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MERCI, QUERCY

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Patrons may be boycotting French bistros outside of Brooklyn, but in our borough, Gallic dining is tres chic.

On a recent weeknight, Quercy, a French bistro that opened on Court Street in January, was packed with customers gobbling escargot and rabbit stew. Apparently, for unpatriotic hedonists (and I count myself as one of them) when the pleasure of a good meal beckons, we leave our politics at home.

Chef Jean-Francois Fraysse and his wife, Melva Max, who also own Manhattan’s La Luncheonette, named their eatery after his hometown, located "halfway between Toulouse and Bordeaux in Southwest France."

The two revamped the space, which formerly housed Harvest Market, and added their own spin to the ubiquitous "bistro in a box" decor seen so often in our neighborhoods. The room sports persimmon-colored walls that cast a flattering glow on patrons; black-and-white photographs and carefully appointed tables that are close, but not too near other diners. It’s an inviting room heady with the aroma of garlic.

Fraysse’s menu is classic, Old World French bistro fare. No surprises await you. No fusion anything. No Asian touches. Much of our meal, like the special boeuf bourguignon and the rustic pear tarte Tatin (a crust is placed over the fruit in a saute pan, then baked and flipped for serving) were delectable.

However, a few dishes didn’t dazzle.

The evening’s soup du jour, a creamy potage of cauliflower and roast chestnuts, was like velvet in the mouth, yet tasted like an under-seasoned pea soup. Delicate, nutty-flavored chanterelle mushrooms were awash in oil and overwhelmed by garlic.

A better choice would be the artichoke vinaigrette. Women at a nearby table were breaking the leaves off a huge artichoke, dipping it into the light dressing and sighing.

The lackluster first course was redeemed by an uncomplicated endive and Roquefort salad. Sweet roasted beets sat atop the bitter endive leaves, a wedge of the sharp cheese perched at the edge of the plate. Health-conscience customers can use a little pitcher to drizzle their own greens with the tart, creamy dressing. This salad, with its pleasing harmony of strong and subtle flavors and crunchy and smooth textures, will become a destination dish when the warm weather finally kicks in.

Regardless of the weather, patrons shouldn’t pass on the special boeuf bourguignon. The stew is more homey than exciting, yet Fraysse’s version provides some drama. Served in a large, oval gratin dish, it arrived with its thick, wine-laced sauce bubbling. Meaty, winey and perfumed with garlic, each cube of beef was cooked to optimal tenderness and every carrot and onion caramelized to sweet perfection. Knives are optional.

Another no-big-deal dish (until you try it yourself) is Fraysse’s faultless roasted chicken. The skin of his bronzed bird is as brittle as the top of a properly made creme brulee, and the moist meat oozes juice. Liberally coated with an assertive mustard sauce, the chicken, and its side of potato and Gruyere cheese gratin, are the dishes upon which bistros base their reputations. An Atkins Diet devotee may want to give the spuds a pass, but the experience of eating that dish is worth every artery-clogging bite. The tender vegetable is ensconced in cream and tangy cheese then baked until the top is crisp and brown.

If some justification for indulgence is needed, Fraysse thoughtfully adds to the plate crisp haricots verts (thin string beans), sauteed with mushrooms.

Desserts at Quercy are well-made bistro classics. The pear tarte Tatin is a triumph: it’s crust as crisp as a cracker, and the large wedges of pear caramelized until deep brown. After the pears are baked, they assume a wine-like taste that is nicely complemented by a dollop of tart creme fraiche, which sits on the side of the pastry.

After being fed so many overwrought desserts at other places - a souffle on top of a cookie, served with two sauces, ice cream and five varieties of berries - it’s a pleasure (and the appropriate way to end a rich meal) to have an unadorned tart, without infusions of herbs or essences.

The flourless, bitter chocolate tart was less successful. Sitting in a pool of thin, slightly sweetened chocolate sauce, the pastry promised a hit of strong chocolate but didn’t deliver.

"It tastes like a candle," someone at my table said. They weren’t far off.

We’ve all experienced the same traumatic couple of years. This long, dismal winter has left us pining for warm escapes, and our fear of flying, coupled by diminishing paychecks (for those lucky enough to be employed), has kept us homebound. So why be spiteful if saying "oui" affords us some small gratification?

 

Quercy (242 Court St. at Baltic Street) accepts cash only. Entrees: $12-$24. For reservations, call (718) 243-2151.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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