On a silver platter: Oysters at the restaurant are farmed from Eastern Seaboard beds.
To declare Dirty French one of the most anticipated restaurant to open in Manhattan for 2014 is no gilded overstatement—and neither is the restaurant. Actually, it exhibits exactly what one might hope it would: classic Gallic greatness as interpreted through the downtown-cool lens of three men who grew up here and know exactly what that means.
Only a real New Yorker can know New York—its wrinkles and moods, fashions and phases, history and high-low culture. Partners Mario Carbone and Jeff Zalaznick are each of that rare ilk known as the “Born and Raised New Yorker” (although Rich Torrisi is from that sixth borough, Westchester). And that’s why Dirty French, located in the lobby of the chic Ludlow Hotel and juxtaposed with the shadow of Katz’s Deli on this iconic Lower East Side street, works and works well.
The team behind Dirty French: Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick; Tatin Pour Deux.
With its mosaic-tile floor and grand, faux-rusty chandeliers, the place feels more classic Paris than 21st-century Lower East Side. The grandly large leather-bound menu, which recounts in elegant script chefs Torrisi and Carbone’s experiences hanging out and training in Lyon and New York with Daniel Boulud, shows that they can do French as well as fettuccine—but in their own way.
From appearances, the menu takes a less-is-more approach: Hors d’oeuvres, salade, poisson, rotisserie, and sides are all prepared in a seemingly classic way, but this isn’t a chef’s final exam; Torrisi manages to turn the culinary pillars of French cuisine into forward-looking periscopes, bringing food into view that is as familiar as it is unique in interpretation. “We decided to build off classic French bistro dishes and introduce new flavors from different parts of the world, to make it something that is more in line with our New York background,” says Zalaznick.
Tatin Pour Deux, an apple tart topped with ice cream.
Translation: style and substance. Order oysters, and all eight or so options are initially presented to you perched atop a pile of just-shaved ice on a sterling silver platter by your waiter, who will explain the provenance and flavor profile of each Eastern-Seaboard selection. Lamb carpaccio comes served in onion-skin thin slices arranged in a concentric circle with slivers of juicy, fresh fig carefully scattered about, resembling the most delicious, exotic, and edible flower you’ve ever laid eyes on. Gnocchi Parisienne (one of the scant but stellar vegetarian options) alone is worth the cab ride, with its toothsome pasta browned in butter and tossed gleefully with smoked cherry tomatoes, onion soubise, and a soft, sweetly tangy, velvety version of labneh, a Middle Eastern strained yogurt.
But it is touches like the latter—also found in the spicy, exotic baker’s-dozen cocktail list created by Thomas Waugh—that set Dirty French apart. “Dirty French, like a dirty martini—we are taking something very clean and pure and adding big, bold flavors to it,” says Zalaznick. Nowhere is that translation better found than in dishes like the duck a l’orange, the old French chestnut that shakes a whole new tail feather when Torrisi rubs the superbly tender meat with house-made rasel hanout, the intensely flavored North African spice mix.
Wine being poured from a whimsical antique parrot wine decanter.
But perhaps the most iconic melting-pot example that tells you what Dirty French is about is Torrisi’s heady bouillabaisse, a dish inspired by an investigative trek to Southwestern France. “Rich, Mario, and I found this small town outside of Marseille where they served bouillabaisse and finished it with squid ink,” offers Zalaznick. “We were all inspired by this.” When set in front of you in a grand bowl, the classic fish stew will be familiar, sure, with its thick slices of peasant bread slathered in rich, orange-hued rouille—but, like Ludlow Street’s own modern transformation from working-class enclave to downtownloving denizen destination—it goes beyond simple to sublime; familiar to entirely new. Mussels, red mullet, monkfish, and wrist-thick chunks of grilled octopus bob and weave in an opaque, sepia-soaked broth, fragrant with saffron. It is dense, robust, and downright moody in flavor, a bit of smoky char here, a bit of briny sea salt influence there.
All the dunking and spooning is well worth the effort—you are not likely to find anything like this dish anywhere else in Gotham. “I think that one of the most appealing things for us about this project was the neighborhood,” says Zalaznick, “to celebrate it and its exciting history.” But perhaps the thing most deserving of a huzzah is that Torrisi, Carbone, and Zalaznick are making a kind of history all their own. Dirty French, The Ludlow, 180 Ludlow St., 212-254-3000