L'Artiste (42-20 31st Ave., Astoria)
Open daily from 5pm (Closed Mondays)
Brunch from 11am to 5pm Saturday & Sundays
Like a solitary gourmet chocolate truffle hidden in a box of mass-produced candies, L'Artiste sits tucked into the corner of the popular Greek mega-club complex that is Cavo. Previously Piazza Pizza (which is now relocated two blocks west), owner Youssef Echaybi and his exceptional team of visionaries have dramatically renovated the former pizzeria into a refreshingly inviting, comfortable, yet elegant French restaurant, now open only just a few weeks. While the space is warm and casual, and the prices shockingly affordable compared to other French counterparts, the food is anything but ordinary. At the risk of putting my credibility on the line, dare I say that the dishes remind me, and in some cases even exceed what I have enjoyed at such legendary mega-restaurants as Jean-Georges and Cafe Boulud in Manhattan, with a pain-staking precision for presentation that borders on rivaling the likes of Gotham Bar and Grill. This is not your typical bistro, brasserie, or patisserie. It is everything I could hope my ideal French meal to encompass, sans the pretense or snobbery, in an atmosphere that is simultaneously classic and relevant.
Just beyond the gorgeous polished oak main bar (L'Artiste is currently BYOB while pending licenses process) you enter a dining room outlined with classic black-and-white-striped banquettes. Collected from antique stores and rummage sales, shelves and bookcases are adorned with vintage trinkets such as an old Singer sewing machine, a film projector, polaroid camera on a tripod, or a rotary telephone. It's a nod to the tradition and history from which this classic genre of cooking arises, yet with sunny goldenrod-washed walls and contemporary upholstery and drapery reflecting a touch of the modern. Tables lovingly handcrafted by the owner add a somewhat rustic and down-to-earth touch so often missing from the ofttimes more glittery competitors on the main island.
Though the restrooms open directly into the front entryway, they are beautifully disguised behind a floor-to-ceiling photo-wall of the Eiffel Tower. Look carefully at the image above, and notice the cleverly hidden doorknobs within the iconic structure. Inside the ladies' room, a hand-painted likeness of Marilyn Monroe graces the entire wall, reminiscent of the caricature portraits by artists on the easel-lined cobblestone streets of Montmartre.
As soon as my order was taken, an absolutely stunning amuse-bouche arrived at the table. Traditionally courtesy of the chef, and a window into his cooking style, an amuse-bouche is typically heralded for large flavor in a single, small bite. At L'Artiste, a porcelain soup spoon was presented, cradling exquisitely tender beef carpaccio, a sliver of potato, shitake mushroom, and herb-infused olive oil. A brilliant glimpse of entree, salad, and side accompaniment all carefully placed in a solitary bite with fresh, clean flavors showcasing impeccable technique.
A basket of wonderfully soft baked french loaf also arrived at the table, alongside a ramekin of black olive tapenade, a delectable feast in and of itself.
I was stunned as a second amuse-bouche of beet terrine with goat cheese and honey walnuts arrived at my table, this one also offered in a larger portion as an hors d'oeuvres for $9. Never before have I seen such paper-thin sliced discs of tangy red beets, layered with creamy dollops of goat cheese, garnished with beet puree, herbed-olive oil, and honey-roasted walnuts. The silkiness of the goat cheese with tender, tart burgundy beets, and the sweet crunch of honey walnuts created an absolutely brilliant flavor profile that tickled every single taste-bud. Certainly a must-order starter for the table.
When a third and final amuse-bouche arrived at my table, what else was I to do but giggle in disbelief at the waiter. "What can I say," he kindly smiled back. "The chef is very eager to show you some of his favorite dishes... I hope you have brought your appetite..." Before me sat a tiny little demitasse cup filled with a heavenly fluffy and light-as-air avocado gazpacho, garnished with fresh whipped cream, caviar, and a violet microgreen. Almost like a delicate mousse of the summer garden laced with herbs, the velvety soup tickled my tongue on the way down with just a hint of spice, and literally made me smile. When simple, wonderful flavors are executed with such precision and mastery, it doesn't get better than this at the dinner table.
I have been known to call scallops the filet mignon of the sea. Their presentation at L'Artiste wins my endorsement as the most ridiculously delicious presentation I have ever enjoyed. Served here with gloriously tender cauliflower and eggplant blanketed in Mornay sauce, the combination of summer vegetables, plump and tender shellfish bursting with the fresh kiss of the ocean, accented by a rich and elegant bechamel-cheese sauce reminded me almost of a deconstructed seafood chowder or an exceptional scallop fondue. I literally sopped up every last drop with the french bread, and the plate was removed from the table as glistening clean as if just removed from the dishwasher. These four beautifully chargrilled scallops with a vegetable gratin were utterly divine ($12).
