Restaurateur Gabriel Stulman is a turnaround artist, transforming ghost-town restaurant spaces into overnight hot spots. Montmartre—as with his basement Fedora and alleyway Perla—looks like another triumphant revival. The new salvage project features his usual convivial mix of eclectic art, bespoke cocktails, warm service and cool tunes, with a cozy front bar and inviting backyard (set to open later this spring). These elements might have added up to a winner, if the food on the tables were better. At the end of the day, though, Stulman has replaced one middling French bistro—the outdated Gascogne—with another.
The impresario has had plenty of luck elsewhere, partnering with former kitchen lieutenants, giving understudies to Mario Batali and Montreal’s Martin Picard their first shots at the spotlight. But not all rising stars can hack it alone. Tien Ho, the David Chang acolyte who did such good work at Má Pêche, is struggling here by himself. His tweaked bistro standards feature a baffling array of miscalculations, in one off-key dish after another.
Ho, who years back spent time at Café Boulud, seems to need a refresher on old-school French technique. Instead of pumping up classics, he’s watered them down, his flavors often floundering at polar extremes—either a salt lick or a bland washout, without much in between.
The flubs begin with an opening snack, a warm crock of brandade, the soupy salt cod more sallow dip than the usual rich, thick slather for toast. Escargots, traditionally garlic-butter delivery systems, are reduced to rubbery garnish for undercooked chard and super-salty house-made garlic sausage. Even a pretty straightforward frisée aux lardons misses the mark, the bistro mainstay served with an overcooked egg, brackish bacon and a few leathery slips of duck confit.
The chef, perhaps stymied by the restaurant’s nostalgic framework, can’t quite figure out how to make throwback French cooking exciting and new. His brisket meurette, a Thursday night special, is stringy beef in thin red-wine sauce. His blanquette de veau, a typically decadent Escoffier classic, features tender-enough veal breast in a flavorless pool of watery cream.
Ho fares better when he seems to cook off-the-cuff. Skate, in an improvisational entrée, has some of the bravado everything else needs, the well-seasoned fried fish served with fresh, zingy kraut and a velvety sauce made from white wine and coarse mustard. For a Gallic fish-and-chips, add a side of extra-crispy pommes soufflés, puffed spuds with fried artichoke slivers. Even the best things on the menu, though, seem to be missing a note. Meaty fluke with crab butter, in a well-composed dish, could use a gust of acid, a bit more sparkle to take it over the top.
Desserts, the low point of a meal here, are across-the-board clunkers. The brief selection—just three options—includes a free-form apple tart topped with undercooked fruit and very strange sweet-savory cream puffs, featuring grainy hazelnut custard piped into sharp Gruyère gougères.
Given Stulman’s great track record, this misfire—his first—doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Give it some time, though. He might turn it around.
Eat this: Skate St. Malo, Gascognaise potatoes (pommes soufflés)
Drink this: The fine cocktails, by longtime Stulman collaborator Brian Bartels, include the Rye ’n Parker Swag, a complex woodsy mix of Redemption Rye, Braulio Amaro and Stone Pine liqueur ($13). The pricey list of French and American wines features very few bargains by the bottle, with just a handful under $50. The Côtes du Rhône from Les Garrigues, an easy-drinking light red, won’t break the bank ($40).
Conversation piece: The restaurant takes its name from a now-shuttered college hangout in Madison, Wisconsin—Café Montmartre—where Stulman once tended bar. He credits that first hospitality job for launching his restaurant career.
By Jay Cheshes