You wonder how long it can last. It's tempting to put bets on it. But Paris Vendôme is a scene--a scene in a way that only Dallas can precipitate, one swollen from steroids or at least creatine. Its West Village quarters are perpetually surrounded by Lexuses, Beemers, Mercedes, Porsches and the occasional Ferrari (Why do they sound like nasally Honda Civics when the valets throttle them?) waiting to be parked.
The people are just as vivacious as the autos: lots of tight shirts, aerodynamic shades in tints that seem lifted from Dennis Rodman's head, chains, precious stones and metals, dresses shorter than Danny DeVito, plunging necklines and heels jutting under sandal soles in every size and shape imaginable. And some not imaginable. One woman, in a slinky black dress with a back plunging deeper than Tyco stock, wore the steepest heels I've seen off of a stage with fire poles. But these heels had one striking difference: They were made of bamboo. Think of the havoc these must wreak on Ferrari floor mats.
Paris Vendôme has a lot of style, flash and sizzle; so much so, it seems, that the whole thing might pop like a strip of griddle bacon. Two of its most closely linked bistro/brasserie predecessors did, Alberto Lombardi's Bizu and Phil Romano's We Oui. Both French derivatives were highly stylized, sexy and drew scene addicts like poop draws flies (Paris Vendôme allows dogs). But these two examples had one notable flaw: underachieving food.
Paris Vendôme doesn't have much of that. In fact, it almost sort of winks at the sticky libidinousness (hiding behind compulsive cell-phone fiddling) that infects the place and pretends to be more interested in meat and pomme frites.
Simple things can take on extraordinary postures at this place. Such is the Belgian endive with chopped egg and watercress, a dull-sounding pile of upscale mulch if there ever was. And it's delivered that way, attractive though it is. White endive foliage is neatly arranged next to manicured lawn-green supple folds of stemmed watercress for maximum visual contrast. The white leaves are juicy and sweet, tender and delicate. It was dampened in a bumpy (from the chopped egg) milky champagne-vinaigrette emulsion. The watercress, heavily but not overly seasoned with salt and pepper, was pimpled with halved sweet cherry tomatoes. This is an elegantly simple, tasty graze, one with balanced seasonings, appropriate but engaging contrasts and freshness--easily the best salad we've had in recent memory.
Mussels are offered in two versions: marinière (white wine) and poulette (white wine and cream). We tried the marinière variant, a glaring disappointment, and not because the bowl of gaping bivalves wasn't pretty; it was stunning, with jet-black jet shells piled in a pale yellow puddle with a pixie dusting of searing green parsley specks on top. But the meat pearl inside those shells suffered, from what it's hard to know. Most of the time mussels come in easy-to-peg piles: Either they're tasty from top to bottom, or they suck (the kind of suction that has you scrambling for the bathroom, or at least a napkin) with the same thoroughness. Vendôme's mussel bowl accomplishes the impossible task of straddling both piles simultaneously. Some had mushy meat nodes that lacerated like fried egg white with the slightest pull of a fork tine. The flavors were unpleasant, not bad enough to get your hands flailing, but certainly corrupt enough to feel the threat of green coming across your face. Others were near flawless: sweet, firm, chewy and freshly briny. The broth was fine, but there's little even a good broth can do with these unruly children.
We didn't stop to mop up with the bread, so afraid were we of reliving a few of the more pointed wince-inducing flavor episodes, which is a shame. The fine runt of a baguette has its butt stuffed into a little Paris Vendôme paper bag, a touch to presumably give the restaurant that Paris street market feel in this faux urban neighborhood. (Butter is delivered as thin slivers of yellow imbedded with a tiny thyme sprig neatly framed on a small white saucer.)
Steak tartare is an attractive mound of bovine flesh lodged on the forward edge of the plate while a carpet of champagne-vinaigrette-dressed greens sprawls on the other end. The chopped meat is clean and rich, and the brightness of the dressed greens cleans the palate between bites. Thick, latticed potato wafers that have been fried in butter are provided so that there is something to smear the raw gore on. Delicious.
