284 West 12th Street
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 255-6900
O God, by whose grace thy servants the Holy Abbots of Cluny, Enkindled with the fire of thy love, became burning and shining lights in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.
Prayer of the Abbots of Cluny, Year 909
Whence comes the name Cafe Cluny?
In 909 a monastery was founded in Cluny, France by an Abbot Berno. The monastery was an order of Benedictine monks and followed the Benedictine Rule but with extreme strictness. The Benedictine Rule is silence, simplicity of diet, and strict observance of chastity. During the first 250 years of its existence, the monastery was governed by a series of remarkable abbots who left their mark upon the history of Western Europe. The ninth abbot, Peter the Venerable, ruled from 1122 to 1156. During his reign, Cluny reached the zenith of its influence and prosperity. It was second only to Rome as a centre of the Christian world and four of its members ultimately became popes. After the twelfth century the power and influence of Cluny began to decline
The church of Cluny was the largest church in Christendom until the building of St. Peter’s at Rome. It was regarded as one of the wonders of the Middle Ages.
The Cluny library was one of the richest and most important in France for many centuries and the storehouse of a vast number of valuable manuscripts The “Hotel de Cluny” in Paris, dating from 1334, was formerly the town house of the abbots. It is built on the remnants of the third century Gallo-Roman baths. In 1833 it was made into a public museum, but apart from the name, it has little to do with the Cluny Abbey.
The “Musee De Cluny” houses a variety of medieval artifacts and its tapestry collection is especially important. The Lady and the Unicorn is a famous tapestry housed in the museum. The structure is perhaps the most outstanding example of architecture in medieval Paris.
Cafe Cluny is at the corner of West 12th Street and West 4th Street in the West Village. The sun began to set as we arrived and the long lines of light shining down the streets and the brownstones and the trees became bright and golden and the colors deepened and the shadows turned from indigo to black as the sun fell behind the buildings. An artist sitting in a folding chair on the corner drew pen and ink drawings and propped them against the wall across the street for sale and people examined the drawings and considered carefully as they stopped while walking their dogs. Couples walked down the street looking for their first bar for Saturday night.
Cafe Cluny is small and yellow and quiet from the street. Although its sister restaurants are Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg, it does not share their same red awnings so we almost missed the restaurant.
We were greeted quickly, personally and professionally by the hostess. She immediately acknowledged our reservations and showed us to an excellent table in the front room overlooking the street. Behind the table was a wall of plaster of Paris castings of white birds. In the middle of our dinner, a young girl came up and asked to take pictures of the birds because she likes doves. We discussed whether they were doves or pigeons, but finally agreed that they were doves to make her happy. There is a second dining room in the back of the restaurant.
There are flowers on the bar and candles on the tables. On the walls are pencil drawings of portraits, and prints of ferns and plants and fish and butterflies. The color palate of the restaurant is golden blonde. The chairs are Parisian rattan and there is a chalkboard featuring the drink menu over the bar. Otherwise there are few elements of the bistro Archetype. The chef is Philip Kirschen-Clark who used to cook at Vandaag in the East Village.
Music was trip hop played very low. I heard Shikasta by Afterlife as we sat down. I have never heard trip hop played in a bistro before, and it is a curious choice for a bistro. As a lover of electronic music, I enjoyed it. The overall noise level was low.
The waitress came promptly. She was professional, efficient and knew the menu. When we inquired about the wines by the glass, she asked us if we wanted to sample them before we chose. This is a personal touch that we appreciated.
All of the waitresses and busboys wore shirts with blue striped breton shirts. The breton shirt was created in 1858 by an Act of France that introduced the navy and white striped knitted shirt as the uniform for all French navy seaman in Brittany. The original design featured 21 stripes. Each strip represented one of Napoleon’s victories. Coco Chanel introduced the design to the fashion world through her nautical collection in 1917. The shirt was made popular by Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Audrey Hepburn, and James Dean. The design is synonymous with chic Parisian style. The Breton top was first worn in Hollywood in The Wild One which starred Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin.The shirts were cool but sometimes we felt we were in France; other times we felt we were in Venice waiting for our gondolier.
We had the $35 prix fixe menu. My wife opted for a side of Brussel sprouts rather than a desert. Cafe Cluny was happy to make the substitution. I chose the Black Forest Chocolate Torte.
For our starters we had the winter citrus salad (with Belgian endive, toasted pine nuts, shaved fennel & artichoke) and the seared Bay scallops (with Kabocha squash puree, wild arugula, and blood orange puffed rice).
Kaboucha squash is an Asian variety of winter squash. It is sometimes known as Japanese pumpkin. A blood orange is a variety of orange which has a crimson flesh and a unique raspberry flavor. Blood oranges originated in either China or the Mediterranean, where they have been grown since the 18th century. They are now the primary orange grown in Italy.
