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April 29th, 2003

Restaurant Review – Capsouto Freres

by Abbey Ehmann

To be honest, I’m probably not the best qualified person to be reviewing restaurants. I’m fairly easy to please and hardly know which fork to use. I’m just as happy with a grilled cheese delivered to my door wrapped in tin foil as I am with an elegant meal. But in Manhattan, you can easily find a delicious meal at the million or so restaurants we have to choose from. More important than the actual food is the complete dining experience. Especially when you’re paying for more than just the food. Like when you’re paying for fancy. Which is what I was doing last night at Capsouto Freres.

I’d heard of this Tribeca French restaurant in the landmark building many times and noticed their ads in the local papers, but I rarely venture so far from home for a meal. They’ve been there forever, 22 years (practically to the day we were there), to be exact, so what better time? The place does have a well established feel to it. The high beamed ceilings, the exposed brick and the warm lighting could be straight out of another era. The most fitting word would be “genteel.”

We arrived for our 7:00 reservations a few minutes late. (Word to the taxi-dependent: Watts and Washington do, indeed, intersect, but since a rerouting of traffic a few years ago, you can’t get there by merely taking Washington downtown. The best advice is take the West Side Highway and cut in.) As soon as we were seated, we received water and a serving of butter so big I thought it was a too-early palate cleanser. Seconds later, toasty rolls, crispy on the outside and still warm on the inside, were tonged onto our bread plates and we couldn’t stop munching them down. More than one was probably ill advised, but practically unavoidable. Another almost immediate arrival was a wonderful little bon gout (I believe that’s the proper term): a crispy cracker bearing a wedge of pate and a dollop of relish. I’m not usually one for pate, but it was tasty!

For cocktails, I went for a decidedly un-French bloody Mary and my companion ordered a glass of Chardonnay. Both were divine, with the Chardonnay divine enough to warrant a second glass.

After mulling over the extensive menu, I decided to go for the well-advertised and temptingly entitled “I Love New York” prix fixe, which includes an appetizer, main course and dessert (from a selection of three each) for $30.00. For an appetizer, I chose the smoked salmon, which arrived on a frozen frisbee of ice with an array of accoutrements: buttered toast points, chopped egg yolk, chopped egg whites, diced onion, capers and salmon roe, all beautifully presented on artichoke leaves. I felt like an eight-year-old out for dinner with my dad. Or maybe Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. “How am I supposed to eat this?” I asked my date. I decided to fake it. I sliced and scooped, folded and forked, and generally did my best to look dainty. The salmon was delicious, as were the accoutrements. And no one looked askance at my technique.

My date ordered the ragout of artichoke, which was two smartly dressed hearts with a few delicate baby carrots, a bit of bok choy and one or two other decorative veggies sprinkled about. He yum-yummed his way through them, sharing a tasty bite with me. We also split an order of asparagus with black truffle and shaved reggiano that was as well dressed as the artichoke. The cheese was plentiful, in big flaky shards, and the asparagus was delightfully tender.

Other appetizer offerings ranged from the typical onion soup, escargots and potage St. Germain to slightly more international fare such as tuna carpaccio. I noticed a few diners enjoying the oysters (Tottem Inlet, Wash. State or Littlenecks) if you’re a shellfish fan. And the willowy blonde a few feet away seemed to enjoy her mesclun salad.

For the main course, my date was more or less stuck with the vegetarian plate. Let’s just say the French aren’t too kind to herbivores and leave it at that. His heaping plate of veggies was a veritable garden of selections, including baby carrots, bok choy, broccoli, slender green beans, among others, and the wildest wild rice I’ve seen in quite some time. He finished it all with a smile, but found the carrots “kinda bitter.”

I chose the beef bourgignon, a dish so specifically French that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spotted it on a menu. (You can always find pasta on a menu, even at completely non-Italian establishments, but beef bourgignon? Ne jamais pas!) The meat was meltingly tender and the bourgignon sauce was just, um, boozy enough! The steak grille frites would’ve been a lazy choice, and there are plenty of other oh-so-French entrees to choose from: duck confit, salade nicoise, sole meuniere or amandine and pot au feu of vegetables with truffle, to name a few.

Dessert was probably the most painful decision. I’m a sucker for chocolate mousse, which was deliciously dark and gooey as tar, as opposed to the usual fluffy stuff. My date didn’t stray too far afield, choosing the chocolate mousse cake, which was perched on a plate of cr?ɂ?me Anglaise with a raspberry flower design dribbled in. Ooh! It had a yummy hard chocolate crust of a frosting and a heart of firm cakey mousse! Of course, in our world, you can’t really go wrong with chocolate. I did, however, eventually see a few souffles float by and I rather regretted not ordering one, since they are more exotic. I groaned when the gentleman across the room had his broken open and filled with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Guess I’ll just have to make a return trip!

There was contract signing, birthday celebrating and wine glass toasting going on all around us, with the notable exception of what appeared to be a May/December rendezvous. The place is a bit too well-lit for an intimate tryst, but it also has an atmosphere that might encourage a quiet tete-a-tete. I couldn’t decide if the space’s acoustics were responsible for the subdued hush or the fact that it was only half full. Perhaps it was the maturity level of the guests, who were mostly on the far side of 50. I’m used to loud and bustling, and this was anything but.

The staff was incredibly attentive, polite and helpful, assisting with coat check, making menu suggestions and offering refills on coffee. The dining pace was markedly slow, another treat I don’t often experience. It felt as though we would’ve been welcome to linger all evening, sipping cappuccino and sucking on the sugared orange rinds. As we left and I requested a menu for reference purposes, the maitre’d offered a brunch menu, explaining that the restaurant serves a spectacular eggs benedict. They offer an “I Love New York” prix fixe brunch for $20.00 and a brunch menu as extensive as their dinner menu. Hmm, anyone for a brunch souffle ?

Capsouto Freres
451 Washington Street
212-966-4900
Reservations are suggested

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