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Les Halles: a review

I have always wanted to dine at Les Halles and finally had the chance the other night. A longtime fan of Anthony Bourdain and his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, I was disappointed when I learned he had passed the executive chef torch down to someone else. And even though I was well-aware of the mixed reviews amongst foodies, I was still curious. I also had a birthday coming up, which coincided with an intense craving for steak tartare, so I booked a reservation.

Prior to my birthday I scanned the boards here at Chowhound. I found the expected praise for their steak frites and steak tartare, but along with every high note came a series of low ones: too loud, terrible service, dark, etc. Adding to my dismay was the restaurant’s website, which listed Bourdain as the “Chef-at-Large” (whatever that means), featured a “merchandise” link, and was overall way too franchise-y for my liking. By the time my birthday rolled around, I was a little uneasy.

Upon entering the restaurant (we went to the Park Avenue location), I was surprised at how dark it was – the Chowhounders were spot-on with that criticism. It was dark to the point of seeming almost dingy. However, after all the things I had heard about the “surly” service, I was surprised at how pleasant our hostess was. We had a reservation and were seated right away, and this was on a Friday night. (Granted, it was only 7pm on a Friday night).

The dining room of Les Halles is sort of split into two parts, and we had a very nice table in the center of one of them. Warm, crusty bread and butter were brought to us right away, along with the wine list, which seemed very reasonable. I wanted a Bourdeaux, and our waiter suggested their house bottle, St. Emilion. I appreciated the fact that the waiter didn’t recommend one of the hundred-dollar bottles, and was also impressed with how many good bottles were offered for under sixty dollars. We went with the waiter’s suggestion, and all of us enjoyed it. My only complaint was that the glasses were a bit too small for this wine, but what can you expect from a bistro that has cartoon cows on the website. ;)

We started with a mesclun salad, dressed simply with a light, mustardy vinaigrette, the grilled calamari with shaved fennel (delicious, and a nice portion), and the real stand-out: warm potato and black olive salad, topped with goat cheese gratine. It was wonderful, and a great price at $8.95.

Prior to the arrival of our main courses, a man came out of the kitchen and wheeled a cart over to our table. This was my steak tartare guy. He asked if I wanted it “mild, medium or spicy?” which I had never been asked before, in relation to chopped beef. I went with medium, as I didn’t want too many things to take away from the clean, smooth taste of the raw meat. (What am I, a werewolf?) The tartare contained all the usual suspects: raw egg, anchovies, mustard, ketchup (which I always thought was weird), onion, capers, etc. It was fun watching the guy make it in front of me.

Interestingly, the tartare was not served with toast or any vehicle to eat it with, aside from a fork. However, as I prefer to eat tartare on warm, buttered bread, I simply asked for another basket. It was a huge portion of tartare, very good, with a spicy bite to it. It was also a great deal at $18.50, which included a plate of their famous frites. (Turns out the frites were great, and I believe their secret is that they fry them in peanut oil).

We also tried the flatiron steak with bearnaise, which was nicely done and quite juicy, and the Choucroute Garnie, which was so-so (the sauerkraut was pretty bland, and they could have done more with it). I think the thing to come here for, as far as main courses go, is really the beef.

Although many items on the dessert menu spoke to me, which doesn’t usually happen as I am not much of a dessert person, I had my heart set on a cheese course. It was in this moment that the absence of Anthony Bourdain became abundantly clear. I asked the waiter to tell me some of the daily selections, and his response was, “well, we have a goat…we have a sheep…I believe we have a couple of cows….” I (politely) cut him off, and asked that he get a little more specific than that. He ran away, and emerged a few minutes later with a hand-scribbled list in his hand of the day’s offerings.

When the waiter returned with my cheese, it was a lovely presentation: four heartly slices of various cheeses arranged on a plate with walnuts, quince paste, and slices of pear. My only disappointment was that the waiter did not take the time to go over each cheese, which I find to be an integral part of any cheese course. I also knew that had I asked him to explain each one to me, even briefly, he would have run away again and I didn’t want to make him feel bad. But I had a sneaking suspicion that when Bourdain was hands-on, the waiters were more knowledgeable.

For dessert my sister had the “fallen” chocolate souffle, which was huge, warm, gooey, delicious, and incredibly rich without being too sweet.

Overall, I enjoyed the meal here. I would definitely come back for the warm black olive salad, the tartare, and even the cheese. I think for New York prices Les Halles is reasonable, and I also think the prices are appropriate for the overall level of quality and somewhat lack of sophistication. Bourdain has obviously removed himself from the daily happenings here, and if you were to enter the restaurant not knowing that, you would probably think he was extremely overrated. But even in Bourdain’s absence, I think the restaurant stands on its own.

