The flickering fire glowed across the dining room. Bookshelves filled with knick knacks, painted brick walls, and potted foliage plants added to the welcoming atmosphere. It was cold outside, but cozy within.
I was a temporary resident of the Lenox Hill neighborhood in Manhattan while Marsha was having knee work at the famous Hospital for Special Surgery. Between bedside visits I enjoyed exploring this high-rise residential area.
On a walk north up York Ave, I was drawn to the window of Le Moulin à Café north of 76th with its twin painted messages of Épicerie and Café – Vin promising specialty groceries, freshly prepared bistro fare, and wine.
Stepping inside, I was surprised to see a long display case filled with exquisite pastries. Macarons in beautiful pastel colors were lined up in ranks like a marching army of spring flowers. Above them were perfectly decorated opera torts, chocolate mousse cakes, and fruit tarts. On the lower shelf tart tatin, crème brûlée, and individual pecan pies begged to be adopted.
To the left, open shelves were stocked with French specialties and treats to satisfy the expat enclave in the neighborhood that has grown up around the Lycée Français of New York.
This stretch of York Ave, just north of the massive Medical complex that includes New York Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan Kettering along with Rockefeller University and the HSS, is a solidly residential neighborhood with newer high-rise apartments, older buildings – rehabbed and not – and the kind of shops and restaurants that serve just the locals. Lots of moms with strollers and dogs being walked populated the daytime sidewalks.
Within shouting distance of Le Moulin, three schools release flocks of students into the local restaurants and cafés in mid afternoon. A crowd of these chatty, hungry, kids kept me from the pastry case, probably for my own good. I did, however, leave my name with Madam for a table later that evening.
Dining alone can be a challenge. Are you wanted, or is your table seen to be at only 50% occupancy? Is it rude to look around, or better to retreat into a book, newspaper, or cell phone. At Le Moulin, I was welcome and made to feel very comfortable. My waitress – the only American in an otherwise all French brigade – was friendly without being intrusive, attentive but not hovering.
This was only their first week of expanded service into the dinner hour, so the crowd was light. The chatter of the staff in French transported me across the Atlantic. Their French accented English was even more charming.
The menu was classic neighborhood French with no surprises. It hit just the right note: boeuf bourguignon, grilled salmon with those delicious French green lentils, roast chicken with tarragon, and steak frites along with the obligatory “Le Burger”.
Many well-established Manhattan neighborhoods have French restaurants just like Le Moulin à Café. They’re still outnumbered by Italian eateries but much more frequent that here in the burbs. Most are small, family run, and have been there a long time. They don’t compete on the latest food trends, stylish presentations, or farm-to-table provenance. Instead, they offer time-honored bistro cooking, done well, without flash, but with flavor.
I overheard the young couple seated next to me say they were in a hurry – going on to meet family, I think. He confided in her that there weren’t many French restaurants in Durham and he never really knew what to make of the Gallic menu. They each ordered soup, a bubbly and well-browned French onion soup for him, soupe du jour for her. “This tomato soup is just what I hoped for,” I overheard, “chunky like a warm gazpacho.”
I would have had the paté de campagne if I wanted to spend more time. I’m always a sucker for that French classic, cataloging each chef’s slightly different interpretation.
Chocolate mousse, crème brûlée, chocolate cake, or pastries from the display case were available to finish up a traditional French evening. Nothing for me, thanks. On the way out I picked up four of those lovely macarons to share with Marsha back at the hospital: raspberry, violet/cassis, lemon, and earl gray.
Back on York Avenue, as I passed locals walking their dogs and take-out delivery men from ethnic storefront restaurants, my step was a little lighter from the warm welcome, delightful service, and delicious dinner at Le Moulin à Café. If you see Marsha around town her step may be a little lighter too with her new knee.