Wednesday, October 17, 2007

AOC Bistro, Park Slope

On arrival at 8.30pm, we found a suspiciously quiet restaurant and in true Gallic fashion, it's 2 waiters were standing outside smoking. So far so good. This place might be the real deal.

Instead of the thumping French pop music and heaving crowds others had described, there was only a handful of customers (well, it was Sunday) and they'd taken note and switched the Eurotrash for some sort of dinner jazz compilation. Our waiter sat us at a table for two, prodded us with a couple of large menus and asked us what we'd like to drink. Like other French rip-offs in New York, AOC Bistro on Fifth Avenue has a classic 'French' menu and without even looking at the damn thing, I knew what was going to be on it. Yes, there was French onion soup. Yes, there was onglet and fries with a choice of sauces, and yes, (yawn) there were burgers and salade Nicoise. There were very few things worth a special mention, but the menu did promise some fresh fish, a lobster risotto and a traditional French cassoulet. After a brisk walk from 6th Street in the cold air I thought cassoulet would be just the thing to put the blood back in my cheeks.

I really wanted to find out what the bloke in the kitchen could do and I was intent on testing his mettle so I ordered French onion soup and a herring salad to start, while the wife opted for a chicken salad and the onglet. With the cassoulet, we had all the bases covered.

The herring and potato salad came to our table under a pound of grated carrot and I didn't really see the point. It was not seasoned, it didn't add anything and it just made a mess. Good job then, that the herring was nicely cured with good flavor and some give in the flesh. The dressing was good, and the spuds were, well, spuds. I wasn't sure how to tackle the onion soup, as it's cheesy hat looked like it might be about an inch thick.I needed something to pierce the thing to minimise the risk of spraying the table and my dining companion with boiling onion liquor. A steak knife was the answer, and as I drilled down through the gooey crust the aroma of the sweet onions came up in little puffs. It smelt great, but the sea of earthy richness I was expecting just wasn't there. I think there was about a cup's worth of the soup itself and the rest of the bowl was filled with soggy bread glued together with cheese. Most disappointing. I heard no complaints from the wife about her chicken salad. It was enormous. They could probably serve a salad half the size and it would still be a generous portion. They might even sell more main courses.

Our man rushed over a sizzling steak with fries which looked and smelled brilliant. The meat had a nice dark crust on it, and the wife enthusiastically sliced into it to reveal perfect medium cooked steak. Her fries weren't bad either. My cassoulet tasted pretty good, although I suspect the chunky items in it (garlic sausage, duck confit, smoked pork) were cooked individually and added to the white beans a la moment. There was no trace of a skin (that wonderfully thick skin that forms on a real cassoulet) and the beans looked too much like beans, possibly meaning they'd not been cooked long and slow, but it did taste great as I said. What could go wrong with mixed meats and beans?

Our waiter did a great job of tempting us with the dessert menu and coffee. In the end we gave in to his persuasions, despite full bellies. He waxed lyrical about the tarte tatin, another French classic, and I went with that and nice big coffee, ditto for the lady. What turned up wasn't tarte tatin, it looked more like a soggy apple pie minus the lid. Surely the pastry in tarte tatin should be crisp? Well this wasn't and it had the texture of wet cardboard. Still, it didn't taste too bad and I managed to eat half of it.

Clearly, there's some room for improvement at AOC. The menu is brief, there were no specials on the board on the evening I went in and honestly, if you're going to have a French bistro, you'd better get the basics right. The service was great but the food just wasn't up to scratch. There's far too much competition on 5th Avenue and frankly if you're churning out average meals, you're a goner. I'm disappointed I chanced on a new pretender rather than walked a couple of blocks further and dined in a proper French place.

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