That Le Grand would be le great was a given from day 1. Between owner Robert Thompson, whose vision is unwavering, and chef Sergio Romero, whose talent is indubitable, the brasserie-style downtowner simply couldn’t miss, any more than the superduo’s Argyll Pub could when it opened, or will when it reopens.
Indeed, the French phrase comme-il-faut—“as it should be,” “how things are done”—here applies across the board, from the décor (twinkling Parisian vibe, check; red leather and mosaic-tile floors, check) to, bîen sur, the menus, with their emphasis on charcuterie and raw-bar fare, bistro and cheese plates, French wines and French-kissed cocktails (not to mention traditional absinthe service).
What I admire most about Romero’s cooking is, honestly, precisely what I could take or leave about everyday French cuisine in general—its straightforwardness. Maybe I’ve just grown jaded after a decade of food writing, but my tastes tend toward the off-kilter & the boldly flavored; I just don’t crave soupe à l’oignon or moules frites or steak au poivre the way I do goat curry or vitello tonnato or dan dan noodles. Yet Romero’s style is one of deceptive & profound, not one-note, simplicity; a year after eating the Scotch broth he served back at Argyll,
I still recall its equal depth & clarity of flavor. At Le Grand, too, I know from several visits that what on paper doesn’t necessarily make me go gaga is nonetheless likely to delight me wholly in reality—which is where it matters, right?
Exhibit A: happy-hour wings marinated in garlic, bay leaf & red-wine vinegar & paired with a crème fraîche-based dipping sauce. These wings have legs—a mahogany gloss & a subtle tang.
Then there’s the saucisse à l’ail, or garlic sausage, served over brothy lentils with pearl onions & carrots (pictured as both an entrée & a happy-hour small plate)—
earthy to the core, the sausage robust with its slight char, the lentils a touch nutty & so soothing—not just comfort food but restorative food.
The escargots are absolutely beautiful inside & out; where so many preparations emphasize snails’ sea-salty richness with lots of butter & garlic, Romero highlights their sweetness with less butter & a generous smear of parsnip puree.
By contrast, scallop-&-ahi tartare is so startlingly pungent that I’m still at a loss as to how he prepares it; asking our server got me nowhere. Yes, there are toasted capers, but they aren’t the culprit. Is the seafood smoked? I was convinced it was, but I was told no. Is there soy, miso, fish sauce? I don’t know. The accompanying béarnaise toned it down a little—not enough, I imagine, for the sodium-&-iodine-averse. Me, I’m all for it, though (or because) it’s a real mouthful.
Conversely, only the cassoulet has been a bit of a letdown—a little underseasoned & underdone, the ingredients not wholly melding. Truth is I’ve rarely been transported by restaurant versions of this dish, & I can’t help but assume that most pro kitchens aren’t equipped to prepare it the old-fashioned way, a process that takes at least 2 days. If anyone is likely to honor the tradition, it’s Romero, so let’s just say my verdict’s still out on this dish—I’d certainly give it another go. Sure is pretty, in any case.
Okay, the steak tartare was a slight bummer too, but only because the portion was too small to suit my greedy needs. Otherwise it was parfait, fried instead of raw quail egg & all. (I didn’t try the Director’s arugula salad with house-cured bacon, croutons & another fried egg, but I’m sure it’s something Romero can pull off in his sleep.)
Finally, having said that originality isn’t Le Grand’s be-all-end-all, I’d be remiss to note the exception: desserts. Aside from the signature foie gras crème brulée, classic profiteroles made new with bay-leaf ice cream instead of vanilla & eggnog anglaise in lieu of chocolate sauce, plus a zingy underlay of clementine chutney, are downright fabulous. The herb and tart-fruit notes, the crunch of the airy puffs, the tooth-thrilling chill of the filling—they’re far more complex than they have a right to be.
My high praise was rewarded by a complimentary dish of jalapeño ice cream whose recipe Romero’s playing with, which capitalizes on the chile’s initial sweetness & slow-to-build heat. I can’t wait to see what he does with it. I can’t wait to return, period.