BISTRO CLASSICS WITH THOUGHTFUL FLAIR

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Tom Valenti has been dishing out high-minded comfort food for several years now at Ouest, on Broadway near West 84th Street, and he recently brought a slightly more downscale culinary vision to West Branch, a new eatery a few blocks south at West 77th Street. The pun-ny name doesn’t scare diners away though, as the residents of the still culinary-starved neighborhood seem to pack the restaurant consistently.

West Branch honors modern tastes, with Tom Valentis Italian and French flourishes. Photo by Andrew Schwartz.

West Branch honors modern tastes, with Tom Valenti's s Italian and French flourishes. Photo by Andrew Schwartz.

While the friendly staff tries to keep up, lag times between courses vary wildly, and the increasingly harried waiters have a tendency to knock into your table or chair on multiple occasions without ever offering an apology. Or maybe they do, and you just can’t hear them: noise levels are imposingly loud for such an older-leaning crowd.
The establishment’s namesake cocktail, a blend of Hendrick’s gin, lemon and blood orange bitters, is excellently floral and packs a powerful punch when made correctly. But bartenders seem to be operating from two different recipes, as the drink often arrives with enough juice to make it taste like a fruity mixed cocktail and not the martini it intends to be. Other cocktails rang from a bland seasonal Old Fashioned ($12) to the oddly sublime Zapotec ($10), an alluring mix of tequila, habanero-laced coffee syrup and lime.
Blinis ($12) are perfect, though gougeres ($8) seem unnecessary after complimentary bread crusted generously with cheese. Mushroom arancini ($10) are light and have a nice funk to them, but are under-seasoned—even a dash of salt would do wonders. Salads are crisp and fresh, if slightly overdressed across the board; the nicely acidic haricots verts salad ($10) stands out as particularly pleasing.
Honoring modern tastes and his own Italian and French flourishes, pasta joins American bistro classics like the solid Caesar salad ($10) and moules frites on the menu here: the butternut squash tortelli ($23) is the only one I’ve tried, and it employs maple and a smack of ham to tantalizing effect. The other bistro classic, a burger and fries ($16), is fine here: the inch-thick burger is nicely seasoned and has a bite I can’t quite pinpoint, but is ultimately outshone by the addictive French fries.
While entrée prices ranging from about $16 to $27 are still recession friendly, the whole menu seems to have jumped a few dollars in price since the fall. This causes a few dishes like the excellent trout ($25) with a creamy lemon caper sauce to seem a bit overpriced, especially since most dishes do not come with sides like the super-creamy polenta ($6) or fine braised cabbage ($7). Crispy fried quail ($18), a delicious twist on Southern fried chicken, is worth it no matter what the price: served atop a vinegary, warm potato salad studded with lardoons and finished with greens and a drizzle of buttermilk dressing; it’s homey, heartening and unique.
Desserts dishes like apple pie and a custardy tarte basque ($9) seem uninspired; surprising, considering Valenti’s background as a pastry chef. A chocolate pot de crème with peanut butter cookies is not particularly inspired either, but does do the trick in ending the meal on a pleasantly sweet note. Personally, the Zapotec makes a far better finale: coffee, dessert and liquid comfort all in one glass over ice: simple, straightforward solace, with a kiss of heat to warm your insides.

West Branch
2178 Broadway
at 77th Street
212-777-6764
Entrees: to $16 to $27

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