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  1. Great review - thanks!

    1. "Adding to my dismay was the restaurant’s website, which listed Bourdain as the “Chef-at-Large” (whatever that means)"

      It means they're trying to hunt him down but they haven't caught him yet. Bourdain's connection to Les Halles is like Batali's to Po. They used to cook there a long time ago. No more.

      1. a lot of people complain about Les Halles, but i like it.

        its not the best ever. but pretty much everything is reasonably priced and tasty.

        i also have had the potato and olive salad and enjoyed it quite a lot.

        no mention of the french press coffee? that is a nice way to end the meal.

        1. It's true that the staff is not very knowledgeable, and sometimes there are service problems, but you are right that for the price, you get a pretty good deal. Next time you go, try the smoked herring appetizer. It is one of several dishes Les Halles serves that I don't see anywhere else. Too bad you weren't there in February, when they have "Choucroute Month" with 3 additional croucroutes in addition to the garnie. The "Choucroute Royale" is an amazing plate of food.

          1. Nice review!

            I agree with travpard that even though a lot of people complain about Les Halle, it stills has its appeal. Their problem isn't that the food is bad all the time, they are just inconsistent. So if you hit them on a good night, their food is quite pleasant.

            If you saw No Reservation last night about Tony going back as line cook, you will completely understand why it is so hard to maintain consistency in such a high volume restaurant.

            I really enjoy their mussels, and even with a half order it is plenty for two to share. I also like their duck confits, which were always crispy in my experience.

            1. Les Halles isn't a "bad" restaurant, I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid it. But I certainly wouldn't make a special trip to dine there. That's my sentiment.

              1 Reply
              1. re: foodiechica

                Well put and my sentiments exactly. I have ended up there by accident or by request.

                That said, I always appreciate a thoughtful review, especially from someone who is positive and flexible. Well done taking the cheese course snafu in stride. I agree, like wine, cheese is so huge and one can always stand to learn more.

              2. I am also part of the clan that thinks that Les Halles gets a bum rap. I see restaurants here that get great reviews and have eaten there and have not gotten why people like it, like Lupa! The food is moderately priced and good. I also go there for breakfast when I am in town because their french press is the best way to start the day, not only to end it:)

                As for the service, this is the thing that irks me most about New York. I went to Bar Boulud last Thursday when I was in town and found the food to be excellent. Their steak tartare, even if it is not made at the table, was excellent. However, the waitress did not know a thing about wines or food. I was seated at the bar and the customer in front of me asked about a Sauternes and she did not even know that it was a wine! She was very nice but not a professional waitress like you find at l'Artisanal, where I also went. Service is a much discussed issue here because it often is the thing that turns you off a restaurant.

                1. Appreciate your review. I was a huge fan of Les Halles about 5-7 years ago (before they knocked down the wall and doubled the size of the dining room). It was still dark but for $15.50 you could get a mean steak tartare, a side of those fantastic fries (i like dipping them in the bearnaise sauce) *and* a small side salad. While not the best steak tartare I've ever had, it was consistently solid and certainly a great value in NYC. I also found the herring salad to be a perfect starter, very similarly prepared to one I used to eat at a favorite neighborhood bistro in Paris.

                  Anyway we didnt mind the darkness and the noise and found the servers to be earnest if occasionally clueless. Basically this was just a great place to take people when you're having a raw meat craving and your guests are sure to find something they like.

                  If it makes you feel any better, even back then Bourdain showed his face but once in the two dozen or so times I had eaten there, and he strolled in off the street at 9PM on a busy Saturday night. So I think he's been "at large" for quite some time. Eventually we had a few bad experiences in a row and wrote the place off and I haven't been back in ages . . . based on your review I think I'll give it another shot one of these evenings as perhaps they have pulled their act together again.

                  1. Nicely done. I am one of those silent "supporters" of Les Halles...I have always thought my meals were pretty good. Super exciting, no - but that's fine. Sometimes circumstances call for a decent and not terribly expensive meal without having to deal with difficult reservations or a long wait. They do a nice hanger steak and the frites are usually nice and salty and crispy.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: pellegrino31

                      Agreed. They have the best hanger steak in NYC. If you keep it simple and your expectations of service low, Les Halles can be fine, though I don't go out of my way to go there.

                    2. Les Halles is in our nabe. You've provided a well-written, detail-filled review, which I enjoyed reading, and I'm happy for you that your maiden experience there was mainly a positive one.

                      During your scan of the boards, you may have come across my posts indicating that I am in the "not a fan" camp and stopped going there many years ago. This review by Alan Richman (his reviews always crack me up!), which pretty much sums it up for me: http://men.style.com/gq/blogs/alanric...

