"I’LL HAVE THE poached tuna,” a customer says. “The poached tuna salad sandwich?” I ask.
“Yes.” “That’s not very good, you shouldn’t have that.”
I say things that are inappropriate, and when I don’t it’s usually because I’m saving it for later.
“Are you being funny?” “It’s not a strong dish. What comes in the sandwich is a deli-style spread with mayonnaise and canned tuna. Also, the chef is really mean. If the dish gets returned he’ll scream at me.” The middleaged customer drops her jaw and I can tell it’s not in anticipation of the food. “I’m being funny about the last part,” I lie.
“What do you recommend?” her husband asks.
“The moules frites, mussels and French fries, are good. I also like the croquemonsieur—a ham and Gruyere sandwich,” I say and point to the items on the menu.
“I’ll have the kroak-merseur,” he says. “What?” “The kroak-merseur.”
“The croque-monsieur,” I repeat. “Where are you from?” “France.” “Do you speak French?”
Zagat’s has the restaurant’s rating right.
It is not high. But the listing (under French restaurant) is wrong. Sure, the dining room comes with figurine roosters and faux old-world mirrors. The brunch menu reads “Le Brunch.” But there isn’t much of anything French about the place other than high drama, a couple of stinky cheeses and myself. If the theme is French, the kitchen is Mexican and Ecuadorian. A burrito passes for a crpe and a crme brlée may contain cinnamon. Cheap foods are transformed into je ne sais quoi in Times Square.
This establishment caters to jet-lagged tourists. And if there’s something I’ve learned, it’s that even a jet-lagged tourist will return a dish. That, of course, does not fly in the kitchen. When a dish gets returned, you have to talk to the chef. Only no one talks to the chef. This is an ontological truth, just like margarine does not taste like butter, American Swiss cheese does not taste like Gruyere and a burrito is not a crpe.
Because no one talks to the chef, servers will occasionally eat it, both literally and figuratively. La Onion Soup, a sweet, corn-syrup tasting brew and a favorite to return among customers, is costing me money. To avoid the $9 setback, I make sure no French people order it on my watch. When it comes to La Onion Soup, only Japanese tourists and Southern Baptist families are a safe bet.
The brunch menu reads “Le Brunch.” But there isn’t much of anything
French about the place other than high drama, a couple of stinky cheeses
Recently during lunch, a friendly woman in a lavender blouse asked about the beef and jalapeño “crrrap of the day.” I could have said that we’d run out. But instead, I just said something awkward.
“I don’t like it. I grew up near Brittany, where I ate a lot of crpes. I guess I’m used to crpes being made a certain way. But Americans seem to like that crpe.”
“I can’t believe you’re being so honest,” she said and then ordered the beef and jalapeño crpe anyway. She said she liked it and I suspect that she, too, was being honest. Retrospectively I realize I should have given her a break. Anyone who thinks of ordering a south-of-the-border crpe from a menu filled with misspellings in both English and French is likely to have an accommodating palate.
After the rush, I like to peek in the kitchen. So many knives, so little space. Another server told me that the fierce-faced chef with a cherubim name, Avelino, is “a really nice guy outside of work.” Standing there, taking in the smoky tableau of men in white, I’m thinking that perhaps madness comes with the territory. If you’re the craziest, others know better than to mess with you. This could mean a great deal in a tight space where testosterone mingles with lecherous flames, sizzling oil, bubbly snails and the scent of tarragon. I am smiling beatifically, considering all this, when the chef says to me, “What do you want?” Because no one talks to the chef, I don’t say a thing.
Avelino sets out a pale chicken crpe in the pick-up window. He looks at me. “Don’t make mistake, you make mistake, you pay for it,” he yells. I don’t say a word. I don’t tell the madman a thing. I don’t comment on the oily jus that leaks from the crpe. I don’t lecture him about a crpe’s integrity—that it should stick together, be nutty or gooey, but never stewy. I don’t tell him that in my opinion, when it comes to beef and jalapeño, the starchy quality of the tortilla makes it a better fit than its eggy cousin. But I do believe that when it comes to beans, corn and stews, burritos are more forgiving than crpes.