In honor of this Saturday’s 93rd annual 24h du LeMans, I set out to find the best French bistro that New York could muster up. Instead, I found Tartine, an authentically cozy sidewalk café that’s every bit as Parisian as the best of them. Good coffee, tight quarters, and an egg breakfast fit for the Emperor himself: all that’s missing is the Seine.
It’s no secret that I love France. After 6 years of French classes and multiple visits (including an exchange trip), I feel a special connection to the place that fittingly extends to its terrific cuisine. It’s this same sentimentality that brought me to Tartine (235 W 11th St) with admittedly low expectations. LeMans was on and I would eat a French breakfast – but in New York City, thousands of miles from my food’s inspiration. There would be divergent evolution, that much was given. I just didn’t know how much the city that made “Dollar Slice” a restaurant model would corrupt what I consider the world’s best cuisine.
What I also didn’t know was Tartine’s history. The line out the door at 10:30 should’ve been my first clue. Some quick Googling during my wait revealed that Tartine was the brainchild of Chef Thierry Rochard, a native Frenchman with decades of restaurant experience. If that name sounds familiar, you’ll probably recognize his more famous Juliette, the Williamsburg bistro known for its authentic French cuisine and fabulous brunches. What’s more, Tartine had been in business for over 20 years (in a city where 80% of all restaurants fail within their first 5), making it as much restaurant as West Village institution.
My expectations adjusted properly. Then, as if on queue, my table was ready.
Tartine is Chef Rochard’s vision for a casual sidewalk café, a detuned Juliette with the same devotion to quality just without the white tablecloth. The food would remain authentically (and deliciously) French, but tailored to a different context than a haughty Rive Gauche steakhouse. Considering my meager student budget, great food at a great value couldn’t be better. I’ll pay for ceremony when I can expense it – for now, prix reduit s’il vous plait.
I took my seat tucked into the corner of a packed dining room, exposed brick to my right and massive glass windows straight ahead. The wood-paneled walls were lined with nautical French décor, lighthouses and captain’s portraits I’m certain bear special significance to the Brittany-born Rochard. Space between tables is limited, and a wait staff of 4 is in constant motion keeping coffees full and guests smiling. A backlit pastry case by the front door dominates the room. The sum effect is cramped but cozy – so make sure you smile at your neighbors when you sit down. It’ll make the bumped elbows more courteous later.
Within minutes, I had coffee, OJ, a full glass water bottle, and a deceivingly-simple menu. Tartine’s standard brunch is an $18 prix fixe that includes your choice of a dozen or so options, from French toast to the eponymous tartine, served with your choice of side. I read the full menu and followed my tastebuds to the Eggs Norvegienne, a Northern twist on the traditional Benedict that swaps ham for traditional Scandinavian gravlax. I ordered the eggs with a side of roasted potatoes.
I sipped my coffee and watched the street through the window. Excited diners shared stories. Tinny strains of 80’s pop wafted in the background. Passing cars punctuated the noise inside with their temporary authority. Suddenly, I was in France: on my first trip to Paris, I had eaten in a café just like Tartine. I remembered the sounds of the street, the ebbs and flows of conversation that only great food can stoke. Above all else, I remembered the 80’s pop.
That meal – that delicious, authentically French experience - was scored by Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” To my American family dining in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the experience dripped irony. But we hadn’t gone to a tourist trap: there was no gift shop in this café playing rock. Besides, the tourist traps would blast accordion ballads on repeat. As the 80’s hits continued throughout that meal, it became apparent that this was as French as escargot. Accordions? Kitcshy like Times Square. The vrai Francais opted for something a little more stylish. So did Tartine.
Those earlier thoughts about the New York French suddenly felt ungrateful. I almost regretted my hasty judgment – if Tartine could surprise me this much before the meal, I couldn’t even imagine the food. Thankfully, I didn’t have to: my plate had arrived.
The Eggs Norvegienne looked every bit as beautiful as it had sounded. Creamy hollandaise, fragile eggs, petite muffins, the whole production somehow made twice on two delicious rounds. With a side of French roasted potatoes, the plate was almost artful. With fork, knife, and rumbling tummy, I set to work destroying the art.
The first bite was the expected salty-savory Benedict flavor, but without the pure mass of dense Canadian bacon that typically accompanies. The coolness of the cured salmon brings out the savory Hollandiase, the baked muffin sopping up the yolky poached egg to make each bite a full range of flavor. With yolk filling the plate, the light roasted potatoes became a starchy treat, rounding out the umami of the plate to provide a wholly filling brunch. The real winner was the poached egg, one of the best I’ve ever had – a yolk this perfect is rare.
I ate slowly, chewing exponentially smaller bites in a futile attempt to extend my Tartine experience. The last slice of Norvegienne was as complete as the first, no compromised proportions to sully even a moment of this brunch. Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” strained out of overtaxed speakers; cars rushed by outside. I was full, impressed, and truly content.
There’s a popular theory in psychology that explains “satisfaction” as the difference of experience minus expectations. From my Francophilic underestimation to that scrumptious last bite, it’d be fair to say I left Tartine incredibly satisfied. Maybe it’s the atmosphere inside. Maybe it’s buzz of the Village outside.
Likely, it’s the delicious (and authentic) French breakfast waiting for you at this Downtown gem. If you can get over the tight quarters inside or stomach the wait for outside, Tartine may just be your new favorite West Village brunch. A cozy neighborhood institution, serving up high-quality food for a steal? Vive la France.