"Where in Park Slope can I get a bowl
of wonton soup, the gingery kind with gossamer wonton wrappers?"
"What about a decent Indian curry?"
Pose those questions to any Park Slope foodie and you’ll receive the "Don’t even ask" New York eye roll. "Not in this neighborhood," they’ll tell you. Until recently, if you mentioned a yen for escargots or bouillabaisse, there’d be no end to the "they have it, and we don’t" whining and hand wringing.
While the area is challenged in the Chinese and Indian cuisine departments, those who crave traditional French cooking in a setting that isn’t lace curtain cute, are in luck. In August, Christine and Bill Snell, neighborhood folk, and owners of the much-loved bistro Loulou in Fort Greene, opened Park Slope’s first "country style" French bistro on Fifth Avenue, Cocotte.
What chef Bill Snell, who originated Loulou’s popular, seafood-based menu, with executive chef Manuel Rueda, offers at Cocotte are true French classics: escargots, foie gras and crepes.
There is something daring about Snell’s "here are the classics, don’t you love them?" menu. In fact, little has been done to lighten the dishes.
That is all for the good.
Snell’s dishes, and pastry chef Valerie Pryor’s desserts, are often rich, yet not cloying, and they’re lusty. Nothing timid comes out of their kitchen.
What a diner must do to enjoy a meal at Cocotte is to embrace the ingredients that make classic French dishes so delicious: butter and cream.
One should simply abandon the idea of restraint, and say, "Tonight I’m indulging. I’m going to order a good bottle of wine and eat whatever appeals to me," and then dive, fork first, into the experience. (If you’re a killjoy, there are raw oysters, a few salads and grilled fish that can be ordered without sauce, but Cocotte isn’t the place for self-denial.)
Part of the pleasure of Cocotte is the dining room, which has none of the standard, cliched bistro accoutrements: no huge mirrors; no copper-colored walls; no French Provencal fabrics or lace curtains. The mood is country farmhouse, but this is the dining room of a prosperous farm, not a hardscrabble one. In the evening, the room is dark and moody with wall sconces replacing overhead lighting and candles on the tables casting a soft, flattering glow. Tables are rough-hewn wood and, for better or worse, so are the hard-bottomed chairs.
Of the appetizers we tried, the foie gras with raisin brioche bread pudding and leeks in a port wine glaze was the most complex and delicious. Take a forkful of the buttery duck liver, with its winy flavor and perfectly seared edge. Add to your fork a bit of the airy, souffle-like, not sweet, bread pudding, and it’s like holding a meaty, winy, bit of cloud in your mouth. The port wine glaze lent just the tiniest bit of sweetness and an edge of bitterness that made for blissful, sensory overload.
Seafood chowder with a light, creamy broth was loaded with briny clam flavor, and frog legs, that looked like they might have belonged to a svelte Cornish hen, tasted like delicate white fish and, yes, a little like white chicken meat. The legs, sauteed in garlic butter, were served with ethereal, sage-flecked gnocchi - another interesting play of textures. The legs, tender yet still a bit chewy, contrasted beautifully with the gnocchi. [Editors note: The frog legs have since been taken off the menu.]
I found the escargot a la bourguignonne (snails in parsley, garlic and butter), pungent and nicely garlicky, but somewhat greasy, and the snails, though tender, had little flavor. My dining companion, on the other hand, adored it.
Each evening a whole grilled fish of the day is offered. The daurade (sea bream) was perfectly grilled, moist inside, with skin so crisp it crackled. The fish, served over a dense mound of scallion-flavored mashed potatoes and thin, crisp asparagus, sat in a small puddle of chunky roasted tomato and caper beurre blanc (butter and wine sauce). The sauce tasted of ripe, sweet, summer tomatoes, and the capers lent the dish a salty quality that perfectly complemented the sweet fish.
One delicious, but over-the-top entree, is the veal in a cream sauce. The edge of the veal is seared and crisp. The cream sauce, although full of veal flavor, was too rich. On the plate are crisp haricot verts (thin string beans) that are a pleasant contrast to the richness of the meat, but an accompanying potato galette (a layered potato cake), while utterly, decadently delicious, made for a heavy threesome.
Pryor’s desserts follow entrees with a similar nod to tradition. Her creme brulee is hands down the finest creme brulee I’ve had this year. The creme is delicately lemon-flavored and so silky that it must be savored very slowly. Over the top of the creme is caramelized sugar, as thin and crackly as a fall leaf, tasting (in a good way) like grilled marshmallows. Candied pieces of lemon rind added a little chewiness - what a sinful delight!
A chilled strawberry Sauvignon souffle was less successful. It tasted too much like whipped cream and not enough like strawberries, but a multi-layered chocolate Grand Marnier torte, served in a slice that could satisfy a table of six, had the consistency of devil’s food cake with the slightly bitter edge of good, dark chocolate.
Christine Snell has momentarily taken leave of Loulou to oversee the dining room of the Snells’ new venture. With her good humor and honest appreciation of her patrons, she creates an aura of friendship that adds one more element of pleasure to dining at Cocotte.
Cocotte (337 Fifth Ave. at Fourth Street in Park Slope) accepts cash only. Entrees: $8-$21. For reservations, call (718) 832-6848.