Wednesday is market day for Patrick Dupays, chef/owner of Z Cuisine and Z Cuisine À Côté; market day for the cooks, who lay into his ever-changing menu with a fervor, adding this, subtracting that, finding places for the new acquisitions; market day for the À Côté servers, who know exactly what was scored at the stalls that morning and how it is being used.
Fresh apricots, fresh blackberries, "and we also have a roasted beet carpaccio that's not on the menu..." Oh, and mussels — live in the bag, bought hours ago. They didn't make the menu, either. But every time someone orders them — done simple, beurre blanc, garlic, white wine — I can smell the invisible tendrils of comfort wafting down from the kitchen set half a floor above the dining room.
Wednesday is À Côté's Monday: first service of the week, first day back after a three-day weekend. By six it is almost full. By seven, completely. Diners are turning themselves away — poking their heads in, looking around and then leaving, disappointed. By eight (with four hours of service still to go), the room is raucous, overloaded. Part of the reason for the crush is that Z Cuisine is not open on Wednesdays. Used to be, isn't now. This mightily confuses many of the regulars, and I listen to the same conversation over and over again: about how the chef does his shopping on Wednesdays, how it was a drag to get both spaces up and running, with new menus, new prep lists, new procedures, in time for the five o'clock start of business. In the fall, maybe, Z Cuisine will go back to a four-day-a-week schedule. Possibly the winter. It all depends on the market, the demand, the season, the staff, the desire of Dupays and his crew to knock themselves out doing their particular brand of greenmarket French cuisine at two places, four nights apiece. According to Dupays's original plan for À Côté, the Parisian-style cafe and wine bar would be a place for friends from the neighborhood to come and hang out while it also handled some of the overflow from Z Cuisine, which has been swamped since it opened four years ago and which still doesn't take reservations. Folks could put their name on Z's list, bop next door to À Côté for a leisurely glass of wine, maybe a little nibble of cheese or pork rilette, then return to Z when the crush thinned out.
But that isn't quite how things turned out. À Côté has all the quirky, dream-of-Paris charms of Z, and when it opened this past January, it quickly became a destination in its own right. Now the two restaurants fill in tandem — generally within an hour of opening — and stay that way. For hours. In the meantime, the sidewalk in front becomes the waiting room for both — a fantastic summer lobby with a roof full of stars and the red stone spires of the church at the end of the block for backdrop — while would-be customers keep migrating from one door to the other, smudging windows with their nose prints, waiting for a fracture to appear in the solidity of the floor, a sense that soon, maybe, things will start to break up.
Is this a lot of trouble to go through for some foie gras? Hell, yes. It is annoying, almost maddening, crushingly exasperating when you know exactly what you want and know you can't get it rightthisveryfuckingminute. It's even worse when, after going all elbows and shoulders to get through the press at À Côté's door on a Saturday night and pushing into the scrum at the bar, I learn that the place is completely booked out by a wedding party. I'd been wondering why everyone was dressed in Hawaiian shirts and wearing leis around their necks. Thought I'd missed a memo or something.
But it's also completely worth the trouble — the wait, the crowds, the requisite strategizing (either showing up very early, establishing a beachhead and holding it against all comers, or trying to gauge the speed of the turn on the floor so that you can slide in between seatings, or simply resigning yourself to committing an entire night to the acquisition of a salade de chévre chaud gratiné and an elongated plate of Hudson Valley foie en terrine), because this is the best terrine of foie gras you're going to find without getting on a plane and flying to France.
Turned away on Saturday, I come back the next possible day. Market day. Although À Côté's menu changes weekly, seasonally, freakishly day to day (if someone in the galley gets a wild hair or Dupays scores something really excellent), there are some constants. There's always the assiette de charcuterie maison — the house meat plate — featuring, among other things, rillettes and mousses and pâtés of all manner of God's critters, sausages made from same, and appropriate vegetation: cornichons, radishes, fruit chutneys and pain grille. There is always the cheese plate (stellar if you're into cheese, slightly intimidating if you're not). And there is always the foie, a blessedly simple presentation: rough-cut chunks of Moulard duck liver, pressed into a terrine, heated slowly until the fat begins to render out and rise, then chilled so that it congeals into (for lack of a more subtle term) duck butter. Served inverted on the plate, it is like a drug — something that you know is wickedly bad for you (and not exactly pleasant for the duck) but that you will consume regardless, to within an inch of doing yourself serious harm. It is rich the way the Saudi royal family is rich — beyond all reasonable reckoning and nearly incalculably so.
