I approached New York like a fake anthropologist-treating New Yorkers like Zulus.
What is Art, monsieur, but Nature concentrated?
Honoré de Balzac
Lucien French Bistro
14 1st Avenue (At 1st Street)
New York, NY 10009
Lucien is a small and charming bistro in the East Village. It is located at First Avenue and 1st Street just off the corner of First Avenue and Houston. On the block are bars and barber shops, and small ethnic restaurants: Irish, Vietnamese, Tibetan and Italian. You can also worship Krishna, buy appliances, get a tattoo and get buried at the R. G. Oritz Funeral Home, Inc.
Lucian serves expensive and traditional bistro food. The space fits the block but the price point seems wildly out of place. Even though Lucien is expensive it does not deter the East Village locals who frequent this restaurant. Earlier this week, I had dinner at Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side. I was headed to the Milton Babbitt Centennial at Juilliard. At Cafe Luxembourg the patrons are older. They wear blue blazers and suits. A quiet dinner after a long day at the corporation. Sophisticated, moneyed, intellectual and artistically fluent. At Cafe Luxembourg the conversation is quiet and reserved and Frank plays softly in the background.
Tonight I am going to the Stone to hear Craig Taborn and Val Jeanty on keyboards and electronics.
The Stone is a non-profit performance space dedicated to the experimental and avant-garde. It was founded in 2005. The Stone is situated on the Northwest corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, in a building which used to be the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant. It can be very hard to find. The only sign is The Stone in small gold lettering painted on the door. The door is only visible when the security gate is rolled up a few hours before each performance. The Stone does not provide any refreshments or sell any commercial products. All of the revenues go to the musicians. The space’s walls are white, and the floor is painted black. The audience sits on black folding chairs that match the floor. It is very minimal to create a focus on the music. John Zorn is the artistic director. Zorn is a composer, producer and saxophonist with hundreds of album credits across a variety of genres such as jazz, rock, hardcore, classical, surf, metal, klezmer, soundtrack, and ambient music.
Lucian is a few blocks away from the Stone so I decided to give it a try.
The tables are very close together and you must hope that the conversations of your fellow diners are interesting. Fortunately, on my left, there was talk of art openings, writing projects and an interview at the Village Voice. Unfortunately, on my right, a woman talked endlessly about Facebook and children and office politics.
There were black clothes, black fingernails and tattoos. The table on my left went outside several times to smoke cigarettes. They drank lots of wine, intensely focused on their iPhones, and seemed indifferent to the food. Wait! A hipster with long black hair and black beard enters the bistro wearing an old black leather jacket with the American flag on the black. Earnest artistic types talk of their Work. Wait! A couple enters: she has stylish pink hair and a leopard coat. Her escort is wearing a black top hat and black cape. There is much hugging all around.
I watch the action and I feel like William Klein. Now, if I could only make images on his level!
Everyone seemed to know everyone else at Lucien. People play musical chairs at the tables and every new entrance brings more excitement, hugs and greetings. Everyone seemed to know the hostess who dispensed openness, warm and grace.
I am immediately greeted upon my arrival and escorted to my table next to the window. I am way too close to the other tables but that is the Lucien way. Menus, bread, butter and a bottle of water appear. I order a glass of Chateau La Couronne 2011. It was full bodied and notes of blackberry and herbs.
You enter through heavy red drapes. There are old mirrors on the walls with faded gold lettering. “Specialities Provincales.” “Coquillages.” “Bouillabaisse.” “Tarte Tatin.” And on another mirror: “Apertifs,” “Digestifs,” and “Cigars.” The walls are covered with black and white photographs of street scenes, art and people of note. The chairs are woven rattan bistro chairs. There is a large vase of flowers on the bar which is in the middle of the restaurant.
On the wall across from the bar is a vintage poster by Gitanes. I know they are stylish and sexy and make me think of Goddard’s Breathless. But what does it mean?
“Gitane” means “gypsy girl” and is a brand of French cigarette.The first Gitane posters were designed in the 1940s and were based on art deco design of a gypsy dancer. All of the posters have stylized images of girls.
The space is long and narrow and the bar is in the middle. There is a second dining room past the bar.
The music was indy rock at a very low level. Noise was low. The tables are very close together so your experience may depend upon your neighbors and the overall busyness of the restaurant.
Staff and Service
The owners of the restaurant are Lucien and Phyllis Bahaj. I thought perhaps the name was a reference to Lucien Chardon from Balzac’s Lost Illusions.
The service is very informal and friendly. You are made to feel as if you are part of the family. The pacing was good, the waiters were conversational and professional. The hostess was particularly warm and I received a hug on the way out! Some may view this as too personal but it works at Lucien. Lucen is more than a neighborhood restaurant; it is a family restaurant in the true expression of the bistro Archetype.
The bread was insipid. The crust had little texture, it was weak, it was soft. It had no taste. The crumb was white, tasteless and weak structure. I inquire and am advised that, once again, it is Amy’s bread. Why has Amy’s captured the New York bistro market? I recently had lunch at Maison Kayser next to Bryant Park. Here the bread was excellent. Why not source your bread from Maison Kayser?
The menu is divided into “sea,” “land,” and “air.” This is unusual in the bistro world but I like it. Lucien has some of the highest bistro prices that I have seen. Chilean sea bass is $46, the bouillabaisse is $42, the free range chicken is $36 and the rack of lamb is $44. But the East Village scene does not blink. Nor do I!
Starters include a broad range of soups, salads and snails. The onion soup and the cauliflower soup were both $14, the asparagus salad was $16, and the Lucien salad was $22.
My starter was the cauliflower soup. It was topped with white truffle oil. It was light and flavorful; and the truffle oil transported the soup to sublime. It was an elegant and simple soup, but I wished it had more color. It would have been helped by a sprig of a fresh herb such as a rosemary.
My entree was the grilled salmon (with a Port wine and balsamic reduction over seasonal vegetables). The salmon was very lightly grilled and was pale pink in color; almost translucent. The port wine was a rich and sharp contrast to the delicate fish. Beneath the fish were several slices of carrots and squash. The orange, yellow and green of the vegetables made this an attractive dish. The vegetables were perfectly cooked: firm and crunchy. They retained their flavor. How often have you had grilled salmon that you remember the next day or the next week? It is as memorable as a slice of Wonder bread. It has been a couple of weeks since my dinner at Lucien and I can still recall the textures, flavors and color of the dish. There is art in this dish! This is an exceedingly difficult thing with salmon but Lucien pulled it off.
The deserts were chocolate cake, creme brulee and a tarte tatin. I passed but vowed to sample the deserts when I return. I closed with an excellent espresso. It had that dusty, chocolate flavor without any bitterness. There was no need for sugar; excellent.
Service: 8 (Informal and friendly and it works)
Archetype: 8 (High scores for owners, bar, warmth, decor and food)
Food: 9 (Excellent all the way around but unusually expensive given the neighborhood)
Energy: 7 (Small space, energetic, go early to avoid noise and crowding; hostess brings warmth positive energy to Lucien)
Woven Rattan Bistro Chairs