Every so often a couple will return from a European vacation with a nicest-night-of-their-vacation story. It goes something like this: They were in a smallish European town (maybe in southern France, maybe Moravia, maybe the Umbrian region of Italy), and they stopped into a cozy looking bistro for dinner.
The proprietor was charming and sent over a complimentary aperitif (something regional that the local old men drink while playing cards).
The food was delicious and the recommended wine amazingly good. The vacationers were effusive in their praise and gratitude. They insisted that the proprietor join them for a glass of dessert wine. The night stretched on, a special bottle from the cellar was dusted off and opened, conversation flowed and the evening ended with clasped hands, promises of return, etc.
A visit to Coq Hardi, the Algerian-influenced French bistro in Brooklyn Heights, won’t necessarily follow the "nicest night" script, but with proprietor Mourad Belghanem on the premises, the potential is always there.
Visually, the new restaurant, located in the second-floor space formerly occupied by Overstreets, doesn’t have much Old World charm other than the large plate-glass windows overlooking Montague Street. The charm comes primarily from Belghanem’s welcoming personality and the omnipresent sounds of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour or some other mid-century French chansonnier.
The food has considerable charm as well. Even a common appetizer like calamari can be appreciated anew when served not battered and fried but freshly grilled and tossed with cucumber, lemon, garlic and parsley as in the calamars grilles au citron.
Or for a patron interested in really jumpstarting their taste buds prior to tackling an entree, the tartare de thon au poivrons rotis, a combination of tuna tartar, roasted peppers, parmesan and anchovies is a piquant starter. It is hard to make tuna tartar and anchovies look attractive but this appetizer was served with the parmesan shaved into little wings - an appreciated decorative garnish.
The Coq Hardi entrees are classic dishes of southern France like the bourride de poisson du marche, cousin to bouillabaisse but with a saffron, rather than tomato-based, broth. The bourride’s broth may be a little delicate for some palates, but along the same culinary line - yet more flavorful, are the saumon cloute aux anchois, or grilled salmon with anchovy filets, served with sliced provencal vegetables on a bed of tomato coulis and French basil, and the poulet bandolais, oven confit chicken with herbs served with an eggplant, olive and caper casserole.
Belghanem says that his mother insisted he serve a couscous dish, which he does in a traditional style with lamb, chicken, merguez (lamb sausage) and vegetables, braised in a lightly spicy broth.
Equally traditional and Mediterranean is the tajine d’agneau a la menthe, a Moroccan lamb stew with spices, served with white beans, braised fennel and mint.
Some people react to reading a menu on which the names of dishes are in French by protectively grabbing their wallets. But all the entrees mentioned above are moderately priced - $13 to $16.
Actually, the end of a meal at Coq Hardi is perhaps the nicest part. Not only will the bill seem friendly, but also there are standout desserts such as the apples soaked in Calvados brandy served with ice cream. Things should only get better as the weather warms and patrons are allowed to sneak through the kitchen to dine al fresco on the restaurant’s back patio.
Belghanem says that the inspiration for his restaurant’s name came from a large bordello-style restaurant in Nice that was a popular place for American GIs to drink Pastis and meet French girls during World War II. Indeed, on the night we visited Coq Hardi a group of four American patrons chatting with Belghanem in French included two older gentlemen who might well have been among those GIs.
Which suggests one of the nicest things about Coq Hardi - it seems to be a restaurant for adults. The patrons were in no particular rush, they didn’t appear to be packing cell phones and they were apparently familiar with the Maurice Chevalier songs on the hi-fi. So if you are a grown-up person or just want to be in a grown-up atmosphere for a change, the brand new Coq Hardi will prove refreshingly mature.
Coq Hardi is located at 142 Montague St., second floor, between Clinton and Henry streets. For reservations, call (718) 246-5577. Coq Hardi accepts all major credit cards.