Redefining the Neighborhood French Bistro (and Almost Succeeding)
On a quiet, trendy stretch in the Bowery–just doors down from a starkly minimalist shoe store I’m nowhere near “cultured” enough to enter–Rebelle is elevating casual elegant French fare while simultaneously shedding the tablecloths and pretension. It has kept the small portions, much to my chagrin, but some things can be forgiven. The former industrial space is sweeping and–as the sun sinks beneath the buildings–quite romantic. A proud marble bar ushers guests towards a brown brick dining area with bespoke wooden tables punctuated by clear, crystal glass that burns with the flickering candles.
Servers dart from kitchen to bar to tables yet never miss a chance to refill water or offer more bread, another cocktail. Rebelle’s cocktails truly are thoughtful, my favorite being a take on the Moscow mule that’s lighter on the ginger but adds a dose of pungent turmeric for a refreshing, not too sweet balance. Nonetheless, the wine list, developed by partner and Food & Wine’s 2014 sommelier of the year Patrick Cappiello, puts even three Michelin star restaurants to shame with its breadth and conservative markups. I’m not sure the restaurant quite has the menu to justify spending over a thousand dollars on wine (which you certainly can), but there remains a litany of affordable, excellent bottles on offer.
Rebelle’s kitchen is under the care of chef Daniel Eddy, who, after five years under Michael Psilakis, spent four years in Paris under compatriot Daniel Rose, eventually rising to sous chef at his lauded restaurant Spring. Upon his return, Eddy partnered with Cappiello and general manager Branden McRill, a veteran of Alinea, Tru, and Jean-Georges, carving out the restaurant’s twenty dish menu. There are four offerings on the front page “to share” followed by an assortment of three to five dishes in four distinct categories on the back. Servers encourage diners to choose one dish from each section (which includes dessert), putting food costs at around $80 per person all together. However, with the entrées only ranging from $24-$29 (and no real rule stating you need order four courses), a frugal customer can easily have a Michelin star dinner at a cut-rate price.
I began my meal with two of the simpler, but nonetheless telling, “to share” dishes on Rebelle’s menu: anchovies and charcuterie. Given how off-putting some find them, I’m always pleased to see anchovies on a menu. The forage fish has a very pleasant brininess and slight chew that both shine when fresh and allowed to anchor its own dish. Eddy’s presentation was simple as can be: five proud fillets–about twice as large as what you get out of the can–in a thin coating of olive oil, lemon, salt, and black pepper. With a compelling tang and brine, the anchovies made for a nice first bite and underlined the restaurant’s respect for fresh ingredients and ability to honor them with unpretentious platings.
For the charcuterie, rather than a wooden board filled with three or four different pâtés, torchons, and sliced, cured meats, I was presented with just one nondescript plate piled high with thin slices of pork neck. Though I like the pomp and accompaniments of a “full” charcuterie presentation, Rebelle’s was unfussy and deeply satisfying. Fatty (but thin enough to melt in the mouth), salty, and hit with just a sprinkle of black pepper, the neck satisfied in a way cured meats alone rarely can. You don’t need a butcher’s board of condiments when the meat itself tastes so good, and, at $18, it was enough two or three people with my sort of appetite to really enjoy and mull over.
Next, I sampled another unconventional meat preparation: lamb tartare glazed in yogurt and tossed with olives and shallots. Though I wondered if the lamb would have enough fat in it to make for a luscious tartare, the meat melted on the tongue. The yogurt not only added smoothness, but a slight tang that balanced the gamey flavors and accentuated the richness of the dish. The flavor of the olives and shallots didn’t simply provide a bit of assertive backing, but a nice, crisp mouthfeel that further distinguished the unctuous lamb. Despite an unorthodox choice of meat, Rebelle’s tartare ranked among my favorites in the city and shows a clear nod to Eddy’s training under Psilakis.
Opposite the rich lamb, I enjoyed a salad of leeks, soft boiled egg, Dijon, and leek ash in vinaigrette. Though, again, humble in its ingredients, the dish excelled in the juxtaposition of its various elements. The crunchy, refreshing leeks played off of the slightly chewy whites of the egg. At the same time, a splash of vinaigrette and coating of the mustard brought an essential, tangy punch to the plate. The leek ash provided a nice aromatic effect and bit of charred depth to the vegetables in what was, overall, a surprisingly complex and thoughtful salad course.
My meal shifted towards the next, slightly heavier category of the menu with dual preparations of seafood. First, two golden brown sea scallops served with turnip, apple, wild fennel, and green juice (typically made from a mix of apple, kale, ginger, and cucumber). Though a meager serving for $18, the bivalves themselves were wonderfully seared and buttery throughout. However, while the accompanying chunks of apple and pool of green juice were refreshing, I found the sweetness and acidity hindered rather than highlighted the natural sweetness of the scallops.
A dish of lobster with cabbages and fines herbes (parsley, chives, tarragon, chervil) proved more successful. Slightly more ample of a serving than the scallops at $21, the lobster was plump, sweet, and luscious, contrasting nicely with the slight snap of the cabbage. An accompanying foam made from the herbs was (nicely) only slightly sweet and big on herbaceous depth. I made sure to mop up as much of the foam as I could with Rebelle’s bread–an unpretentious country loaf served with a nicely melted local butter. It was nothing to write home about but, nonetheless, crusty and eagerly replenished–more than enough to earn my respect.
Though Rebelle’s dulcey fondant looked tempting, I skipped dessert and finished my meal with the humble chicken. Portioned out as a long strip of crispy, skin-on breast, the bird was flanked by sorrel, lemon preserve, and new potatoes topped with fragile potato chips. While it might not have been a big risk, the chicken surprised with its nicely salted, crispy strip of crust that yielded to an expertly moist layer of meat. While the sorrel and lemon preserve added a hint of sour to liven up the breast, the potatoes offered an uninspired but hearty dose of starch. The chips, I must also say, were a fun addition and delivered an impressive crunch to a decidedly Americanized (but enjoyable) poulet.
Rebelle is truly a good neighborhood restaurant; it’s a place I would go to once a week if I lived down the street. The restaurant delivers on flavorful, unfussy French in an enjoyable environment. It bolsters that ambiance with an approachable beverage program that would be hard to get bored with even after dozens of visits. However, in a city that bleeds brasseries and bistros, Rebelle suffers from being good but not extraordinary. It’s a nice place to go for a casual bite or a cheaper Michelin starred experience, yet, save for the pork neck, I can’t think of a dish I’d make the trek back for. It’s not a bad position to be in, and the restaurant has a real blueprint for success. Chef Eddy has made a valiant effort in his first restaurant of his own, and I can certainly see Rebelle blossoming as he perfects and refines his revolution.
Date Visited: 10/18/15