I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him.
The face of tyranny is always mild at first.
My only hope lies in my despair.
(Racine’s-Night of an America Tragedy)
Racines NY (Restaurant and Natural Wine Bar)
94 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Jean Racine was one of the great playwrights of 17th century France. His contempories were Moliere and Corneille. Racine was knows for his tragedies. A tragic play explores human suffering. It usually uses the downfall of a main character from prosperity to disaster as its dramatic vehicle. Robert Lowell, the American poet, described his writing as “diamond edged” and with the “glory of its hard, electric rage.”
Racines is the sister restaurant of two wine bars in Paris. They are located on Rue de l’Arbre-Sec and Passage des Panoramas if you happen to be visiting the City of Light. The restaurant’s name does not refer to Jean Racine but to winemaker Claude Courtois’s signature “Racines” blend.
Most reviews of Racines mention that David Lille, the owner of Chambers Street Wines, is also a partner in the restaurant. This is not mentioned on the website so I do not know if this remains true.
Chef Frederic Duca
Chef Duca is from Marseille and was voted Best Chef of the Year in 2013 by Gilles Pudlowski, and was also awarded a Michelin Star at L’Instant d’Or in Paris. He has worked at such high end restaurants as Le Martinez in Cannes and Hélène Darroze in Paris. His influences are Mediterranean. He is known for his inventiveness and the integrity of his food.
Owner and Sommelier Arnaud Tronche
Arnaud Tronche is from a small town near Avignon, France. He is an engineer by trade but began a second career as a sommelier when he moved to Chicago. He strength is the wines of the Rhone and Corsica. The website says that he focuses on small estates that practice organic and biodynamic farming and natural vinifications.
Our reservation on Open Table vanished but the hostess handled the matter professionally and seated us at a nice table. The staff was friendly, knowledgable about the menu, and displayedgood timing throughout the meal. Chef Duca visted our table and we greatly enjoyed meeting him. This is one of the special touches that shows a restaurant cares about the experience of its diners. This is important to me. If the restaurant does not care about me, why should I care about it? There is always another restaurant to try in New York City.
I have a confession and an apology to make to Racines. We had dinner with some close friends just a few days after the election. We were devastated by the result and quickly became involved in a passionate discussion about the causes of the disaster and the prospects for the future of the progressive movement. We did not pay as much attention to the food as we otherwise would!
Jean Racine was known for this tragic plays. Given the tragedy of the election, it seemed appropriate that we were eating at Racines! We were in a state of despari and none of us saw much hope for America in the future. Racine captured our mood 400 years ago. He said: “My only hope lies in my despair.”
The menu is limited but this allows the chef to concentrate his attention on just few dishes and bring them to perfection. The appetizers are in the $15-$24 dollar range. There are some basic offerings such as an arugula salad (with honey, lime basil and pecorino) and escargots (with garlic, pancetta and lentils). Thc Chef displays his creativity in other dishes such as prawn tartare (with corn, spaghetti squash and peanuts) and the cauliflower mushroom tart (with confit of onions and lardons.
The mains featured on the Website include a cod, red snapper, short ribs, sweetbreads and a Scottish wood pigeon tourte. However, the menu changes frequently and the daily menu is quite different.
Our starters of the day featured an arugula salad (with honey, pecorino, and lemon vinaigrette), a maitake mushroom tarte and a tuna cruda (with creme fraiche, citrus, mint and beets). The mains were a uni (squid ink spaghetti and spiced carrot foam), a black sea bass ( with spinach, “Racine’s vegetables, and sauce bourride) and scallops (with hazlenut crust and roasted sunchoke).
We ordered the arugula salad, the tuna cruda, the uni and the black sea bass. Our dinner started with a small cup of mushroom soup as an amuse bouche. It was earthy and rich; it was if the essence of mushroom had been condensed into the bowls.
The arugula salad was large, fresh, and was perfectly accented with the honey and lemon flavors. The pecorino (a hard, Italian white cheese made from sheep milk) added notes of butter and nuts. The salad was clear and bright.
The tuna cruda was light and delicate. It was artfully presented on the plate; the colors and textures were like an exquisite still life. It was almost Japanese in its sensibility.
The black sea bass was well-prepared. It came with a sauce bourride. This is a Provencal version of a bouillabaisse fish stew. It known as a workingman’s dish. According to Daniel Bouloud:
In the old days, a husband would come home in late morning with his catch, which his wife would transform into a delicious lunch with the addition of a few potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and leeks.
