Old-fashioned bistros and brasseries used to be neighborhood staples. But in recent years they’ve been on the ropes, with beloved stalwarts hanging up their copper pots for good. Lately, however, French comfort food has begun showing signs of a comeback, with new venues like the tiny Buvette in the West Village and Daniel Boulud’s forthcoming Epicerie slowly opening their doors.
Millesime in the Carlton Hotel helped kick off the trend when it debuted several months back. The spacious new restaurant, the Manhattan homecoming of West Coast chef Laurent Manrique—once a rising star at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley—may be the most ambitious new brasserie to open in years.
The project, like Balthazar with a maniacal seafood focus, revives a style of cooking we’ve frankly been missing—offering classic Gallic fare with a light touch. The venue itself is so proudly French it’s almost a caricature, with the daily Le Monde draped on a rack near the host stand and souvenir Eiffel Towers trimming each table. But while the belle epoque trappings—the frosted glass lamps and red leather banquettes, and doting waiters who swap out your napkin midway through service—verges on stuffy, the food nonetheless is well worth a trip. Manrique, best known for his haute cuisine fish work at Aqua in San Francisco, has a sushi chef’s eye for exquisite seafood. Few restaurants still serve such impressive fruits de mer towers—pricey, yes, but generous, too. A $70 plateau is built for four and overstocked with impeccable oysters and clams, plump shrimp and fat crab legs, tiny bigorneau snails and cool garlic-drenched mussels.
While the menu features a few modern creations, like a warm Caesar salad with grilled lettuce hearts and smoky cod as an elegant stand-in for anchovies, Manrique’s cooking here is mostly a throwback. Among the honest brasserie fare are flawless revivals of regional classics like Lyon-style quenelles—light-as-meringue orbs of pike fish surrounded by rich lobster bisque in a cast-iron skillet. Plump mussels, expertly poached in a variety of fragrant infusions, extend this tour de France to its colonial holdings (try the Creole with kafir lime, curry and coconut milk). And while the lobster pot-au-feu looks awfully impressive in its shallow glass casserole, its simple preparation—the two-person entrée is steamed with carrots and cabbage and served alongside cornichons and seaweed aioli—betrays its humble roots.
But Manrique’s back-to-basics approach truly reaches its apogee on the section of the menu devoted to unadorned fish—his seafood skills laid bare in a beautiful, spare sea bass fillet, simply seared on the plancha. Though offered with a choice of classic French sauces (a gingery beurre blanc is rich and delicious), the fish is so remarkably flavorful, it doesn’t warrant even a squeeze of lemon.
Desserts keep the old-world vibe going, with brioche French toast soaked in crème anglaise, standard-issue profiteroles and pots de crème. It’s all very civilized—until the modern jazz that sometimes comes screeching in from the first-floor bar shatters the haute atmosphere. The space may be flawed, but Millesime’s time-capsule charms offer a welcome breather from the gastropubs and chef’s tables that are trending downtown.—Jay Cheshes
Eat this: Raw-bar platters, Creole mussels, grilled Caesar salad, seared sea bass, brioche French toast
Drink this: Though the overpriced wine list offers few reasonable bottles, the Hautes Noelles muscadet and Nigl grüner veltliner (the cheapest whites on the list, at $55) are each a great, crisp match for most of the seafood.
Sit here: The big tables in the center of the dining room are by far the most comfortable, with room to spread out in curvy leather banquettes. Seats out on a balcony overlooking the Carlton Hotel lobby are spared the musical blare that often invades from the bar beneath the restaurant.
Conversation piece: Laurent Manrique, who runs a bistro and two wine bars in San Francisco, is not just a chef but also a winemaker. A red wine from Arrels, his vineyard in Spain, is sold at the restaurant for $90 a bottle.