Note: On October 8, 2011, the owners of La Petite Auberge retired, and the restaurant closed its doors forever. We will miss it.
Often on the food forums, one sees La Petite Auberge described as catering to a clientele with “one foot in the grave.” Couldn’t they at least use a gentler descriptive word like “mature”? But even M. and I joke about the restaurant being filled with alte cockers , the Yiddish term for old folks. The thing is, now, the joke’s on us. To paraphrase Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famous line: We have met the alte cockers, and they are us!
A lone French outpost surrounded by a sea of Indian and Pakistani restaurants and take-out joints, La Petite Auberge is located on Lexington, near the corner of 28th St., on the stretch of that avenue between 25th and 30th Streets known as “Curry Hill.” But not one of those spots existed when La Petite Auberge opened its doors in April of 1977. At that time, there were still a sizable number of small, cozy French bistros in the Times Square/Theater District area which had sprung up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. La Petite Auberge’s two owners, who hailed from Brittany, set out to replicate that very popular style of restaurant in a downtown location. They fashioned an interior with the style and charm of a little French country inn (reminiscent, I would guess, of those they were familiar with): a wood-beamed ceiling, wood-paneled walls, Brittany-themed posters, and a collection of pretty faiance plates.
Our history with this small gem began not long after it opened. It was my parents who discovered it. M and I were in our early 30’s (like the restaurant’s owners). The first time we had dinner there was for a special occasion: my mother’s 60th birthday celebration with my immediate family. It was a lovely evening, and afterwards, M and I would occasionally have dinner there when we came into Manhattan from New Jersey to see a show or attend the ballet.
The only sad memory associated with La Petite Auberge occurred in 1981. My father, who had terminal cancer, was in NYU Hospital. His brother came to NYC from his home in Philadelphia to visit him, and my uncle and I walked over to La Petite Auberge to have lunch.
During the ‘80’s, there was a long stretch when M and I did not visit the restaurant. However, in 1993, after J graduated from college and rented an apartment in Manhattan, we became reacquainted with La Petite Auberge. By happenstance, the building in which her apartment was located (and in which we subsequently bought our coop) was located only a few blocks walk from the restaurant. The first time we went back, we were pleasantly surprised to see that nothing had changed except that the owners were older as were we. It was also obvious that the restaurant had retained a very loyal clientele who had aged along with us. The only “youngsters” who came there were part of family groups.
Despite the owners’ Brittany heritage, La Petite Auberge does not serve the cuisine of that region. Instead, the menu is patterned after the ubiquitous menus found in those midtown bistros around Broadway — that is, a collection of classic bistro dishes. Although there have been a few small nods to the rise of contemporary French bistro cuisine (for example, foie gras on the specials menu), overall, the menu remains much as it was when the restaurant first opened. No amuses or mignardises; no foams, sous vide preparations, or “art on a plate.” What’s more, prices have remained very reasonable. In addition to the moderately-priced a la carte menu, there is a 4-course dinner prix fixe (a green salad comes with every main course) for $28.50. At lunch, it’s 3 courses (no salad) for $19.75.
I don’t remember if the owners were ever in the kitchen, but these days, they are totally front of the house. Regardless, one thing you can count on: food that is consistently well-prepared and delicious.
The onion soup contains a copious amount of caramelized onions, a deeply-flavored broth, and a thick cover of gratinéed cheese. The escargots Bourguignon is so redolent with garlic that when it is brought out of the kitchen, the aroma permeates the entire dining room. (Just thinking about it is making me drool!) My favorite main course, the canard a l’orange, served on the bone, is roasted so that the skin is crisp. There is always just enough sauce to enhance the juicy meat, and I can count on the accompaniments being wild rice and a vegetable, most often lightly-buttered haricots verts. M’s favorite is the steak au poivre, nice and peppery, properly cooked to his specified medium rare, and accompanied by a mound of crispy frites.
When it comes to dessert, La Petite Auberge’s signature is the soufflé for two. Actually, it’s large enough for three or even four. Two flavors only: chocolate or Grand Marnier. We always choose the latter. When the soufflé is ready (they request that you order it at the start of the meal), one of the wait staff presents it. Then it’s whisked away to be divided and plated atop a very generous pool of Grand Marnier-infused crème Anglaise. Not exactly a dish to lower your cholesterol level, but who cares? It’s to die for! (Pun intended.)
