"Remember him?" I asked my husband,
nodding to the man seating guests at the restaurant Ici.
He stared for a second then shook his head no.
The man is Ici’s owner, Laurent Saillard, who played the hatchet-faced, waitperson-harassing maitre d’ on NBC reality show, "The Restaurant." It was on that series that America witnessed the eatery "Rocco’s," its chef Rocco DiSpirito and his meatball-rolling mama crash and burn.
At Ici (pronounced EE-see), the Fort Greene bistro Saillard opened in May 2004 with his wife, Catherine, he’s barely recognizable. He’s looser and friendlier here, the icy scowl replaced with a kinder, gentler expression as he welcomes guests and stops by to check on their meals.
The cafe, too, is the antithesis of Rocco’s. While the televised restaurant was huge and impersonal, Ici’s small, whitewashed brick dining room and garden, with its canopy of trees, is intimate, elegant and serene. Rocco’s housed a zoo of a kitchen that rarely delivered a dinner that satisfied; here, the small kitchen crew hums along quietly and competently, with a menu that rarely misfires.
Ici (which means "here" in French) is a modern bistro with a French accent. Saillard, who created the original menu before the day-to-day overseeing of the restaurant consumed him, based it on simple, ingredient-driven dishes that highlight the best of the season’s bounty. Saillard still oversees the kitchen, headed by chef Julie Farias, a Texas native, who was hired in October. Farias puts her stamp on the food, turning out bistro fare with a touch of the panhandle.
Farias worked with chef Zakary Pelaccio at the short-lived - but much-hyped (for good reason) - Chickenbone Cafe in Williamsburg. She’s adopted his philosophy of sourcing the best ingredients from local purveyors, many in Brooklyn, and small farms in the New York area. The all-French wine list features bottles from little-known vineyards with several excellent choices in the $29-$45 range and topping out at $52.
The dishes are attractive, yet not fussy, in their presentation and not overly sauced. Rich flavors, cut and lightened with bright, acidic notes define many of the offerings.
The first courses - like the oyster brulee, served as an appetizer or, if you’re lucky, a complimentary "amuse-bouche" (a tiny bite of "mouth amusement") - rarely fail to please.
When the Pearl Point oyster is broiled, it has the crusty, caramelized topping of creme brulee, hence the name. Farias tops the bivalve with tangy anchovy butter brightened with lemon, then crowns it with breadcrumbs for a crusty finish. As an hors d’oeuvre, a single oyster is served atop a mound of sea salt sprinkled with red peppercorns. It’s a lovely presentation, and more than one oyster would be greedy, but, oh, to have had two or three.
A spoonful of cold cucumber soup gave me a delicious shudder, like jumping into an icy pool.
"It’s the mint that makes it so good," said my husband. It was both the mint - lots of it - and the sweet cucumbers I long for in the winter, when only the waxed kind sit in vegetable bins, as well as the tart, thick, organic yogurt that forms the base of the soup.
The pan-seared sardine with "chorizo picadillo" (a Mexican or Cuban hash) is heavier going, but just as enjoyable. The sardine, with its pleasantly briny meat, is well-suited to the sweet-and-sour picadillo, with its chopped, spicy chorizo sausage, currants and piquillos (a mildly hot, Spanish red pepper).
Equally delicious was the chicken liver schnitzel, a part-Austrian and part-Italian "fritto misto" (batter-fried meat). It was a tour-de-force of contrasting tastes and textures. The little breaded patties, filled with chicken liver pate, are so moist that they ooze when touched with a fork. They’re fried crisp on the outside, with a few coarse grains of sea salt atop intensifying the crunch. A bit of caramelized shallots, tinted pale mauve with red wine and made tart with cider vinegar, cuts the richness of the liver as do slices of chewy, grilled lemon. It’s a destination dish that I look forward to eating again in the restaurant’s garden.
I’d follow the schnitzel with an entree of skate, as much for the dish’s beauty as its taste. One wing of the fish curls around a pile of crisply sauteed green beans like a fancy ruffled collar. The sweet meat is deepened with a splash of browned butter while segments of briefly sauteed lemon freshen the palate.
I found the rich meat of the flap steak - an end-piece of hanger steak - heavy-going for a humid evening outdoors, but I noticed my sentiment wasn’t shared by other diners, who were digging into the dish with gusto. The steak, served in slices, had a deep flavor heightened by a bed of nutty, pleasantly bitter beet greens and generous mound of buttery, sauteed button mushrooms.
When it comes to Ici’s dessert list, simplicity reigns. The least fussy item is a mound of fresh ricotta with pine nuts drizzled with maple syrup, lovely after a heavy meal, or a creamy wedge of grassy-tasting Kunik cheese, a blend of goat and cow milk that Farias serves with a piece of pumpkin poached in sugar syrup.
For the summer months, and possibly beyond, Ici is featuring Il Laboratorio Del Gelato, a Manhattan-based maker of esoteric sorbets and gelatos. (Farias and Saillard are working with the gelato makers on developing flavors just for the restaurant.) There’s about nine available now, all exciting, with two that are outstanding: A vibrant, herbaceous lemon and basil sorbet that defines great summer eating, and a creme fraiche-flavored gelato that walks a tightrope between tart and sweet without toppling into either.
While "The Restaurant" turned Saillard into the manager America loved to hate, his new role as the owner of an unpretentious bistro is the part he’s meant to play - and Ici makes the perfect stage.
Ici (246 DeKalb Ave. between Clermont and Vanderbilt avenues in Fort Greene) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $12-$19. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday and brunch on weekends, from 8 am to 4 pm. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 789-2778.