Two Manhattan Bests

As you know, I usually keep a northern exposure to most of my restaurant reviews. New York City already captures so much of the attention when it comes to food writing in our state, and I like to shine my spotlight on points a little more bucolic. But I spent a couple of days in NYC with Big Hungry Melinda this past week, hitting up one new best and one I’ve been eyeing for nine (9!) years, so I’d like to share those experiences, in case you have a jaunt to the big city coming up on your agenda.

And how cute did we look at Upper East Side's Ophelia?
Frenchette is a greater France area restaurant in Tribeca that snagged Eater’s Best New Restaurant accolade in 2018, and is on James Beard’s shortlist this year. I say greater France area, because while the food is French-influenced, it’s by no means traditional, and Lee Hanson, wildly famous for City classics like Balthazar and its celebrated fries and the Minetta Tavern burger, is a chef adept enough to twist regional European cuisine into whatever he likes and still be successful. BTW, I have to fan girl for just a moment here: I have been spotting Lee for decades popping up on Food Network and Travel Channel food shows, and he came out with his kitchen staff for a post-lunch meeting at the table RIGHT NEXT TO OURS while we were there. I managed not to make direct eye contact or ask for a photo, and I am exceedingly proud of myself for not bothering the man while he was working.

ANYWAY, the food is bonkers here, and you should go. But beyond that, the first thing I want to talk about is the service, which, despite an incredibly busy late-Friday afternoon lunch rush, was friendly, easy going, and attentive. We didn’t ring up a particularly high check, and our waitress still treated us like we were someones. That was nice.

Let’s start with the lobster in curry butter sauce, because it was bomb. The lobster was tender and sweet, and the sauce bathing the whole thing was complex yet subtle, warm and rich without overpowering the shellfish. This is not the dish to order if you’re famished – it was only about four bites and served with a tiny carrot and fennel salad – but I was lucky enough to drag some of Melinda’s fries through the extra sauce pooling in the lobster sauce, and called myself satisfied.

The roast chicken with maitake mushrooms was a more classic French dish, and that chicken had had a proper spa day before it came to our table. She was tender and juicy, with crisped, seasoned skin, and she had been bathed in a jus so deep and rich, it was difficult not to tip the entire bowl straight into my mouth. Actually, there was a trencher of bread under the chicken soaked in the jus and Melinda didn’t even get a bite of it. I annexed it for my own mouth. Fries dipped in that sauce were another good idea I devised, and if there comes a day when using your main dish’s sauce as a fry delivery mechanism isn’t acceptable in restaurants, I may have to give up dining out.

Those fries were no slouch, of course. This is the guy who used to cook at Balthazar, remember. He does not screw around when it comes to potato management. They were double-fried, salted and served with a very light aioli, though I mostly skipped that in favor of soaking the frites in all the other sauces on our table. We got a big bowl of them, and I would choose that again, they were so good.

For dessert, Melinda ordered sorbet, and I actually didn’t grab a bite, because mine was so good I was distracted. I had the PARIS-BREST A LA PISTACHE, which I only noticed this instant is meant to share. That probably explains why I wasn’t able to eat more than half: IT’S FOR TWO PEOPLE, YOU PIG. Hahahaha. Like I even care.

The important information you need to know about this big donut that’s crispy on the outside but as light as angel food cake on the inside is that it’s filled with caramel sauce and pistachio cream that gush out into your mouth with each bite and force you to audibly groan, which is only okay because Frenchette is so bustling, no one can hear you embarrass yourself.

So, if Frenchette is the best new restaurant in New York – and I have a strong suspicion, given the social media love it's received lately from the likes of Andrew Zimmern and Eden Grinshpan, that it will be – then what’s the long-simmering love I also hit up? Well, almost 10 years ago, Alex Guarnaschelli was on The Best Thing I Ever Ate waxing poetic about French toast made with actual chocolate cake at Norma’s at The Parker NYC. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. Lo and behold, The Parker was next door to the hotel we stayed in this visit, The Viceroy, and it was ever so easy to slide right over there last Saturday morning for brunch.

Now, I didn’t order French toast, and I regret it. I always hesitate before going sweet at breakfast time, and because of this, Melinda won brunch wars with her berry French toast. The slab of brioche this dish was centered around was roughly the size of Queens, and while the flavor was rich, it wasn’t heavy at all. Raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries were strewn all over the place, and yet, the sweetness was kept at bay to stunning effect. It was epic and delicious - basically the epitome of what French toast should be. 

I asked our lovely waiter if I should get the foie gras French toast or the artichoke benedict, and he steered me wrong. You know, he was a slim fellow and I should have been smart enough not to trust a skinny. The truffle porcini sauce on top of my eggs and pile of vegetables was delectable – silky and sexy, with all the umami flavor mushrooms should bring to the party. But it was completely thinned out by poached eggs, artichoke hearts that weren’t very well trimmed (I got a couple bites of choke), and a moat of sauteed bell peppers, spinach, and small diced potatoes with no seasoning on them.

This dish needed texture, it needed seasoning, and most of all, it needed a carbohydrate vessel worthy of soaking up the masterful sauce. An artichoke heart is not an English muffin, Norma. It’s not even a piece of toast. And a tiny diced potato with no seasoning and no caramelization is just sad. I know this breakfast emporium has better dishes, and I felt gypped by this one.

This banana orange smoothie was yummy, tho

So I didn’t live out all my Food Network-born fantasies at Norma’s, but if I return, I will be a sadder but wiser girl, and order better. Never trust a skinny waiter when breakfast is on the line. I think sweet is the way to go here, Hungries.

So that’s my tale of two bests. We had a terrific time in The City, and I finally saw Hamilton! Not only was it more than anyone bargained for, but The King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, popped out onstage after the curtain call to say hi and I almost died of happiness. You don’t always get what you want to eat in the big city, but when Lin-Manuel graces you with his presence, you’ve won no matter what. How lucky are we to be alive right now?

That's it this week from Big Hungry Shelby: always hungry; never thirsty.  

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