No matter how many bodies you pack inside, some restaurants are always going to be as cold and sterile as a surgical pre-op, where voices seem to evaporate into wisps of cold before they can travel across the length of a table, and even a surfeit of love won't stop the lucky couple on the third date in the back booth from pausing halfway through their entrees of sea bass and ahi and thinking to themselves that maybe this whole relationship isn't going as well as they'd thought it was.
But there are also restaurants that miraculously exude warmth and life and comfort no matter the condition of the floor. These are the rare ones, as extraordinary as real magic, where the house — despite a lack of trade, of buzz, of superficial action — subsists on a sort of rich inner life, a passion that flows outward from the kitchen, through the bar, to suffuse even just a few tables, even just one, with the sense that everything is going to be all right. Despite all evidence to the contrary.
Indulge French Bistro is one of these magical places.
Indulge French Bistro
4140 West 38th Avenue
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prosciutto and melon: $8
Steak tartare: $9.75
Friday night before the Democratic National Convention hit town, bringing with it cops and roadblocks, protesters and the press, I decided to enjoy the calm before the storm at Indulge. But I certainly never expected this eight-month-old restaurant to be so very calm. I wasn't the only person in the dining room, but it was close — a couple in the back, some friends at the bar. Stephanie, wife of chef William Wahl, was working the front. When I noted how slow it was, her eyes went wide, "I know!" she said, lilting English, heavily accented with French. The house had done five tables, maybe seven, before I arrived, she told me. I asked how business was normally, and she shrugged — dismissing not just this one, odd night, but all of them. "Eh," she said. "Busier. Early, late. This is...unusual."
I sat down and ordered a glass of Vidal Fleury Côtes du Rhône, which came promptly — apparently I appeared to be a man badly in need of a drink. On the menu, the chilled tomato-lemongrass broth with blue-crab salad looked enticing, the potage vichyssoise with white truffle oil (a potato-and-leek soup, made best with scapes, served warm) too heavy for the end of a long, hot day. But a simple salad of mixed baby greens, reduced balsamic and oil seemed too basic, so I went with the prosciutto and melon. Besides, I figured that even a house possibly crippled by inactivity couldn't do too much damage with cured meat and fruit.
I needn't have worried, though. In fact, I should've been bolder. But even this straightforward plate — cantaloupe, trimmed and cut into wedges, topped with a fall of chives, chopped prosciutto and a port-wine reduction as sweet and smooth as spoons of liquid candy — was lovely, showing a command of flavor and talent that can only be demonstrated in the simplest ways, with ingredients that are the very best they can be.
Port is a digestive, normally sipped at the end of a meal. But for me it's a goad to the appetite, like balsamic vinegar or bitter greens. So now I was starving. My server, attentive to every shifting mood of a meal, cleared my plate, topped my water, gave me a moment to step outside for a cigarette, then brought a beautiful filet of salmon, perfectly crisped in butter, butter and more butter until the surface had turned brown as the burnt sugar of a crème brûlée and the flesh within meltingly soft. This was balanced against a ridge of leek fondue aux lardons (the green leek tips softened in more butter, punctuated by bits of soft bacon, flavors smoothed with the silky salt-and-blood tang of bacon fat) and footed by three perfectly turned potatoes speckled with chive. Who does a tournée on a night this slow? A kitchen that does not acknowledge the difference between a full book and an empty one.
Serving dinner for one is as important as doing the same for a multitude. Absent all considerations of circumstance, every single diner deserves the absolute best from everyone involved: This is the essence of professional service, of French service in particular, the core truth that makes being a servant a noble calling. "Servant" is a dirty word in this country. In this dining room, though, it is not.
I had crème brûlée for dessert — classically presented, fresh fruit on top. The tiny, local blueberries had been split in half to prevent them from rolling around the top of the brûlée — by hand, to order. By the time I was finished, I was the only customer remaining in the house.
"Bonsoir," Stephanie said as I made for the door. "Thank you."
"Bon chance," I replied, and she smiled — standing at the bar, amid the perfectly arranged emptiness of a floor with an hour left to go before closing.
Bon chance, I'd said, and I meant it. Two nights later, I was back at Indulge. I liked it there, quiet as it was, because there was no sadness to the solitude, no hint of bitterness. A slow night was only a slow night, was the same as a busy night, just with fewer people.
Even empty, Indulge is a warm, happy house: a dim, curtained, close-set dining room and marble-topped dwarf bar with what looks like tableware and furnishings from a Normandy farmhouse restaurant unloaded into the bulk of an abandoned Italian trattoria — which, all things considered, is exactly what Indulge is. This space on West 38th Avenue used to be Mikey's Italian Bistro, before Mikey's closed up and moved to the 'burbs. And William Wahl's family runs a Norman restaurant in France, Au Vrai Normand, which is set into a weird triangle, a half-hour from everywhere — from Caen, from Saint-Lo, from Mont-Saint-Michel. William came to the States from France, and to Indulge after a stint under Kevin Taylor at both Rouge at the Teller House in Central City (no easy gig, that) and Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House, when he and his wife decided it was finally time for a place of their own. So if nothing else, William knows his way around an escargots Napoleon au pastis. The salmon William had made for me reminded me of a pavé of same that I'd had at Restaurant Kevin Taylor a year or two ago — the single best piece of salmon I'd ever eaten. And some of his technique displays a sense of the rigor (that's putting it politely) upon which KT is infamous for insisting.
Stephanie recognized me at the door. No surprise. It had only been a couple of days, and I got the impression that not many tables had passed under her care between my leaving and my return. My server, the same as on Friday night, welcomed me back. He remembered the wine I'd ordered and made a suggestion for something new to try: a Chateau Tour de Gilet, Bordeaux 2003, silver medalist in Paris in 2005, uncorked here after three more years of waiting, at eight bucks a glass — an amazing bargain, a gorgeous wine. I told him so after a sniff and a taste.
"I know," he said. "Makes me wonder what won the gold..."
Stephanie asked after my day, and I lied to her a little, but not a lot. I was exhausted, ravenous (when am I not?), and asked what the kitchen could do about that.
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Fresh peach tart, made that morning. Diver scallops with fava beans, wild oyster mushrooms and English peas cream. Black tiger shrimp brochettes with vanilla-coconut sauce and those escargots. I asked about the Peking duck because it seemed an odd inclusion — not exactly French — and was informed that Peking was just the breed of duck: duck breast and leg, in a coarse-grain mustard sauce, with haricots verts, pickled tomatoes and pommes pailles.
I ordered the duck, preceded by a plate of steak tartare that, when touched with a few slivers of onion brunoise, was like a kick in the chest — bloody and savory, sweet and spicy and delicious in the way that catches you right at the intersection of man and animal. The duck was simply the best I've ever had: beautifully cooked, ideally mid-rare at the leg, the dark meat gamey, skin soft and fatty here, crisp and smoky there, the mustard sauce separated, thinned, brought together with a hint of maple sugar and served splashed across the plate almost like a simple syrup. I ate all that a reasonable man should, then set in to picking at the bones with my fingers, leaning back in my chair with an ankle on my knee, fat and blissed out, starving for more even though I felt like I was about to pop.
When William came out of the kitchen to check on me and see how I'd enjoyed dinner, I told him: Best. Duck. Ever. I complimented his house and his crew, constantly cutting my eyes back to my plate where, in shreds, some edible meat and dabs of sauce still clung to the duck bones. He saw it. He knew. "I will let you get back to your meal," he said. "Bon appétit."
And in the quiet and warmth of Indulge's empty room, I did just that. Well looked after maybe because I was the only one around who needed looking after — but maybe because this house can't do it any other way.