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Jul 1, 2014 11:22 AM

Cherche Midi - Keith Don't Go

Keith Don't Go is the name of a song on Nils Lofgren's 2nd album, Cry Tough. It has absolutely nothing to do with the new Keith McNally restaurant Cherche Midi, which is in the same spot as the old Keith McNally restaurant, Pulino's, which closed six months or so ago - I just thought it sounded like a good title for this post.

In any event, in a mere six months, Keith has transformed what was once Pulino's, an Italian pizzeria slash trattoria into Cherche Midi, a French, well, bistro slash brasserie, I guess. In early visits, I liked Pulino's food; there was some cool stuff on that menu - I particularly remember a dish with smoked sable, a guilty pleasure of mine. What I didn't like about Pulino's was the corner; to be exact, the southwest corner of Bowery and Houston Streets, in my mind one of the most heinous corners in Manhattan on which to put a restaurant. As someone on a website I frequent, and where I started an argument about this particular corner noted, "there is no joy going to the corner of Bowery and Houston." Additionally, the place had windows that were thrown open to that corner; why exactly, I'll never memory fails, but there may have even been cafe tables outside, which is great if you like eating at a bus stop.

Fast forward to now, and even though you can't change the corner, the windows are gone and once inside you'll barely know where you are; if your imagination works well, maybe you'll think you're on the right bank - although that might be pushing it. Suffice to say - it's a hell of a lot nicer inside now, though if you're sensitive to noise, it's as noisy as many of the McNally places, especially as the evening progresses.

Significant Eater and I had stopped in about two weeks ago for an after dinner drink and last night I made my way back, specifically to try the burger, which has been raved about in various articles, in blogs, etc. So when I arrived early last night, I took a seat at the practically empty bar, and checked out the drink menu.

The head bartender just happens to be the bartender I've known for years from another McNally joint, Schiller's Liquor Bar, and he rightly steered me towards a Julia's Blush, a riff on a Jasmine (a drink I first had made for me by Kenta Goto at Pegu Club). It's Campari heavy, with gin, lemon juice and agave taming the bitter - and it's delicious and perfect for a hot night.

It's also $15, as are all the cocktails, which in this day and age in NYC is not crazy, but once the price creeps up to $17, all bets are off. I enjoyed it as I decided what to have for my appetizer; thankfully, the menu is simple compared to the new style of menu. You know the ones - with starters, small plates, middle sized plates, larger plates, in-between plates, pre-desserts, desserts, and on and on, until you end splitting like 7 things and paying twice as much as you used to. Here, it's appetizers, entrees and sides - what a concept!

I decided on something cold for my appetizer, an heirloom tomato gazpacho with pickled shrimp, and it was quite good. Thick and rich, not too smooth, with the pickled shrimp adding a nice, well, pickled note. For my entree, the burger. A LaFreida burger (is there a freakin' burger that isn't LaFreida's?), it's allegedly made from dry-aged trimmings from the dry-aged prime rib, which is also on the menu, along with some short-rib, which isn't. It's topped with roasted mushrooms, bacon marmalade and aged gruyere, and I'm guessing the buns are made somewhere in the McNally world - like at Balthazar bakery. It comes with fries, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle slices.

It's good. It was cooked to perfection. It's really good, as a matter of fact, the dry-aged beef adding that cheesy funkiness I happen to like. If I have one complaint, it's that the bun may be a little too big for the burger, but it was toasted and held together beautifully, and you can't ask for much more than that. And the fries - still some of my favorite fries in the city. From Balthazar, to Minetta, to Schiller's - the fries are fine. And just to pretend I might be in France - I dip 'em in mustard - try it, you might be surprised.

The tariff for the burger and fries - $21. Not bad, when you consider that a side of fries is $9 on this menu. Same price as the Spotted Pig's and cheaper than Minetta Tavern's Black Label entry.

It'll be interesting to me to see if Cherche Midi has a long run. As I mentioned above, I felt that one of the main reasons for Pulino's closure was specifically the location. But now the Bowery is home to a dozen or more restaurants, all on a stretch that was unimaginable a decade ago. The crowd is different than Schiller's was, back when it was the lower east side's hottest spot and they could squeeze 8 models into a booth made for 4. So it remains to be seen whether the crowds will continue to come (and it was crowded by the time I left last night), with all those other choices nearby.

Me - I'm heading back with Significant Eater soon. The menu has lots to explore, and it's the kind of food we really like to eat. My guess? On our next visit, she's gonna want that burger too.