We hadn’t been to La Petite Auberge in quite a while, but last week, M had a yen for Dover sole, so we called to see if it was on their specials menu. Happily, it was. (Ordinary sole, prepared meunière style, is always on the menu.) We trotted over at around 7 p.m. No reservation needed as the restaurant was only about a quarter full. A few more tables became occupied later on, including one with four young Asians and another with a trio: Grandpa, mom, and her son, whom I guessed to be about 8 years old. The rest of the patrons that evening were, like us, “mature.”
When our waitress approached our table with the menus, we told her we didn’t need them because we knew exactly what we were there for.
There are times when we each get our own Dover sole, but this time, we shared one ($39.75). As always, when the fish was ready, one of the waiters presented it to us whole, along with the accompaniments. Then, he took it to the prep table at the front of the dining room where he deboned it and plated it. We each got one nice-sized filet. The fish was expertly sautéed, moist, and flavorful, in need only of a sprinkle of lemon juice. We each got a small, steamed potato, which was not dressed but managed not to be dried out or mealy. The lightly buttered haricots verts retained a bit of crunch. As usual, a very satisfying main course.
As I mentioned, every main course automatically comes with the house green salad. Technically, we were only entitled to one salad; however, whenever we’ve shared the Dover sole, we’ve always been served two salads. And not one salad split for two, but two full portions. The greens, always fresh and crisp, are lightly dressed with a very tasty vinaigrette.
Old traditions die hard here. One of the wait staff still comes around offering to grind fresh black pepper onto your salad. This ceremony is accomplished with a pepper mill the size of a machine gun.
We began the meal by sharing a shrimp cocktail ($9.75). Yes, I know. It’s not very French. But La Petite Auberge serves one of THE best shrimp cocktails going. First, the size of the five puppies draped around the bowl is the reason the word “shrimp” is often an oxymoron. Next, there is the excellent quality – firm and flavorful. Then, there is the cocktail sauce, which has just the right amount of spiciness. Finally, they add a little French touch by garnishing the bowl with stalks of Belgian endive, perfect for scooping up the remaining sauce.
I do like La Petite Auberge’s French bread. A lot! Nice and crusty. Happily, a heaping basket of it always arrives promptly at the beginning of the meal. And one of the waiters forks out squares of butter from a large white porcelain serving bowl onto each diner’s bread and butter plate. I try to school myself not to overindulge, but it’s usually a losing battle.
M is temporarily foregoing desserts right now; therefore, no soufflé this time He ended the meal with a double espresso ($7), while I decided to get an old favorite, crème caramel ($6.50). The custard was silky smooth, and the sweetness of the caramel was offset by the slight bitterness from ultra-thin strips of orange rind. A perfect version of this classic dish!
The bill before tax and tip (and including a bottle of Pellegrino for M) came to almost $71.
The restaurant is open for dinner every day and for lunch Monday through Friday. During the week, one of the two owners is always there overseeing front of the house activities. On Saturdays, when the place is usually packed, both of them are there to make certain all goes smoothly. Service is always extremely efficient and pleasant, if a tad reserved. There was a time when the wait staff was all French; now, save for the owners, there is not one.
Last fall, we were there for lunch. On our way out, we stopped to chat briefly with the owner on duty. The economy had already begun to tank, so we asked how things were going. He said they were holding their own and admitted that one of the main reasons they were in good shape is that they didn’t have to worry about a rent increase because they own the building.
A few years ago, I began to notice a change in the clientele. Suddenly, there were young faces at some of the tables who were not members of a family gathering. Not only men and women in their early 40’s, but in their 30’s and even – shock! – in their 20’s. There were twosomes and foursomes and occasionally groups. Obviously, word had gotten out that there was a charmingly quaint spot where one could eat well, relax, and conduct a conversation without being assaulted by an insanely high noise level, and where the background music (when it is on) consisted of pleasing French melodies instead of a deafening boom-boom racket. In short, civilized dining – and not just for alte cockers. What a concept!