Meat gets even more lecherous in the PV burger, a raunchy assimilation of foie gras, shredded braised short rib and ground tenderloin all forced between a puffy brioche. To create such galling decadence, short ribs are braised and the meat is pulled from the bones. Then the foie gras and truffles are made into a patty, over which the short rib strands are wrapped. This bird and meat muffin is then plunged into the center of a ground beef patty before it is cooked. Cooking tends to melt the foie gras, spreading its sweet richness throughout the ground beef patty--a true Big Mac attack. The result, not surprisingly, is incomparable sweetness and richness in a paunchy meat Danish.
There's also a bit of brutal dry humor in the thing. The PV burger is served with a huge wooden spike driven through the top of the bun and plunged deep into the meat. Impaled on the spike is an assortment of condiments: pickles, a pepper, caper berries and cherry tomatoes. In shadow of this Roman decadence, the pomme frites are almost too inconsequential to notice.
Why not include the Pont-Neuf potatoes that come with the pork diable with the PV? These thick rectangular stipes, pan fried in butter, resemble blunted railroad spikes. They're stacked on the plate, Lincoln-log-like, in the shape of a box. These are french fries with meaning, or at least with Architectural Digest spread possibilities. The pork chop they came with was a marvel: thick with a crisp veneer, pink, juicy and, with a smear of mustard over the top, tasty in a dog off the grill sort of way.
Named after a plaza in Paris, Paris Vendôme is the newest blip to come out of Mico Rodriguez's Restaurant Life, a corporate cocoon that includes The Mercury, Mercury Grill and Citizen. Chef Chris Ward (his book Restaurant Life is strategically stacked in the dining room) developed the menu, and it is executed by chef de cuisine James Johnson.
Johnson was most recently Platinum Club chef at American Airlines Center, and before that he was senior sous chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Out of an open kitchen clad in white and glimmering metal, Johnson and his crew work to fill tables with grub that is as crisp and sparkling as the room.
One example is the crisped duck confit, a leg-thigh ensemble shrouded in fatty crisped skin resting on a berm of pureed potatoes that wades in a puddle of smooth demi-glace. In front of the crisped duck limbs is a salad of watercress and grape tomatoes with shredded cold duck meat. The duck was rich and savory--no livery taste. The salad was tasty, too, a good fat foil, just as it was to the tartare.
Another French bird classic, coq au vin, was rich and powerful--a little too rich and powerful. It lingered for days. And it struck me that I was eating this hearty dish in Dallas' pre-summer orgy of spring steam. Yet this chicken seemed more tuned to cool weather and other huddled comforts. Keeping company with a cluster of vegetables--baby carrots, haricots vert, asparagus--the chicken is soaked in a fiercely concentrated sauce rendered from red wine, mirepoix veggies and chicken drippings. Floating in this sauce the color of redwood stain is a crowd of spaetzle. You feel so naked eating this without the benefit of a virgin wool sweater and a pair of Sorels. Yet beyond the stifling, pungent richness of the sauce, everything worked. The chicken was moist and chewy. The spaetzle was firm and chewy but not doughy. The sauce was texturally smooth. And the whole thing didn't hit you in the head--er, belly--until hours later. So there was time to marvel.
Perhaps the best dish on the menu is also the most unassuming. Grilled sterling salmon is just a tiny cube of meat perched in a large bowl surrounded by savoy cabbage, spinach and chanterelle mushrooms in a buttery puddle of warm vichyssoise sauce. The outside of the salmon is delicately crisp and salty while the inside flakes promiscuously and is moist, firm and pink. This is deeply rich flavor that is cleanly delivered.
The touch didn't stop at dessert. Apple tart galette with caramel ice cream was a marvel of the oft attempted but rarely perfected dish. Here the pastry is delicate, light but supple. It was also resilient. It didn't get bogged down in apple, ice cream or even caramel sauce. And the caramel sauce was among the smoothest, richest and most satisfying we've tasted.
It's hard sometimes to take the excessive preening and conspicuous lease payments that parade in and around Paris Vendôme. But if you loosen up and enjoy the ride, you'll find yourself working up an appetite (not that kind), and there's plenty of utility grub to steady those pangs. For instance, Vendôme offers macaroni and cheese, and most of this scene could use a good dose of that.
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