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  1. I had an utterly bizarre experience at this place yesterday. Planning on catching lunch before a visit to the New Museum, I remembered the nice if scant reviews of Cherche Midi. It was just after 1:30 when I walked through the doors; the place was maybe half-full.
    "May I eat at the bar, please, or have a table for one?" I asked the hostess.
    "I'm sorry, sir, we're having a soft opening," she replied, "you can't come in."

    I'm even more puzzled now, coming back to CH and seeing reviews dating back to early July -presumably made by people who are not FsOfKei. I don't know the etiquette of 'soft openings' but I'm anxious to learn from the crowd what I actually experienced. Was I:

    1. So physically repellent that the hostess blurted out some 'NYMagazine/hep' excuse?
    2. Intruding on a private party, and she simply mixed up her terminology?
    3. Just not one of the 'PLU' that McNally is soliciting?
    4. Unjustifiably feeling I was entitled to dine at a public establishment?

    (my answers: no, no, yes, no)

    Anyway, I understand that their location guarantees healthy income in the future, but I truly can't understand how -exactly because of that- Cherche Midi can reject foot traffic on such a busy corner. (And, I mean, c'mon: at the end of the day, it's only a shameless knock-off of the cafe Luxembourg.)
    I'll think twice before I return, that's for sure.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Phil Ogelos

      Thanks for the warning. Another restaurant that I'll skip. Actually, I'm now on a moratorium of trying new restaurants between my unpleasant experience at Bâtard this week and your experience at Cherche Midi. Definitely will spend my money only where I know I will be welcome and have amazing food.

      1. re: Phil Ogelos

        FOH service in NYC in general is pretty awful these days. I walked in mid afternoon around 3pm to the Dutch when they first opened and was immediately coldly told 1hr-2hr wait even though there were plenty of empty tables. My wife really wanted to try the fried chicken, so I decided to leave my cell,as soon as I mentioned we would like a table by the opened windows and doors where other diners had their dogs because I had a dog with me as well, all of sudden they went from cold to like give us 2 minutes to prep the table while we play with your dog and give him water. As happy as I was get a quick table, I was pretty miffed about the initial cold treatment and the fact we went from being unwanted to VIP.

        1. re: Phil Ogelos

          What the......!?
          Its been open (to the public at large) since june

          1. re: Phil Ogelos

            Presumably the hostess meant a soft opening for lunch, as their website only lists dinner hours and their OpenTable page says that lunch service will begin on September 10th. Sounds like maybe it could have been communicated better to you, but they are not serving lunch to the general public yet.

            1. re: kellyds

              Thanks to all for your responses.
              I feel kelly's gets to the heart of the matter, and that the truth could have been better communicated to me.
              In the event, it was quite irksome; I know the whole song & dance for gaining admission to some NYC restos, but this time the brush-off came off as so transparently contemptuous that I had to vent here.
              (Still, I won't return anytime soon -even if I secure a dog.)

              1. re: Phil Ogelos

                You know what? It's in lunch soft-opening, perhaps the hostess was stressed out and could've handled it better - but really, as New Yorkers, shouldn't we have a little tougher skin?

                Or does everyone who makes minimum wage have to bow down to us?

                1. re: mitchleeny

                  I was absolutely polite to her throughout, as is my wont.
                  Your conjecture about my sense of privilege is baseless; your call for my donning a thicker skin equally gratuitous.
                  You had a good experience there; I didn't -why not leave it there?

                  1. re: mitchleeny

                    No restaurant should ever say, 'you can't come in'.

                    1. re: Monica

                      What if they're not open to the general public?

                      1. re: mitchleeny

                        It doesn't matter what the reasons are. It's rude and unprofessional to say, You can't come in to your your customer.

                        1. re: Monica

                          so it's the wording not the sentiment. Like, if the restaurant has no food, or power or they are closed, the restaurant should say, "you can come in, there is just nothing we can do for you besides offer you a hug"

                          1. re: Daniel76

                            Maybe they could say: "Come on in. We need some help painting."

            2. I always thought Pulino's closed because they lost the celebrity chef (to Chipotle) whose celebrity never translated to New York, when the reviews were pretty harsh. I fair amount of New Yorkers never knew the Bowery as a neighborhood or skid row, and don't have trouble separating that corner from what it is now, with coffee shop, and boutiques, across from a Whole Foods.

              Also, soft opening or not, it shouldn't be that difficult to politely explain why they're not seating paying customers. It's how they're trained. Schiller's aside, McNally places have at times been regarded by workers as some of the most mentally abusive food service environments you can find in New York.