Daniel mentioned that the dish is usually made with monkfish in France but he prefers sea bass in America because it is easier to find. All of the flavors of the sea bass were clear and distinct, and the vegetables were a textural counterpoint to the fish. This dish was carefully prepared, original and delightful.
The uni was delicate and refined. The spiced carrot foam was an inspired element. On the plate the foam looked like bubbles from a wave, and the flavors were just as evanescent.
Like all of the food we had at Racine’s, it was elegant and creative with unexpected elements. Frankly, considering the rather pedestrian decor of the restaurant this very high level of food was a surprise
The deserts are simple. There is a panna cotta, apple tatin and a chocolate and caramel tart. We passed on desert which was probably a bad decision. We were exhausted by the election and our debates.
Racine was picked by Imbibe Magazine as its top wine bar for 2015.
Racines offers natural wines. Natural wines do not use pesticides or herbicides. The winemakers cultivate and harvest their grapes by hand. They use natural yeasts and use little to no sulfur in the bottling process. There are no additives and little to no filtration. The idea behind natural wines is to minimize the intervention by chemicals and technology in the wine making process.
The wine list has been selected with great care by Mr. Tronche and is quite extensive. He highlights wines from the Loire Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon and Corsica. In addition to most of the regions of France, Ricines offers wines from Italy, Spain, Switzerland, USA, Germany, Austria, South Africa, Greece, Chile and Canada. There is also a fine selection of Champagne and other bubbles.
Racines is located in Tribeca. It is on Chambers between Broadway and Church. The block is run down and unattractive. There are cheap Indian and Cuban take-out joints, a Lot-Less variety store, a Dunkin-Donuts, and a barber shop. On the other hand Tribeca is a prestigious neighborhood with many high end restaurants. Bouley, for example, is just a few blocks away.
The space is standard Tribecan eclectic designless design. There are brick walls, wood floors and exposed duct work. The tables are simple brown wood. To Racine’s credit, the chairs are Thonet No.2. These chairs are timeless and perfect and they remind me of Paris (even though they were designed by an Austrian!). The lighting is Tesla-inspired open bulbs with large glowing filaments. Industrial, high tech chic. The light is soft and makes everyone look good.
The work on the walls has no discernable or coherent sensibility; it looked like it was appropriated from sidewalks and flea markets. However, these nothing like Rauschenbergian combines. There are photos along one wall that vaguely suggest street scenes, along another wall is a silk-screen image of Bacchus-the Roman God of wine and revelry. There are some posters near the door that suggest New Yorker magazine covers.
The bar runs the length of the space on the right, almost to the kitchen. It is wood and simple and comfortable. It is utilitarian without adornment. The kitchen is at the back of the restaurant. It opens to the restaurant.
Racines is attractive with good energy even with the rather odd images on the walls. Even though it was quite busy when we were there, we did not experience any problems with noise.
Racines: The Second Visit
Racines has a happy hour special during which they offer wines from 5:00 until 7:00 for $7.00 per glass. This is a stunning offer, and we decided to take advantage of it. They were offering two white wines, two reds and a sparkling. He are some of the wines:
2014 Domaine Barou Syrah: Beautiful organic Syrah from the hills above Saint-Joseph.
2015 La Ferme Saint-Martin “Les Romanins:” Lush, complex natural Rhone wine.
2014 Eric Laguerre “Le Ciste” Blanc: From mountain vines in the Roussillon on granite, superb! (Maccabeo, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle).
2014 Domaine des Amphores Saint-Joseph Blanc: Back to Saint-Joseph for this outstanding blend of Marsanne and Roussanne.
We had one of each and they were delightful. The bartender was conversational, the crowd was local and the atmosphere was comfortable.
Racines has become one of our favorite restaurants in New York. We will be back for many more happy hours and dinner.
Service: 8 (Friendly, professional and knowledgeable.)
Archetype: 5 ( Racines is not a bistro so I did not evaluate it against the bistro archetype. However, it does have Thonet #2 chairs so they get points for that. Although the Parisian bistro-a-vin has no archetypal design like the bistro, Racines space is average. )
Food: 8 (Creative, elegant and well-prepared. Outstanding and unique organic wines.)
Energy: 8 (Racines is one of those restaurants where you feel that the owner, the chef and the staff all believe in the vision of the restaurant. They are happy to be working there and they enjoy sharing it with their customers.)
New York Times
The New Yorker
Wall Street Journal
Racines Paris and Raines Pairs (2)
Blog Post by Giles Pudlowski about Chef Duca (in French)
Bourride Fish Stew (By Daniel Boulud)
In Paris, Finding the True Bistro a’Vin
On Natural Wines-Alice Feiring