                      1. Put me in the pro-Les Halles camp, although it has sentimental value to me. I agree with RGR that I liked it better before they expanded. I usually get the mussels and frite, which are always good and a good deal. We often have the same waiter (don't know his name), who is great, but in his absence the service can be spotty. Glad you had a good visit.

                        1. I always eat at downtown Les Halles and their French Dip with the most amazing redwine/carmelized onion sauce is the best. Comes with their delicious fries and salad.

                          1. Thanks to everyone for your comments! I really appreciate them! It's intersting to read other people's experiences. Thanks for taking the time to read mine :)

                            1. thank you -- very interesting to hear from an "insider."

                              i am in the pro camp. we go on occasion & imo the place hasn't really changed much even after the expansion or when tb was actually there.

                              funny but i tend to like much of the menu except for the beef, although i too like the tartare a lot. also, we only go at lunch or during off hours, never at dinner. i think it's at it's best at that time -- downtown too. speaking of the branches, sad to say my experiences with the food at the out of town outposts has been downright awful.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: mrnyc

                                The steak au poivre is the best I've ever had anywhere. And the moules are terrific.

                                1. re: mrnyc

                                  I agree about Les Halles being best for lunch or off hours rather than dinner, and about the place not having changed much with the expansion or from when Bourdain was there. I was there today and had a very good steak tartare and frites. The service isn't fine dining service, but I have always found it perfectly friendly and competent. The prices are reasonable. For me it's a reliable standby when I'm in the neighborhood, though not really a destination dining spot.

                                  1. re: Shawn

                                    I've only ever been for lunch at the Park Ave location, but I've been happy with everything but the service. The salade nicoise is quite dependable, and the creme brulee is excellent.

                                2. We had lunch at Les Halles yesterday around 2 PM. The place was pretty empty. Hostess and server were pleasant. My SO had a burger with foie gras and I had the arugula, apple, bleu cheese, walnut salad. My first choice was the tuna niscoise salad but when I asked our server advised the tuna was Spanish canned tuna, not fresh. So I went for choice #2. SO said the burger was one of the best he's had. Fresh, cooked perfectly and the fois gras didn't hurt. I nibbled a few fries which were good. Only glitch was our bread and butter came after we had finished half our bottled water. I stopped going to Les Halles on John Street because of inconsistent service. Maybe I'll have to give it another try because our experience at the Park Avenue location was pretty good. fdr

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: financialdistrictresident

                                    Perhaps they've changed the salade nicoise - it was definitely not canned tuna when I last had it (about 6 months ago).

                                    1. re: allieinbklyn

                                      And, in any event, good canned or jarred tuna is actually the tuna traditionally used in a Salade Nicoise.

                                  2. Avoid Les Halles on Park Ave. The service is horrendous. Last time my wife and I were there, they realized that they screwed up our order after an hour of waiting. The manager made no effort to rectify the their mistake. They were busy that night, so the food was really mediocre. The only thing that is pretty consistent there is the quality of the fries. We will never return.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Borat

                                      How long has it been since your experience?

                                      1. re: RCC

                                        Maybe 4 months. And I forgot to add that the sardine appetizer was a joke. Horribly not fresh.

                                    2. I'm going to Les Halles for the first time tomorrow. I don't know why i waited so long. I think I'm going to go with the smoked herring app and maybe I can talk my wife into splitting the Cote de Boeuf (the last time we had that was at Robert and Louise in Paris- yes, I'm a big Bourdain fan)...if she's not up for it I'd be up for the tartare or the steak frites.

                                      Good choices? Any other rec's? How's their onion soup?

                                      I'm not expecting Daniel here- just simple French food in a place that will remind me of Paris.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: pastoralia

                                        Definitely have the herring. The tartare is also very good. They make it in front of you and will adjust the seasonings to your taste. The onion soup is a fine choice also.

                                        1. re: pastoralia

                                          I really enjoy their mussels with fries. Their duck confit is pretty good too. The dishes that rrems mentioned are definitely the standout dishes at Les Halles.

                                        2. Thank you for such a thorough and wonderful review!! Great descriptions and assessments of ther pros and cons without making the cons a personal thing (a trap many of us fall into)!
                                          I've not yet been to the Park Ave. locale, but have eaten at the D.C. spot and am a HUGE fan of the John St. one since my first visit there in July 2003. I almost always have the hanger steak with frites and salad. Spot on every time I ordered it and the best frites I have had so far in the city. Love the mussels too and yes, the half order is huge and that wonderful bread (TomCat Bakery?, Balthazar?) is great for mopping up the tasty broth. Also like the croque monsuier, macaroni and gruyere and the chocolate mousse. I've always had good and sometimes great service at John St. and I find the atmosphere to be relaxed and not crazy as I imagine Park Ave. can probably be.