without a corresponding jour, and by the time our server finally got around to taking our orders, I had forgotten to even ask her about them.  Tap water is provided as a default, so you'd have to actually effortfully request bottled (commendable).  There are no cocktails, however, which was surprising given the volume of gimmicky tipples that could be proffered (I had absinthe on the mind due to the cerebral theme, but to no avail).  The wine list is ample, and beers are plentiful, so there needn't be an issue of sober contemplation, were that to present itself.   It didn't take long to
contemplate the menu, and of what we tried, there wasn't a misstep among the options.  I hesitated to order a cauliflower soup with crispy capers and truffle oil simply because of Julia Child's quote boldly printed on the back of the menu "If you're afraid of butter, use cream".  Not that I'm afraid of butter (OR cream) but I feared it might be a little heavy... when in fact it was quite the opposite.  Creamy and dense, check and check, but with a luxurious pureed cauliflower rather than a surfeit of dairy, the fried capers adding richness and bite to an otherwise mellifluous pabulum.  Market greens with vegetables and herbs were piled in a steep bale of leaflets, shrouding a treasure trove of various vegetable surprises beneath:  coins of roasted sunchoke, a rainbow of steamed, halved baby carrots, salty sauteed radishes, tiny parapets of diced turnips, and dabs of sunny yellow lemon curd.  Do  not to be tricked into thinking this is just an average pile of greens lest you give up before the real dirt candy is unearthed.

  Frogs legs wallowed in a verdant puddle of garlicky watercress puree, sauteed without the common bready crust that masks their delicate, slightly marine flavor, and paired with meaty shreds matsutake mushrooms and woodsy sunchoke.  A bountiful tureen of Bouchot mussels could easily have served as an entree (especially given that entrees tend toward the small side).

 But their flavor is BIG: the crustaceans are choice
specimens, bulbous and sweet, sauced in a thick broth redolent with aleppo pepper and mild leeks, rich with creme fraiche.  Two thick slabs of crusty grilled toast accompany the dish, but you could enlist another basket of bread (a tender-crumbed, crusty baguette and nutty multi-grain) in order to capitalize on every drop.

Entrees continue in fine flavor.  Our chef here at Le Philosophe is a an alum of the Jean-Georges conglomerate, and the sweet-salty-sour balance for which Vongerichten is so talented is not lost on chef Matthew Aita.  The main components of the entrees read like a menu from the 1950's:  Duck a l'Orange, Tournedos Rossini (both of which the host with whom I spoke post-prandially recommended after the fact) Blanquette de Veau, etc.  But they are not your typical renditions, not in
 the least.  Lobster Thermidor, far from the leaden classic featuring egg yolks and cream, arrives refreshed with a bright concasse of Meyer lemon atop a raft of emerald haricots verts swathed with a Lucullan tarragon-mustard sauce.   A roasted hake arrives skin-on in a hearty stew of cranberry beans flavored with zesty ribbons of Cabacero
 Iberico and fronds of peppery arugula, gently wilted in the steaming heat of the terra cotta casserole.   A modest portion of flat iron steak is ruby red in contrast to the ebony char of its grilled exterior, pooled in a marvelous, winy Bordelaise.  It's served with a mountain of crisp frites with a creamy sauce Choron in which to dip them.  Could've done with more steak and less frites, but execution was spot on.  Similarly, like all the entrees we tried, it is noticeably bereft of vegetation, and while the "Sides" menu offers a variety of rice and potatoes, there is but one Jardiniere, which turned out to be a somewhat oily, saline hodge-podge of radishes, celery and turnips- not at all undelicious, but almost more condimenty than vegetal.  Perhaps in this respect the philosophers still cling to the antiquated myth of vegetables filching energy from cogitation to facilitate their effortful digestion.

Desserts are also updated classics- tweaked antiquity- and all the better for it.  Be forewarned that the profiteroles balk the pattern of portion temperance.  Priced a dollar cheaper than the two other plated sweets, you might errantly think this a dessert for one.  But the three enormous doughnuts could easily satisfy three or four people;  I wondered if the kitchen wasn't making up for the more modestly sized entrees.   They are delicious for a bite, in their careless way: too big and too sloppy with too many hazelnuts strewn atop- but a tasty gloss of chocolate and thick caramel gelato make one bite a treat.  A delightful tart tatin was of perfect proportion on the other hand,  with a singular slab of roasted Mutsu atop a slightly tough crust .  But the tart cider glaze and dense, zesty apple puree played sour to the creamy sweetness of a luscious buttermilk ice cream.  My decaf Americano was unexpectedly unspectacular, but regular caffeinated coffees were good: I guess place inspired by the great thinkers focuses on the brews that would fuel a contemplative late night.

But by far the most disappointing aspect of Le Philosophe is the restroom.  Not only is there only one, unisex facility, you open the door to be welcomed by a gaping urinal immediately to your right: an unsightly, unseemly, and somewhat repugnant installation that would seem to be unnecessary.  Unless they were considering Duchamp a philosopher and thus providing tribute.  Methinks not.

 No. 55 Bond Street 


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