I am still marveling, three days later, at the absolutely stunning presentation of the salmon carpaccio (also pictured at the heading of this post). A most expertly, unfathomably thin-sliced salmon filet lay on the plate adorned with beet puree, salty capers, hard-boiled egg crescent, and glistening ruby caviar, with a nest of the tiniest microgreens and chives, like a gourmet stained-glass window. Combining elements of the sea, earth, and air, I cannot imagine a more delectable or colorful presentation. If the namesake of this dish is, in fact, reference to Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, certainly this masterpiece could hold its own in any gallery.
When the winter winds finally roll into Astoria for the cold season, you can bet I will be craving this quintessential rendition of a classic french onion soup almost every single blustery evening ($8). Unlike most versions where the cheese is poor quality, the croutons too soggy, the onions too tough, or the broth too salty, this crock of soup is the creme de la creme. The golden-crusted cap of cheese practically emulsifies with the perfectly savory broth, filled with not just one, but layers of deliciously soaked crostini, and ribbons of miraculously tender caramelized onions that seem to have stewed to perfection for hours and hours. If you are a lover of French onion soup, this portion is certain to ruin any previous version you might have called favorite.
The steak au poivre is a generous filet of the most tender and buttery New York Strip, topped with sauteed wild mushrooms and a black peppercorn sauce, crowned with a row of crisp and crunchy paper-thin, hand-cut miniature potato chips, and served with a terrine of thin-sliced potatoes au gratin ($22).
One of my favorite facets of L'Artiste is that although the chef clearly harnesses the ability to execute classic French cuisine, he also boldly attempts several new takes on traditional favorites, with an unprecedented whimsy and brilliance. Take, for example, my favorite dish of the evening, the open-faced ravioli with mascarpone sauce ($14). Wide ribbons of perfectly al dente, loose pasta crisscross the plate, the bull's eye mounded with a generous dollop of wild mushrooms in cream sauce, all of which is then topped with a parmesan foam. The earthy flavors of the mushrooms with rich cream sauce, delicate but firm pasta, and clouds of foamed cheese sprinkled with herbs were a simply wonderful, fun, and altogether sexy presentation of a dish that would otherwise get lost in the crowd, but in this presentation shines as a stellar standout.
How, you are probably wondering, does anyone even begin to contemplate dessert after sampling such a rich and luxurious banquet of savory plates? When renowned, award-winning pastry chef of such prestigious kitchens as Buddha Bar, Hicham Lamzaouri, personally delivers his masterpiece to your table, how can I possibly risk offending him by refusing to lift my fork? This Parisan Fig Tart made a fig fanatic out of me. I have no idea how he accomplished it, but this crunchy and sugary macaroon crust was filled with the most tender figs I have ever tasted, almost more like a butterscotch apple tart than even figs at all, poised on a pool of cream fraiche with swirls of buttery caramel, and a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream, it made me literally sad that I didn't have even a fraction of the room I need to finish it.
The passion fruit parfait with blueberry confit was a heavenly masterpiece worthy of coming to L'Artiste simply to indulge in its kaleidoscope of flavors, and nothing else. Cool raspberry sorbet, a pool of raspberry and passion fruit coulis, tart and sweet blueberry compote, all backup singers for a feathery light cloud of passion fruit mousse, adorned with a confectioners sugar-dusted cookie twirl.
And finally, the dessert that left me speechless... the French coffee panna cotta. The height and complexity of this dessert demand that I describe it in two separate images. Though the perspective of the camera doesn't quite do it justice, this classic, smooth, mocha panna cotta is served in what looked like a full, chilled pint glass. Above the decadently rich and creamy panna cotta, a layer of salty and buttery bits of crushed nougatine, followed by a layer of finely crushed chocolate slivers...
Sitting atop the crushed chocolate, a dollop of caramel ice cream, drizzled in chocolate, sprinkled with crushed walnuts and almonds, surrounded by a moat of fresh whipped cream, and topped with a sugar-dusted pastry twirl and a dark-and-white-chocolate straw. This is the end-all and be-all of sundaes and parfaits, and champions almost any other chocolate, caramel, or mocha dessert I have ever tried. Simply amazing.
Chef Ted Dutta and owner Youssef Echaybi (Pastry Chef Lamzaouri is not pictured) approach the Modern French menu with the seasoned and distinctive palates of their respective Indian and Morroccan backgrounds. The result is a nuance of herbs, seasonings, the highest-quality ingredients, and just plain, ol' fashioned talent of the brilliant degree. I visited L'Artiste on three separate occasions (the first two without my camera, and without sharing any intent to review the restaurant). On each visit, I was greeted immediately with generous smiles and hospitality, and treated as if my pleasure was the single aim of their evening. This small, intimate, extremely focused establishment is certain to become a destination restaurant not just in Astoria, but in New York City as a whole. I highly recommend trying while seats are readily available and before word quickly spreads that four star quality is available at such a reasonable price point.