You always know what you’re getting from a Keith McNally restaurant: a stylishly gritty-yet-gentrified neighborhood, crowd-baiting, comfort-zone cooking, burgundy booths as buttery as the churned pats glazing the brioche; and the insufferable, rail-thin clientele who barely give their filet au poivre a glance, let alone a graze.
For 30 years, McNally has been “the restaurateur who invented downtown” (or so touts the Times), the on-the-pulse force behind Tribeca’s neon-lit art-world haven the Odeon in the ’80s, Sex and the City–era power bistros Balthazar in Soho and the Meatpacking District’s Pastis, and the splashy Minetta Tavern refresh in the late aughts.
The latest in the McNally empire is this softened Gallic swap-in for his failed Nolita pizza concept, Pulino’s. The aim seems to be a Balthazar of the Bowery, a younger, hipper sis to that brasserie bastion; instead it feels like an aging uncle grasping onto his last vestiges of cool.
Balthazar chef Shane McBride and former Minetta Tavern sous Daniel Parilla dispatch McNally greatest hits: steak frites ($28), lightweight fries flying off the plate as waiters bustle by; a soubise-sauced skate served bone-in (warning: you will be picking fish vertebrae out of your teeth, $24); and yes, yet another It burger.
Unlike the hautey hamburger at Minetta, Cherche’s thick-ground prime-rib patty ($21) comes swaddled in aged Gruyère and roasted mushrooms, but those—along with the superfluous lettuce, tomato and onion—are quashed by the relentless meaty funk of bacon marmalade that’s slathered on top.
Appetizers fare better than the mains. A vibrant board of pickled vegetables, nubs of salty salami and edible flowers served with garlic aioli makes for a fresh and stunning, albeit wickedly overpriced, kickoff ($19). You’ll also be sticker-shocked by the pan-roasted foie gras ($26), with its solitary slab of liver, twee house-made brioche, and spartan tumbling of rhubarb—that is, until you load the little loaf with that warm spread and tart stalks. Then, it’s worth every penny.
The $15 pot de fromage is more economical but no less decadent: The Parmesan custard has the soft creaminess of good scrambled eggs, with anchovy-buttered toast cutting through the richness with much-welcome brine.
That’d be all well and good if you actually had time to enjoy the meal. The waitstaff fluctuates between overattentiveness—the napkin of a fellow diner was fussed with 14 times during dinner—and impatience, hovering over the already tightly packed patrons in hope of turning tables over quickly.
And when it’s not the servers, it’s the beautiful, brow-furrowed herds waiting for tables, dagger-eyeing your cozy booth and your $48 prime rib. With the chichi masses in tow, Cherche Midi may be the restaurant New Yorkers want, but it’s not the one we need.—Christina Izzo