When home cooking is your hobby it’s easy to become jaded about restaurants. Some high-end places are exciting, but this excitement is not part of my everyday life. Crazy dishes from hole in the wall places manned by immigrants are fun to seek out, but every now and then I want to “up my game.”
And it’s the middlebrow restaurants ($30-$60 per person for an entree, wine, an appetizer and/or dessert) that tend to make me hyper-critical. I don’t expect a trained chef to cook my supper, but I assume the menu was put together by one. The food has to be better than what I bang out in my own kitchen most nights or I’m leaving dissatisfied. I don’t expect a sommelier, white tablecloths or uniformed servers, but I want a pleasant vibe, proper service and decent wine choices. I want a place where the dining experience is lovely, and the food impressive. Antibes bistro is such a place.
It’s a perfect spot for a romantic dinner, with candlelight, exposed brick and lots of dark wood. But I also bring guests from out of town or other neighborhoods here, just to show it off. I love hearing, “I wish this place were in my neighborhood!” — from Montreal friends, Long Island family, Washington Heights band-mates and Los Angeles associates. Every neighborhood ought to have a casual French joint with great service, jazz playing in the background (some nights it’s live jazz) and homemade ice cream in flavors like salty caramel or white fig. Of course the food has to be special if I’m going to walk out feeling like I got my money’s worth. At Antibes, it is.
The theme running through the menu: little twists on typical bistro dishes. The salmon comes with cauliflower puree and ratatouille, but the addition of harissa oil is unexpected. The tiramisu is topped with halva shavings. In lesser hands, such flourishes could be annoying, even disastrous. But Chef David’s restraint is such that the exotic touches don’t seem the least bit out of place; they just add interest to the small, carefully chosen menu.
There is no deep fryer, so you won’t be having steak frites at Antibes. But there is a NY Strip on the menu, and they frequently run a steak au poivre special. They also have trout, salmon, a vegetarian pasta dish and a decent brick chicken. If you’re looking for “wow factor” the Guiness-braised short rib is the way to go. The tender meat is served in a rich reduction of the braising liquid, accompanied by a rectangle of au gratin potatoes and sauteed spinach. I’ve worked through most of the menu, and keep coming back to the short rib. It’s intense, but balanced in flavor. The portion size is more French than American, leaving you satisfied instead of overstuffed with rich food.
On the appetizer list, the truffle-roasted asparagus is a good way to go. The other night they had an arctic char with broiled fennel (an appetizer special) that blew our table of four away. I’m a fan of starting with a fish course, and this was an excellent choice. The modest piece of broiled fish didn’t stand a chance.
The wine list is very French (by the glass offerings start at $7). They have a full bar, so if you must have a glass of Armagnac to end your meal (goes well with the homemade ice cream) it’s not a problem. Antibes is open for dinner every night and brunch on weekends. I don’t do brunch, but I hear theirs is popular. I prefer to go slightly early on a weeknight, when Cynthia and I can pretty much have the place to ourselves. It’s more romantic that way.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
Last year I was very enthusiastic about Massaya Rosé, from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. With the season for drinking pink wine upon us I was very curious about how the 2011 vintage had shaped up. It’s in at Seward Park Liquors for $13 a bottle, and it’s very good. Though the wine is from Lebanon the style is pure Provence: some fruit on the nose, very dry in the mouth with a refreshing lingering acidity. It’s a little simple, but can easily go toe to toe with similarly priced examples from France. I expect this will be my rosé of choice this season. It’s also an exceptional value.