I thought Dirty French was going to be a francophilic Carbone, and to that end, I have to admit to a scintilla of disappointment. A new addition to Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi's unstoppable Major Food Group, Dirty French is a solid restaurant: it has all the fundamentals for staying power, especially benefitting from its location within the Ludlow Hotel. In fact, I don't know who will benefit more... perhaps actually, the hotel. But it's just not as theatrical (nor as "dirty") as I anticipated it to be.
The snazzy, cheeky hot pink neon signage at the door hinted in the direction of my expectations, and the room, dark and swanky, reinforced an air of edge and grit. Even a row of disturbing, drippy-eyed smoking clowns gave an impression of drama. But throughout the evening, the restaurant takes on a much more normal vibe- and despite price points that rival Carbone's, the "show" part of dinner-and-a-show that makes Carbone so exceptional does not seem to manifest itself at Dirty French.
The bread course, however, could qualify as a show in itself. It was easily the most memorable and exciting component of the meal- arriving on its own silver pedestal, sided with a creamy whipped cow's milk cheese sprinkled with fresh herbs. The flatbread was piping hot, chewy and pliant, salty and buttery. These were the attributes I was expecting from Dirty French across the board- sort of classy and slutty at the same time. Like the tagline for the Cosmopolitan Hotel: just the right amount of wrong. It felt a little taboo to eat it.. it was little too rich, too many carbs, and just too delicious to keep your teeth out of.
From that point on, the restaurant became a more expected, typical eatery. The prices are not listed on the website, which almost always implies steep tags. If I recall correctly, they were marked on the stiff, cardboard menus, however, and in any case, they mirror the prices at Carbone, only at Carbone the portions are Olympic, and the atmosphere much more entertaining. That said, we were sitting next to an annoyingly shrill pair of ladies that couldn't have been more distracting and shrieky. It definitely didn't help our experience. But here, you're paying simply for the cuisine (and a bumpin' 80'd soundtrack), which is admittedly solid, but I think somewhat unjustified. That said, there is a bit of pomp: oysters are presented ceremoniously, with intricate detail of their provenance and flavor profiles. Meaty dishes abound, classics like boudin and terrine and carpaccio fortify the h'ors d'oeuvres, all lovingly tweaked into modernity. A Roquefort salad focused on flavorful roasted beets instead of the cheese itself, which punched up the sweet vegetable alongside crisp triangles of Asian pear and crunchy candied cashews. Not so divergent from any typical
beets/cheese/nuts salad we might have seen before, but the flavors were alive and robust, and at least it wasn't chevre and walnuts. If anything, the food here might be a little too flavorful, bordering on overwhelming . Perhaps that accounts for the portion size as well: one could not eat too, too much of most plates.
For entrees there are two shareable options of chicken and cote de boeuf, and then a selection of rotisserie proteins, from which we tried the lamb saddle. Taking the French affinity for Moroccan spices, the lamb is rubbed in cumin, then served over firm, toothsome slices of potato, enriched with lamby juices and crisp of edge. From the
Poissons, I chose the Provencale, which were four seared Vadouvan-spiced scallops (in English) paired with artichauts (in French). I couldn't quite get why some terms were Frenchified, and others left en anglais: had I chosen, I would used the lovely French term of Coquilles St. Jacques rather than scallops, but then again, the whole dish was titled Provencale, which to me denotes a preparation with tomatoes and garlic, sometimes olives, none of which appeared in the dish, so what do I know. The scallops were fresh and well-prepared, although I could've done with less of the abundant flurry of whatever flavorless herb
was amply strewn atop. Those artichauts, however, were earthy and tender, a fine counterpart for the curry-esque spice. And while the scallops had those artichokes, the lamb had but potatoes, so some vegetable Accompagnements were in order. I needed to try the mushrooms if only but to compare them to Carbone's memorably marvelous ones, and these were great... but not as great. Or maybe I was just not enjoying myself to same extent that I did there, and the food was reflecting that. How I'd love to compare both mushrooms side by side.. in any case it would be a win-win, because I know Carbone's were exceptional, and these were delicious, too. Less impressive were the Haricots Asiatique, which our waiter recommended. They were unevenly cooked, with most a little on the raw
side, which made their excessive dressing more pronounced. I wish I would've gone with my intial inclination, a parsleyed cabbage braise, that sounded both delicious and certainly less commonplace.
Even with the lack of fireworks through the course of the meal, we wanted to give the desserts a try, even though at this point I was disappointingly underwhelmed. Serves me right for going in with such elevated, Carbone-esque, expectations. Maybe I just like Mario's cooking better than Rich's, who is apparently the toque in charge here. So we tried the Tarte, which is basically a dense bar cookie of a slice of lemon meringue pie. It's meringue was sweet and pillowy, by far the best part of the sweet. The curd was pleasantly sweet with a zippy tart bite, but it was a little gummy and dense atop a crust requiring a bit too much muscle to break.
In the end, Dirty French exhibits a swanky atmosphere and deft service that I might rave about in any other restaurant. It's only that Major Food Group has set their own bar so very, very high, and the only thing that rivals that elevation here are the prices. If Dirty French really is supposed to be an francophilic Carbone, les francaises have some catching up to do.
180 Ludlow St, LES