The squash puree was too heavy and dense and it overpowered the delicacy of the scallops. The scallops were modest and had little flavor. The arugula was fresh and crisp. This dish would have been unremarkable except the blood orange puffed rice added a note of texture, flavor and creativity. It transformed a rather plain dish into an extraordinary one.
The winter citrus salad was crisp, tart and well-prepared. The toasted pine nuts elevated the dish to a hight not normally seen in a citrus salad. It was attractive on the plate with pastel colors of orange, lime-green and purple.
Our mains were the Hamphire Pork Loin (with sautéed asparagus, baby turnips, dull, honey mustard jus) and the Cod L’Orange (with radicchio, sunchoke Puree, L’Orange jus, and Szechuan pepper).
I paused before I ordered the Cod L’Orange because I was remembered Gordon Ramsay’s famous pronouncement on duck a l’orange. On his show Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares he said it is: ”The culinary equivalent of flared trousers.”
I took a chance; the cod was excellent. It was perfectly cooked, with good texture and flavor. I was impressed by the puree that accompanied the cod. It was putty colored and was made from sunflowers. The orange was a very light brushing on the surface of the fish. The color and spicy brashness of the radishes were a nice complement to the earthiness of the puree and the orange sweetness of the fish. The dish showed an artful sensitivity to color and arrangement of forms on the plate. This was true of everything that we ordered.
The pork was well-cooked and its flavor was supported by the mustard a jus. The asparagus were crispy and intense in flavor. The elements were artfully arranged with the two bundles of asparagus dividing the three pieces of pork. The Brussels sprouts were illuminated by the lemon and olive oil.
Black Forest Chocolate Torte
In a dinner with many peaks, the high point was the dessert. Cafe Cluny’s Black Forest Chocolate Torte is the most exciting dessert that I have had in reviewing over ten bistros. The chocolate is almost black, the cherries and the sauce are a deep red, almost purple-black in color, and they are offset by the whiteness of the vanilla ricotta. The romantic origins of German Black Forest cake suggest darkness, mystery and forest loneliness. Cafe Cluny created a desert with a perfect marriage of colors, flavors, texture and intensity.
The Cafe Cluny torte may produce the same transcendental experience of unity with the divine that the monks of Cluny spent years to achieve through their deep meditational practices.
Black Forest Cake is the English name for the German dessert Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Black Forest Cake consists of several layers of chocolate sponge cake sandwiched with whipped cream and cherries. It is decorated with additional whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings. Sometimes sour cherries are used both between the layers and for decorating the top. In the German tradition, kirschwasser, which is a clear spirit made from sour cherries, is added to the cake. In Austria, they may use rum. However, German law requires that the cake must use kirschwasser for it to be labelled a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Authentic cakes are decorated with black cherries.
The cake originated in the late 16th century in the Black Forest Region located in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. This region is known for its sour cherries and Kirschwasser. The name, Schwarzwald, suggests darkness and mystery coming from the romantic concept of Waldeinsamkeit or forest-loneliness. During this era, chocolate was first integrated into cakes and cookies. It was then combined with sour cherries.
The wine list is basic and limited. The whites included the standard riesling, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. The reds: a pinot noir, a cabernet sauvignon and a malbec. We were tempted by the Graves, Chateau de Landiras 2012, and the Echezeaux Grand Cru, Domaine J. Cacheux & Fils 2013.
We chose the Côtes du Rhône, Domaine Les Grands Bois, Rhone 2014. It was purple red and tasted of blackcurrants and cherries. The finish was licorice and pepper. It was round and with a long finish. It is a nice wine for $12.00 a glass. We did not know when we ordered this wine that it would be a perfect compliment to the Black Forest torte!
For such an accomplished restaurant, we wonder why they failed at the bread. The bread was a stale dinner roll. It was mechanically made and tasteless. It failed by every measure of quality bread. How can the same restaurant who gave us the Black Forrest Torte and a very good dinner overall, serve such miserable bread? Better not to serve it at all.
At the end of our dinner at Cafe Cluny we were give two pieces of unsweetened chocolate which we enjoyed with our coffee the next morning. Sometimes it is the small things that make a restaurant excellent. An offer to taste the wines by the glass, a sensitivity to color and form and aesthetics on the plate, a table by the window, and ending with chocolate. Small things matter greatly in restaurants and Cafe Cluny did them well.
Staff-7 (Friendly and professional; good timing.)
Archetype-3 (There are not trying to embody the Archetype; a subtle use of a few bistro influences. The Breton shirts were cool but not part of the Archetype.)
Food-8 (Well done with some innovations. Outstanding Black Forrest Cake. The bread was an embarrassing failure.)
Energy-8 (A very pleasant West Village cafe with a neighborhood crowd. Atmosphere is golden, light and summery. The sort of place you feel good to be there. Low noise. Unusual but good music, not intrusive. )
Reviews on Cafe Cluny
Black Forest Cake