At the bar, I listen to one man attempt to describe to the couple sitting beside him what the foie is like, listen to him flounder and ultimately fail — because there really are no words. I watch a waitress try to come to his aid and also fail. And then, finally, the man is reduced to chuckling and guttural grunts: "Just order it. You'll see." À Côté is one of the only restaurants where I've seen a diner actually rise from his seat or lean across the bar and tell complete strangers what they must order. In food movies, this happens all the time. In real life? Not so much. It takes a powerful passion to lift a person from his seat, from his bubble of private obsession, and make him start lecturing his neighbors about duck liver. But during this one night at À Côté, I see it happen three times. Once, a plate is even shared — so intimate an act as to be almost pornographic in this setting.
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Of course, I order the foie. Dupays's kitchen has hit the cut liver with a dose of Sauternes, giving the organ meat a licorice-y sweet buzz on the tongue. It's served cold and upended, already deliquescing onto the plate, with a merlot reduction cooked down so hard that it is nothing more than a squiggle of jelly, a few slabs of grilled bread and a crown of micro-arugula that, like Paris Hilton, is pretty but useless. The first bite hits me like a shotgunned beer — a fast and overwhelming duck high, drunk on fat. I spread the liver on bread and, when that gets in the way of the sickly perverse pleasure of it all, spread it on my tongue — licking the knife, feeling it go liquid with the heat change between the room and my mouth. To clear off the greasy and deadening slick of fat, I drink white wine — ice cold, of French origin. Can't tell you what, exactly. The wine board at À Côté is short but sweet and unapologetically Gallic. My accent is awful, my pronunciation worse, so I just point: "That one," the Chateau de Blah Blah, 2007.
The night's board includes a salade aux lardons that really isn't — a market salad of whole leaves, fresh from the stalls, that by tradition should be made with little, crunchy bits of bacon but here includes slow-cooked pork belly, crisp and fatty and delicious, really just pig in a garden. The apricots and blackberries have been used for a handmade tart — apricots cooked down soft inside a braided crust, topped with baked blackberries and sided with a scoop of brown-sugar ice cream in a spiderwebbed bowl made of caramel. When my friendly waitress delivers plates, she does so with a warm smile and a careful precision. Duck-drunk, I just smile like a moron at my tartine a la Parisienne, mutter , "Ham sandwich..." and dig in: local ham, a perfect béchamel mother, Emmenthaler raclette all on grilled batard, served open-faced with a fried egg on top, market fresh, straight from the farm and the chicken that made it. It's incredible. I keep eating long after I'm full, if only because it's a near-perfect sandwich — knife-and-fork material, but awesome in its simplicity. The bread is great bread — crisp and yeasty. The ham is shaved thin, the Emmenthaler all melty, the béchamel rouxed slightly thick and used also to dress the composed salad that balances the other side of the plate. And then there's the egg. One perfect egg, ideally fried.
It is a signal achievement, this egg; a message from the kitchen that even the smallest thing, the most seemingly simple thing, ought to be treated with the same care and artistry as the lobe of foie, the bag of mussels, the pork rillette. If egg is to be on the menu, it ought to be the best egg available. If egg is to be on a dish, it is the job of the cook to make that egg perfectly. In its humble way, the egg says everything about Dupays and his crew's dedication to doing the right thing even in the hurly-burly of killer night after killer night. If a kitchen does that, the people will keep coming. They will wait as long as necessary, they will jump through whatever hoops of scheduling or strategizing you set for them.
And they will do so gladly, happily — with the kind of ardor and lust that makes friends of strangers and one small, cramped, busy and overflowing room into one of the most welcoming houses in town.