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REKINDLED ROMANCE

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Cocotte was the only French bistro on Fifth Avenue when it opened in 2002. Not long afterward, this commercial strip of 99-cent stores and greasy spoons began a culinary turnaround. Joining the few intrepid restaurateurs, like Cocotte’s owners Bill and Christine Snell, came chefs who opened French cafes, Thai places, Italian trattorias and bars.

Before long, Fifth Avenue was the second - and much improved - coming of Smith Street.

Having so many dining choices can be a wonderful thing, but it can pose a problem: with new places to sample, customers sometimes forget the older gems in their midst.

That’s what happened to me.

I never made a decision to stop visiting Cocotte (French for "chicken"); I just got busy giving the newcomers a try. Before you could say "coq au vin," a year went by between meals there. During that time, executive chef Rebecca Peters and pastry chef Valerie Pryor moved on. I’d heard that the Snells hired Adam Ross (formerly of Salt, a four-star restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.), who was turning out elegant, boldly flavored fare. I’d also heard that the desserts, executed by Richard Chirol, were impressive.

I never know what to expect when I’ve been away from a restaurant for a while: the menu can seem dated; whatever I enjoyed about the ambience could lose its charm at second glance. Neither proved true during a recent visit to Cocotte, where Christine still acts as the charming hostess.

I’d forgotten how lovely Cocotte’s dining room is. On the first Sunday evening, when the weather finally felt like spring, the cafe’s tall windows were opened wide, allowing breezes to ruffle the sheer golden curtains. The walls are covered with dark wood and lit by stained glass chandeliers, so the space is romantically dark in the colder months, and full of light from the street during the warmer seasons. With its deep-stained wood floors and white linen tablecloths, its aesthetic is neither farmhouse cute nor Parisian chic, but something comfortably in between.

The dinner I recently had there was indeed elegant, but also earthy and attractively - yet simply - plated.

There isn’t a better way to welcome spring than with an icy cold, crisp - yet slightly sweet - flute of Kir Royale. The old-fashioned cocktail is made with champagne tinged with creme de cassis, the black currant-flavored liqueur.

Another touch of spring is Ross’s bright green pea soup. He kept the seasoning down to a minimum so the vegetable’s freshness stayed strong and clear. Creme fraiche added a touch of tartness to it, while mint brightened the taste. A brittle, extra salty strip of house-cured pancetta balanced on the rim of the bowl. One nibble of the intense bacon, paired with a spoonful of the warm soup, made a little cha-cha on the tongue.

He played the same salty/delicate dance in another appetizer of asparagus spears, tossed in champagne vinaigrette and topped with slices of house-cured duck breast. The vegetables had a nutty, lemony taste; the meat was tender and rimmed with crisp fat. Coarse grains of sea salt intensified each ingredient and added a playful crunch to the dish. A warm poached egg dripped over the works.

An entree of grilled sea scallops was as attractive on the plate as it was a pleasure to consume.

Big, grilled scallops sat over lusciously creamy mashed potatoes. Small chunks of braised sunchokes - which are actually tubers - added nuttiness, while a dab of cherry tomato salad, freshened with cilantro, brightened the plate.

One stunning entree was the slow-roasted pork shoulder bundles. Ross roasted the meat with orange juice, rosemary and garlic for five hours until it took on the texture of confit, and then wrapped in fatback. Each little bundle is served juicy like a plump sausage. Slices of orange and anise-tinged fennel lighten the dish with citrus notes. It’s delectable.

So was the 14-hour braised lamb shank, but this dish was a touch heavy on a warm night. Ross served the hearty meat with sunchokes, pieces of silky, slow-cooked turnips and string beans that added a necessary touch of green to the plate.

Like Ross, Chirol takes familiar fare and gives it a contemporary spin. Rice pudding, the humblest of desserts, travels to the tropics when the grains and moist golden raisins are cooked in coconut milk. The dish is finished with a scoop of intense mango sorbet, candied walnuts and banana slices that have a hard cap of caramelized sugar.

Flourless chocolate cake is served just as it should be: in a small, warm circle, enveloped on one side by a disc of chewy hazelnut meringue and topped with a spoonful of GuinnessStout-tinged gelato.

Cocotte may be an old-timer in the Fifth Avenue dining scene, but it’s my latest favorite.

Cocotte (337 Fifth Ave. at Fourth Street in Park Slope) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $10-$22. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday; brunch is available from 11 am to 3 pm on weekends. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 832-6848..

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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