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Backward

Let’s start with desserts for a change. Oddly, the best is a salad. Pinwheeled on a plate, the jumbo segments of painfully pink grapefruit are sealed in a transparent sugar glaze, so that each tart bite begins with a crunch. In the center is a scoop of grapefruit sorbet. The spectacular juxtaposition of sweet and sour, warm and cold—and the illusion of healthiness—makes this a candidate for most enjoyable dessert of the year. It’ll set you back $6.75.

Belleville—named after a raffish hilltop Paris neighborhood, beloved of François Villon, Edith Piaf, and the 19th-century Parisian Communards, but now being overwhelmed by tasteless concrete apartment buildings—is one of those theme bistros that seeks to re-create a time and place far removed from its modern locale. In service of this illusion, the stamped tin ceiling crawls down the walls, swabbed an agreeable shade of cream. Thankfully, in opposition to its East Village counterparts, Belleville’s de rigueur busts of Tintin, red-horned La Vache Qui Rit (“The Laughing Cow”), and the ruffle-collared Pierrot Gourmand clown are penned inside a tall glass case near the door, rather than crowded on the walls like a fever dream of your French vacation. Though clatteringly loud, the dining room is quite pleasant, so that after a first meal, I eagerly anticipated repeat visits.

Our backward meal continues with the entrées. In an effort to please diners of every inclination and appetite, the menu is divided into eight parts. Of these, the sections marked Specialties, From the Rotisserie, Les Pâtes (“pastas”), and (duh!) Main Courses may be considered main courses. The latter contains an excellent daube ($15.50), a hearty beef stew fortified with red wine. Often associated with Provence, the stew is so rich that carrots are the only vegetable flavorful enough to provide companionship for the meat. Expanding the same regional theme, a Provençale roast chicken ($14.75) is pride of the rotisserie, an herb-crusted bird that comes with a choice of substantial sides. Pick the chive-dusted mashed potatoes or the haricots verts—slender French green beans that arrive topped with a melting pat of high-fat butter. Among the Specialties, the steak tartare is a powerful lure, dressed with mustard vinaigrette and tangy capers, surmounted by a raw egg yolk prettily displayed in its shell. Though a cold entrée might not be what you had in mind as the Gowanus Canal wind whips up the slope, this defect is partly redressed by an accompanying bucket of well-browned fries.

Lastly, we have the starters. Though you may be tempted to reach into the Specialties for the fondue au fromage, on the grounds that such a molten dish could readily appetize on a wintry evening—don’t. It’s a thin and grainy concoction, served with vegetables for dipping rather than the conventional toasts. My Corsican friend turned up her nose, exclaiming, “This is really raclette.” Much more impressive is something called “petatou de fromage” ($8.50), a warm salad of goat cheese and potatoes compressed into a plug and served with a black olive relish. I can still taste it. Another worthy choice is the assiette de charcuterie, which flaunts Serrano ham, garlicky salami, and a wonderful slice of crumbly and rosemary-laced pâté. We might dub it: Triplets of Belleville.

Since this is a backward review, this is where we walk in the door.

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The Players

Bisected by an open kitchen, the long dining room is pleasantly underdecorated—the red-faced Laughing Cow glued to one wall, a few shelves of old glassware up near the tin ceiling, and a blue mural at the end of the room showing three homburged peasants seated at a table while a standing figure watches, smoking a pipe. It’s a knockoff of Cézanne’s The Card Players, but indistinct hand movements and the complete absence of cards make it seem like the men are abusing themselves.


Lucien is a new French bistro just north of Houston—yawn-worthy news except that this joint adds a welcome Provençale twist to the bistro formula. First there’s lapin moutarde ($16), a big bunny split down the middle (you get half), roasted, smeared with Dijon, and deposited on an undulating bed of fresh fettucini. The sharp mustard has been mellowed with crème fraîche, making the sauce absurdly rich, and the noodles gradually absorb every last bit. Set your pacemaker on stun.


Another stretch for a bistro is the marvelous duck ($16), served two ways on the same plate. The magret, or breast meat, is pan roasted and sliced thick, each piece discretely ringed with fat and presented medium rare, rather than the bloody “sanguiné” the French prefer. The other half, equally as good, is duck confit—the leg and thigh portion cooked in its own fat and scented with star anise, more Chinatown than Champs Élysées. There’s a vegetable mélange underneath and some lovely split-and-grilled fresh figs on the side, which must be why the guys in the painting are so excited.


Less successful is the Amish chicken ($12), a half bird spectacular in its moistness, but not herby enough, upstaged by the garlic mashed potatoes. Just so you don’t forget you’re in a bistro, three steaks are offered—filet mignon, sirloin, and bavette, the latter a coarse and flavorful skirt that, at $13, is the cheapest, and plenty good enough for me. Skinny, scraggly fries add to the excitement.


The greatest challenge of the Provençale menu is, of course, bouillabaisse ($19), the fish stew that has flummoxed many local restaurants. The seafood array at Lucien is novel but effective: snapper, monkfish, clams, and a bundle of king-crab legs that sit atop the bowl like discarded props from Alien 3. The swarming broth is dark and viscid, thrust with rouille-smeared toasts—just the kind of lavish tuck-in intended by the Marseilles fisherfolk who invented it.


More Mediterranean victories are scored among the appetizers, like the pair of ample sardines ($8) grilled by the chef in plain view. They’re served with a squiggle of dark sauce for those who can’t imagine a meal without balsamic. Mussels ($12) are steamed in the usual white wine and shallots, improved significantly by cilantro. That yeoman of bar food, calamari ($8), is heroically crisp, and rescued from normalcy by its North African dipping sauce.


Outside of the pricey Payard Patisserie, I can’t think of a single bistro with really distinguished desserts, although the spectacle of crème brûlée being browned with a blowtorch is a good reason to order it anywhere. Nevertheless, Lucien has hit the bull’s-eye with its tarte Tatin ($5)—not the usual insignificant mouthful, but a substantial wedge of a big pie. Cooked upside down, the caramelized apples retain their juiciness and zip, while the flaky pastry stays crisp. It’s a specialty of the Loire Valley rather than Provence. But, hey, it’s just a bistro—purism not required.