Disclaimer! This is not a review of Belle Reve; I’ve got too many weird food allergies to eat my way through an entire menu and like chefs far too much to judgmentally pick apart their work. If I don’t have anything nice to say, I don’t say anything at all. But when both food and atmosphere show me a rockin’ good time, this happens:
It’s 6pm on a Thursday night, and a group of revelers walks into Belle Reve like they own the joint.
It’s that kind of bar.
The kind that feels like it’s been squatting in TriBeCa for the past 20 years. The kind where hanging bits of stained glass, casually-potted plants, dark orange plastic cups, and a worn wooden bar just fit. So does the photo of Sinatra in a back nook, the old-school soda spritzer on a high shelf, and the black-and-red Shephard Fairey print in the orange-and-green-circa-1973 women’s bathroom, complete with a purplish, mammoth sink.
Having taken photos of some plates and chatted with the staff a bit, I’m sipping a Negroni at the bar, typing away while awaiting a friend for dinner. All other spots at the bar are taken, and various hightops and tables are full, too. When the revelers start singing “Happy Birthday”, everyone joins in. I look back to see that they’re not heralding one of their own, but a fifty-something matriarch celebrating with her family a few tables away. It’s hard to pin down “the crowd”. We’re a mix of ages, of styles, of intentions. Belle Reve has only been open for a few weeks, but by 7pm it feels like everyone inside is a local; the bar their regular.
I’d interviewed the chef, Paul Gerard, for my Serious Eats column when he was then at Exchange Alley in the East Village. When he said, “I don’t know what other people’s quests are, but I know what I do and why I do it, and that’s to retain some of old New York,” I thought, “Here is a chef whose world view I can dig.” The press release for Belle Reve was similarly refreshing:
“With no “A” tables or egomania, narcissism and snobbery is neither encouraged nor tolerated. Belle Reve will be a warm port of call for friends and families to enjoy a simple soup and sandwich, a quality meal, or as the sun sets together around the piano, knock back pints, sip a whiskey, and join in song.”
Co-owners Billy Gilroy (Employees Only, Lucky Strike, Match, Macao Trading Company) and Patrick Fahey (Macao Trading Company, Peggy Sue’s, Naked Lunch) delivered on what they set out to achieve if the growing crowd were considered tangible proof. But, for all the variety that the bar energy offered, when I sat with my friend it was all about the food… the food…
The menu is organized in an extremely friendly manner: chummy starters like oysters casino, baby BBQ shrimp and Burrata; butter lettuce and deep greens salads; burgers, steak sandwiches and a vegan puree soup; clams with “badly cut pasta”, pork ragu, and that Devil May Care lasagna up there; steak or chicken with sides like roasted beets, marrow-smothered fries, and cauliflower fry; profiteroles and chocolate mousse. It was accessible, familiar food, with nary a foam or buzz word to be seen.
Earlier, when taking the photos, aromas had wafted up and kept hitting me, over and over, progressively and without end. There were the cornerstones of solid food in front of me: various textures and combinations, contrasting colors, simple preparations. Now while eating slowly, the same layers manifested in taste. The Roasted Chicken with Marsala sauce was crispy and salty and begged to be torn apart with a fork and dredged in jus. The herb puree on the Starving Artist Steak was on par with and far less snobbish than some of the “best of” places I’ve dined in. Fries were crunchy and salty and meaty. Roasted and stewed peppers, soft and sweet and savory. To try to describe them further would be redundant; just call to mind the memory of a perfectly roasted chicken, a sweet and salty and tangy mix of fresh vegetables, or the joy that is cutting into a soft piece of grass-fed steak. At Belle Reve, Gerard specializes in the kind of cuisine that deceives in its simplicity.
“I often say I like my food to be simple and frank like a Ramones song. It’s three-chord cuisine; there are only three major things on each plate. So as long as the initial product is solid and impeccable on its own, then basically all I’m doing is not really messing with it…. I’m letting it speak for itself.”
Yes, there’s a cauliflower speckled with cherry peppers and caper pesto, but I found it to be too damned good to condescend to it as “currently-trendy vegetables“, a deduction that makes me want to retch as much as the phrase “cauliflower is the new kale.” “…More nightlife destination than early reports let on” might be true, as there is a piano ready for playing and a burlesque dancer does, indeed, shake it on rowdy nights. “You’ll show up here with a date perhaps, but more likely just a small pack of confederates, and dig into some marrow fries and Starving Artist Steak, before getting maybe just the slightest bit irresponsible with cocktails,” may be a fair claim as, yes, I could see stumbling in with my late-night crowd and crooning a bit over some glasses of whiskey, neat. There are many experiences to be found at Belle Reve depending on who’s looking.
But most likely I’ll just go back for the food. Because the food is worth the trip alone, in my little black book.
“I like to under-promise and over-deliver,” Gerard said when he sat with us for a while.