Clever and Refined European Fare that Sheds All Pretense
Drew Nieporent is not afraid to reinvent restaurants. In 1985, He opened the Montrachet in TriBeCa with a young David Bouley, earning three stars from The New York Times and holding them for twenty-one years even as the chef (who left just two years in) went on to build his own mini-empire. Robert DeNiro proved an early fan of the restaurant and conscripted the young owner as a partner in opening other eateries in the neighborhood. In the spring of 2007, despite the rampant success of Nieporent’s Tribeca Grill and Nobu restaurants, the Montrachet auctioned the contents of its famed wine cellar and shuttered.
By October of 2008, the restaurateur opened Corton in the very same space, partnering with chef Paul Liebrandt and earning backing three stars (as well as two Michelin stars). Just under five years later, Liebrandt left to pursue his own project, and Corton, in turn, closed. In May of 2014, Nieporent opened Bâtard yet again in the same spot, this time even keeping most of the dining room’s cosmetic elements. Liebrandt’s acclaimed but pricey tasting menus were traded for refined yet familiar European fare under the care of Markus Glocker, a veteran of Charlie Trotter’s and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Following in the footsteps of its esteemed predecessors, Bâtard earned yet another three star review for Nieporent, picked up a Michelin star, and won the title of best new restaurant in the country at the 2015 James Beard Awards. Both the Montrachet and Corton were before my time, but, if they were as great as Bâtard, I think I understand the gravity of their loss and the beauty of the space’s revival.
The restaurant is minimalist and unfussy (no white tablecloths here). However glowing ambient light and off-white walls with faintly carved vines add an unmistakable air of opulence. Bâtard certainly appeals to the date-night crowd but tempers its refinement with hardy wooden tables and an energetic noise level. Equally, despite the refined European cuisine and looming presence of the cheese cart–a fine dining staple–servers are friendly and disarmingly bright. It took a few more minutes than I liked to get my initial order in due to the litany of questions posed by neighboring tables about the prix fixe format. Nonetheless, once food and drink selections were settled, the meal flowed effortlessly with attentive filling of waters and offers of more bread.
Bâtard splits its menu into four categories of five or six dishes each and offers diners the choice of a two, three, or four course meal priced at $55, $69, and $79 respectively. Though the entry point might be on the high side, the prices are fair for the amount (and quality) of food as well as the freedom to omit dessert from the two and three-course options. The menu also doesn’t overindulge in supplementary charges–the only three that evening being $10 for an optional amuse course, $9 for a pork entrée, and $15-$21 for a selection of cheeses. Cocktails run from $12 to $17 but join a selection of nine beers and a long, well curated list of affordable wines by the glass and bottle.
I opted for the four-course prix fixe but added on the supplementary amuse. That meant my meal began with an excellent terrine of foie gras served with celery, apple, and a slice of toasted brioche. Creamy and glistening, the terrine didn’t quite spread smoothly on the toast but was nonetheless pleasing texturally. The foie itself had a wonderful richness and a meaty, sweet quality that often gets lost in more amateur preparations. Combined with the tangy sweetness of the apple purée and crunch of the celery, the amuse was a welcome and thoughtful beginning to the meal. I could see paying double the price for a smaller portion of terrine somewhere like Per Se and not enjoying it half as much.
My first dish of the meal proper quickly established itself as one of chef Glocker’s signautres since Bâtard’s opening. Octopus is prepared pastrami style, held together (much like the previous terrine) with the seafood’s natural gelatins and spiked with ginger, coriander, fennel, cloves, and other smoked meat spices. Served with braised ham hock, pommery mustard, and new potatoes, the dish winks at New York’s culinary tradition while exceptionally showcasing the mollusk. Soft and tender to the bite, the octopus retained just enough chew to evoke feelings of the lean part of the pastrami. The ham, mustard, and potatoes certainly helped the illusion but in small enough measures to allow some of the natural sweetness and identity of the cephalopod to shine. As a nailed on octopus lover, nothing could be better. The dish deserves its high praise and encapsulates the mix of whimsy and precision that makes the restaurant so pleasing.
Following the foie and the octopus came another of my perennial favorite: veal sweetbreads. Bâtard’s come pan-fried and sit atop a slice of delicata squash (a richer, creamier winter squash) with veal jus and ras el hanout, a traditional North African spice mix traditionally made from over a dozen components and often including cardamom, cumin, paprika, and turmeric. Despite the complexity of the spice mix, the dish’s flavors were clear and comforting. The sweetbreads, though not fried to a crisp, had a nice, light crust that yielded to a remarkably smooth, just slightly chewy center. While the veal jus intensified the richness of the meat, the ras el hanout provided a more general savory quality that changed slightly with each bite. Tying everything together: the wonderfully warm, earthy squash with an impressive natural sweetness to balance the veal flavor. In all, a creative sweetbreads dish that I’d rank along side Uncle Boons’s as one of my favorites.
With duck, octopus, and veal all covered, my entrée undoubtedly had to be porcine in nature. I coughed up the $9 supplementary fee for a preparation of Mangalitsa pork two ways. First, tender chunks of the loin and cheeks with potato purée atop gossamer-thin slices of pancetta with a light jus. While the loin was a perfect medium–possessing a slight chew and oodles of juice–the cheeks were even better: tender throughout and poignantly meaty. The amount of potato on the plate was too little to truly reflect on, but I thought the pancetta was a nice touch that showed even more of a “nose to tail” approach from the kitchen.
The second preparation, served at the same time, featured a sizeable nduja sausage, a spicy, spreadable variety from Calabria that makes use of trimmings from the shoulder, belly, and jowl as well as roasted hot red peppers. The nduja was served alongside pork belly, Brussels sprouts, and smoked lentils in what amounted to an absolute onslaught of savory, succulent meat. While the belly and sausage were soft and smooth on the palate, the sprouts and lentils provided a bit of crunch and chew while absorbing the sizeable drippings. I think this portion of the dish could have benefitted from a bigger presence of spice, yet I have a truly hard time complaining about meat so expertly and lovingly prepared. In lieu of a sweet dessert, I ended my meal with a selection of cheeses that, while nice, was presented in a fairly orthodox fashion.
Though it’s Nieporent’s third restaurant in the location in thirty years, Bâtard has all the energy and exuberance of a new kid on the block. Flavors are powerful and persuasive, bucking tradition and infusing a bit of Glocker’s own charm. The prix fixe format might prevent the restaurant from being an everyday or every week place for patrons, but, when you compare Bâtard to somewhere like Rebelle or Contra, the prices are just about the same for far better food, service, and ambiance. At a point where it seems like every young gun is trying to reinvent and strip down traditional European bistro fare, Nieporent effortlessly outdoes the competition. The Montrachet might be long gone, but its spirit and the soul of its young restaurateur are born anew at Bâtard.
Date Visited: 11/2/15