Nothing feels quite as good as stumbling on a sleeper, a restaurant that opens without much fanfare, fails to publicize itself adequately, and is content to persevere in obscurity until that inevitable day when the public discovers it’s a wonderful place.
That’s the case with Noho’s Le Philosophe, a three-month-old French bistro hidden in plain sight next to Mile End Sandwich on Bond Street. The obscurity is partly cultivated: A temporary winter entrance in dull gray conceals the front door, and you can barely discern the name of the restaurant in florid script high up on the facade. Once inside, the interior—lit by flickering votives—proves almost mournfully dark. There are plenty of nicely spaced tables and a small bar, acting as a barrier between you and the open kitchen, which shines brightly and hums with well-regimented activity.
The scanty pictorial material on the walls is a mural depicting dozens of philosophers, screened to light grayness as if to partly hide their identities, or as if the theme were slightly embarrassing. How many can you pick out? (And no fair using your smartphone.) There’s Sartre—identifiable by the round glasses and his lazy eye—and Voltaire, who must have had his own wig master. Descartes is there, too, looking a little foppish with his ribbon tie and curly locks. Then you draw a blank.
But maybe the point of making the room so dark and existential is to concentrate your attention on the food, which is in a bistro vein. Or is it? There’s a fine steak frites ($25) served with a thick bordelaise sauce, featuring the preferable flatiron instead of the usual skirt or sirloin. Deep pink in the middle, the cut-up steak appears at your table splayed across the plate like rubies in a jeweler’s case. But towering over the meat is a nuclear mushroom cloud of herb-sprinkled fries, the part of the entrée everyone craves the most.
Doctrinaire, bistro-wise, is an oyster service including a vinegary mignonette, lemon wedges, and a choice of East or West Coast bivalves, mercifully priced at $12 (half-dozen) or $18 (dozen). There’s also a roast chicken your mom would be proud of, thigh bone hoisted skyward in greeting. The crisp-skinned bird is deposited in a saline broth with baby carrots and pommes dauphine, which look like small baked potatoes, only poofier.
There’s a frog-legs app ($12), deboned and tossed with mushrooms and greens in a salsa verde profuse enough to qualify as a soup. Like the frog legs, the pig trotters are more elaborate than they might be in a place that calls itself a bistro: Flesh, fat, and collagen are compressed into cylinders wrapped with skin, saving you the trouble of sawing at a bony stump with your knife. And from there, the menu only becomes more ambitious.
Foie gras torchon, lobster thermidor, duck l’orange, and tournedos Rossini sound more like formal cuisine than everyday bistro fare, and indeed they are. But chef Matthew Aita has pared these recipes down and jazzed them up, so that duck l’orange ($27), rather than being a bird mired in thick goo, is now a few slices of crunchy-skinned breast ringed with orange segments in a light sauce, while the fluffy deshelled meat of his homard comes tangled with haricots vert in a sunny emulsion dotted with mustard seeds. Call it haute cuisine lite. Only tournedos Rossini ($30)—a filet mignon on toast topped with foie gras and truffles—still retains its utter stodginess. Try it anyway, if only for historical purposes.
But the restaurant’s greatest contribution to contemporary dining might be in making you feel comfortable with a French wine list. Instead of an effete document in which all bottles lie north of $50, Le Philosophe’s carte des vins is amazingly cheap, with plenty of action in the $20 to $30 range, even among the reds. There’s a nice Grenache-based blend from Languedoc for $22, and a more saturated Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley for $28. Even the rock-bottom $19.50 Bordeaux is pleasantly drinkable.
Le Philosophe’s proprietors have realized that even in Manhattan, decent wines can be sold at affordable prices, as with restaurants in Paris and Montreal. They understand that, accompanied by good, low-markup bottles, their food tastes much better, too. And that’s a revolutionary dining philosophy.