Dirty French is a frustrating restaurant. The staff is so lovely you worry they’ve all been indoctrinated into some new cult of niceness you have yet to hear about. They smile. They banter. They enthuse about the food and wine. And they’re determined to make sure you have a good time.
If you order the right things, you definitely will.
Start with the "millefeuille" pictured above. It’s a brilliant dish. When it arrives you think it's layers and layers of flakey, buttery pastry. Touch it with your fork and you continue to be fooled: the outside is that crisp. Only when you have taken a bite, and your mouth has flooded with the flavor of mushrooms do you understand the trickery. This is pure thinly shaved mushroom - layers and layers of the cool fungus, buttered and shaped inside in a mold.
But what’s even smarter is that this imitation of a French pastry is served with a Thai green curry so intense it plays with your head. You don’t know where in the world you are. But you do know that this is fabulous food from a talented chef.
Go on to the “duck a l’orange” and you’ll be even happier. I don’t think I’ve ever had a duck as delicious as this one, the skin crisp, the meat dense and rich, with a thrillingly meaty flavor. The hint of orange, of spice, is a nice touch, but this is duck so wonderful you gladly eat it naked.
Finish up with the beignets - which are really closer to zeppole than anything invented in France, and you will go floating out the door.
There are other impressive dishes here as well. The flatbread that begins the meal is warm, fragrant and floppy, served with soft, seductive sheep’s milk cheese. The oyster show is a little hokey - the servers stand there explaining each of the offerings - but the oysters themselves are cold, crisp, filled with clear briny liquor. The frisee aux lardons, which comes with a skewer of blazing gizzards and a perfectly poached egg, would pretty much make a meal.
But you could easily order a meal that leaves you scratching your head. I’ve rarely met a clam I didn’t like, but the clams almondine came close. A take on clams casino, the warm chewy clams were smothered in the awkward embrace of some nuts. They were not happy there.
The lamb carpaccio is soft and pleasant, but the flavor of the lamb vanishes beneath the blizzard of spices.
And that chicken and crepes.... Served for two (although it would probably feed four, mitigating its $72 price), arrives in two services. The first is a sizzling pot of gorgeously tender breast swimming in deliciously mustardy fat (is that foie gras in there?) The chicken is tender, like velvet in the mouth, but the point of wrapping it in the few mingy little crepes kind of gets lost. There are so few crepes - and they don’t do the chicken any favors.
Then the dark meat arrives: it is crisped, infused with Asian spices. You taste fish sauce and lemongrass, and then you stop thinking altogether and just tear into the meat. This is about as good as chicken gets. You could wrap it in those crepes, I suppose, for a kind of Peking Chicken. But the crepes are gone by now, and anyway, the chicken is so damn delicious on its own.
But the brook trout? Despite the ornate topping, fairly boring.
The bouilliabaisse? Spicy, dark, with a fine broth and the felicitious addition of octopus. Still, it struck me as rather polite, compared to the raucous effect of the better dishes.
But it's early days, and this is a restaurant with such exciting potential I find myself longing to go back, to see what the chefs are up to, how the dishes are developing. The Torrisi boys (Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi) are tackling French tradition in the same way they took on Italian American food: with talent, intelligence and imagination. They're looking back while moving forward.