La Mirabelle Restaurant
102 West 86th Street (between Columbus and Amsterdam)
New York, NY 10024
The Parisian Woman and a Parisian Bistro
We are on the way to Broadway to see The Parisian Woman starring Uma Thurman. Very much like House of Cards, turns out the screenplay was by the same writers.
La Mirabelle is on the Upper West Side. It is located on 86th street near Columbus Avenue.
We subway from Dumbo, emerge from the tunnel and walk through the traffic and car lights and wind. It is snowing, cold and dark.
We arrive early and are greeted warmly by the stylish host; we appreciate this considering the weather. We receive a table near a window in the front. We consider the decoration of the bistro, no, not decoration, more like image-objects that have grown organically over the decades, recording the bistro’s history.
From the street the bistro is modest: wood and lace curtains. Something about the lace evokes a grandmother’s home kitchen and comfort food prepared with love. The bistro has two levels (there is a wood stairway to the right the leads to an upper level) there are old wood crossbeams the make the space feel rustic, as if you were in the French countryside, rather than on West 86th street.
There are vernacular oil paintings of flowers and countrysides, beaches and seas, black and white photos signed by celebrities, flowers on the hostess stand.
This is a neighborhood restaurant. Around 6:30 diners began to arrive. Most were in their 60s to their 80’s and all seemed to know the staff and each other, as if they had dined there for decades. Many of them were French. Some wore black berets-black coats and white hair. You imagine them talking about the invasion of Paris during WWII. You imagine they feel they are in their old neighborhood in Paris.
The music was Parisian chanson: Charles Trenet, Guy Béart, Jacques Brel, Jean Ferrat, Georges Brassens and Édith Piaf. You imagine they can sing these clothes.
The staff treated us as if we were long lost family. They claim to know everyone who comes in and if they do not, they will before the meal is over. The service is by whoever is free, whatever is needed is provided. I think the grandmother brought us our soup, she spoke only a few words of English.
This is traditional bistro food, the kind of straightforward, fresh and simple food that the owners served their families back in France.
We were offered a long list of specials: clam chowder, oysters, mussels, arugula salad, snapper, beef wellington and a bouillabaisse.
For starters we tried the onion soup and the special endive salad. The salad sparkled, very fresh, accents of grapefruit, slivers of goat cheese and croutons. The onion soup was good-it was not up to the best (which is Odeon’s) but it was a respectable offering. The broth was a little light for our taste but well within the tradition.
Our mains were the salmon with leak sauce, with mashed potatoes and squash, and the bouillabaisse. The salmon dish was cooked with care, it had quality, but the bouillabaisse was extraordinary. It stole the show; it is one of the best dishes I have had at any bistro in New York over the past three years. It was an event.
The broth was subtle, you could taste the saffron and the fennel. There was a large lobster, mussels, and an abundance of white fish. The potatoes were perfectly cooked. The dish had complexity, clarity and balance. It was an ideal antidote to a cold, windy, snowy night.
Let’s explore the art of bouillabaisse. What is it and what makes a good one, well good?
Bouillabaisse is a classic French dish from the port town Marseille. It uses many different varieties of fish. Traditionally it was made with whatever the fishermen hadn’t sold that morning. It was a soup made from leftover fish! There are many varieties of bouillabaisse and there is passionate disagreement over who makes the best bouillabaisse. In Marseille, bouillabaisse is not just a fish soup. It is a way of life.
Guillaume Sorrieu’s bouillabaisse, from L’Épuisette, in Marseille, is considered the best in the world.
How to describe the real thing?
But the real thing — the rust-brown, tomato- and fennel-based, saffron-infused bouillon, enriched by dollops of a fiercely garlicky mayonnaise called rouille, followed by a plate of fish that have been cooked in the bouillon — is well worth the hunt.
But exactly what fish can be used? You will not be astonished to hear that learned authorities disagree. Even the authoritative Bouillabaisse Charter of Marseille, signed by 11 restaurateurs in 1979, does little to clear up the confusion. The Charter specifies that at least four fish from a list of eight must be used if the bouillabaisse is to be considered authentic.
A Marseille bouillabaisse must consist of at least four types of fish from the following list:
White scorpion fish
Cigale de Mer (Mediterranean crustacean resembling a lobster)
Other ingredients that may go in the bouillabaisse:
Dessert was chocolate mousse. (The creme caramel and the chocolate raspberry cake were tempting). It was intense, rich but not cheapened by too much sugar. We closed with espresso and began the journey to the theater.
Staff: 8 (Authentically French, casual)
Archetype: 8 (There are many signifiers of the Archetype-vernacular paintings and photographs, the white lace around the window, the country farmhouse feeling, the simplicity and quality of the food)
Food: 9 (Well prepared traditional bistro food; great bouillabaisse, well worth the trip)
Energy: 9 (Noise low, neighborhood crowd, older, quiet, pleasant atmosphere, surprisingly good music)