You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights. I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.
Owen Wilson as Gil in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris
282 Bowery (and Houston)
New York City 10012
It was a trumpet solo over bass and drums and piano. Is that a Cole Porter tune? The white honeycomb tiled floors reflect the soft yellow glow of the globe lights and the soft yellow walls. The pressed tin ceiling. Rows of glows hang from the pressed tin grey ceiling. Arches and white tile are like the columns and the walls of the Brooklyn Bridge subway entrance. Red banquettes and brown wood bistro chairs scratched, faded and worn pushed against the soft pink table cloths.
Frosted glass dividers and bistro towels at the bottom of wine cabinets around the sides of the bistro.
Glass bottles reflect the blond wood light of the bar.
Gold light yellow light soft light.
Artists at cafe tables writing.
A Moveable Feast.
The Cherche-Midi Military Prison
Cherche-Midi was a military prison in Paris in use between 1851-1957. It had 200 solitary confinement cells. The prisoners were military prisoners, draft dodgers, deserters and political prisoners. It was located on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. It is on the Left Blank next to the Saint Sulpice Metro stop.
When I went to Paris to search for the Lost Generation, I stayed at a very cheap hotel across from the Saint Sulpice church and walked down this street many times. Keith McNally, one of the owners of Cherche Midi, used to live on the Rue de Cherche-Midi and liked the association of Cherche Midi with the prison and the street.
Cherche Midi is owned by Keith McNally, Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla. Daniel and Shane are co-Executive chefs at Cherche Midi. Shane is also an Executive chef at Balthazar. Cherche Midi’s sister restaurants are Balthazar, Lucky Strike, Morandi, Minetta Tavern, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, and Pastis.
The Cherche Midi Bistro
Cherche Midi is located at the corner of Houston and Bowery. Trucks, traffic, noise, construction, ugliness and vulgarity. Walking through the doors of Cherche Midi was like being transported back in time and space to Paris. The time machine was not a 1920’s Peugeot as in Midnight in Paris, and we did not see Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, or Stein, but we did feel dislocated from Houston and Bowery in 2016.
We were promptly and cheerfully greeted by the host and shown our table in the corner. We had a lovely view of the restaurant. The staff was pleasant and professional. They were attentive but not cloying or overly friendly. The pacing of the meal was spot on.
The table cloth was pink over a white drape. Our server brings a basket baked bread from Balthazar and small cups of salt and butter. Next to the bread is a brown pottery water pitcher. Behind us in a white wood cabinet is an old blue pottery vase holding white lilies. Although Cherche Midi is a new restaurant, it felt authentic and organic; it did not feel designed.
We have not had good bread at most bistros in New York based upon the criteria established by Professor Steve Kaplan. Most bistros source their bread from various bakeries around the Manhattan area. Most of the bread has been without distinction or character and would be challenged by Wonder bread in a baking contest.
Here are Kaplan’s notes on Balthazar’s bread:
The “very seductive” Parisian look of the Balthazar baguette elicited pangs of nostalgia in the professor for Paris, and, with its “golden-orange top” and “browner orange sides,” ended up in a first-place tie with Almondine in the appearance category. Taste was another story: “It’s insipid. It lacks sapidity. The taste is flat, disappointing, starchy.”
I will not question the Professor’s expertise. However, the bread at Cherche Midi was one of the best. The crust was attractive. It was dark and crispy and suggested caramel and nuts. The crumb was flavorful and properly springy. It had good alveolar structure. There were subtle sour notes. The flavor lingered in the mouth. All of these are signs of quality.
Cherche-Midi means “searching for midday.” We came for lunch and had the three course prix fixe menu. Our first course was butternut squash soup. Although this soup is as common as Warhol’s Campbell Soup, it was rich and flavorful. It had toasted pumpkin seeds and a hint of sage.
Our second course was the grilled chicken paillard (with arugula and tomato salad, balsamic and aged Gouda cheese). The word “paillard” refers to a piece of meat pounded thin and cooked on the grill.
The chicken was thinly sliced and lightly and perfectly grilled as a paillard should be. The arugula, cheese and tomatoes provided a perfect compliment to the chicken. The chef brought our entrees and personally ground our fresh pepper. This personal detail made us happy; it separates memorable restaurant experiences from the quotidian.
Our desert was the apple tarte tatin. Julia Child describes a tarte tatin as:
It is caramelized sliced apples, oven-baked in a skillet with the pastry on top; when done, it is turned upside-down so the crust is on the bottom and the apple slices – wonderfully brown, buttery, and glazed with caramel – remain in a design on top.
The Tarte Tatin Society of France has many resources for lovers of the tarte tatin. The tarte tatin has a long history:
It was born around 1880 in the small town of Lamotte-Beuvron in Central France, about 100 miles South of Paris, an area thick with wetlands and waterfowl, long popular with hunters. The story has it that, Stéphanie Tatin, who ran the family hostel with her sister Caroline, once accidentally dropped an apple tarte while rushing about the kitchen. With hungry patrons calling, she promptly picked it up and rearranged it as best as she could, which happened to be upside down, and stuck it in the oven. Once baked, she flipped it back up on a dish, and discovered to her surprise the rich caramelized texture that is the tarte’s hallmark.
Naturally, there is controversy about the origins of this famous dish. Some scholars say that upside-down tartes have long been a speciality of the Sologne region. There are old drawings of apple cobblers in the region which may have been a predecessor or the tarte tatin.
The tarte tatin is a simple dish. Apples, sugar and butter are the filling and flour, butter and water are the dough. In the original recipe of the Tatin sisters, the apples are not peeled, the dough is flaky (and does not contain sugar), and there is no cinnamon, vinegar, whipped cream or puff pastry. The tart is served warmed by itself.
How does the Cherche Midi tarte compare to the classic dish? It failed in two ways: there was ice cream on top and the crust was a puff pastry rather than flaky dough. The crust was rather soggy. However, the apples were rich, buttery and flavorful but too sweet. Julia Childs says that the apples should by crisp and brown. Ours were soft. I separated the ice cream from the tarte and enjoyed it with the caramel tracing on the plate.
We closed with espresso made well. It had good balance, body and flavor. I could detect a subtle citrus note. It was not too acidic which is often the case.
Cherche Midi delivered an excellent bistro experience. The atmosphere, service and food were all well done and enjoyable. There were no weaknesses except the tarte tatin. We have already made our reservations for dinner!
Service: 9 (Professional and knowledgeable. Good timing. Personal touches from the chef and the host.)
Archetype: 7 (Feels like an organically grown bistro (although it is not). The tiles and arches are not consistent with the Archetype but it still creates that bistro “feeling.”)
Food: 8 (Very good food overall. The tarte tatin was enjoyable but not considered a “good” tarte tatin in the classical sense.)
Energy: 9 (Soft, elegant, relaxed and right. Low noise, good music. You can write your next novella here in comfort.)
Reviews of Cherche Midi
The Cherche-Midi Military Prison
Professor Kaplan New York Bread Reviews