It was all so elegant. I was sitting on a deep-brown, leather banquette. In front of me was a marble counter bar table with an enormous pillar candle on it slowly burning. I sipped a tart, "French 75" cocktail-a mixture of cognac, lemon, organic sugar and champagne (original Ritz recipe, natch). In the background I heard the sounds of sophistication: a tinkling piano, a slight murmur of voices pierced by an occasional laugh here, as polished silverware clinked against delicate china. All the while, waiters hurried about, dressed in white coats and black ties.
Just walking in you felt, well, important, and all this could be had so effortlessly for only the price of a cocktail-a $14 cocktail. This is Del Posto, Mario Batali's offering to the Meatpacking District, where oversized, over-the-top restaurants have overwhelmed the neighborhood with thousands-of-square-feet filled with bridge and tunnel types thrilled to have made it past the de rigueur velvet ropes.
In such a world, it's great to see that Florent-that cramped, little 75-seat, all-night French bistro, now more than 21-years-old-continues to thrive despite being surrounded by the likes of Spice Market and Buddakan and rumors that it won't be around much longer.
Florent Morellet, a French-born mapmaker, opened the restaurant in August of 1985. Back then, the Meatpacking District was just that, home to the city's butchers. Scattered among the warehouses, the region was also another type of meatpacking district, home to long gone, seamy gay clubs like the Anvil, the Mine Shaft and Alex in Wonderland.
Morellet knew the area well, and when an old diner, the R&L Restaurant-a hangout for longshoremen-became available he grabbed it. Now, two decades later, it still retains its authentic 1950s heritage. Morellet kept the formica tables, the red vinyl banquette, the stools along the diner counter and the aluminum siding.
But Morellet also added some personal touches: Maps, his personal passion, line the walls and the menus. One map details the small country of Liechtenstein. It marks the seat where Roy Lichtenstein, the '60s pop artist who died in 1997, used to sit. As for the specials board, Morellet kept it, but has updated it with weather reports and personal observations. "Prepare 4 the 'War on Easter' Debate." "Get an abortion while you can." "Hey! What about Darfur?" Morellet doesn't hide his political leanings.
Just as the restaurant mixes the past with the present, Morellet does the same with the menu. Ultimately, Florent is a diner, but an upscale one that serves welcoming French bistro staples: French onion soup, escargot, steak frites.
On a recent night, a combo plate featuring three French charcuterie staples ($12.95) started the meal off superbly. A large portion of duck liver mousse was soft and creamy. A healthy slice of pate de campagne complemented the mousse. Finally, a dollop of rillettes of pork was moist and succulent, a pleasant surprise as the dish can often be stringy and dry. Mussels ($12.95) cooked in a white wine got the mix just right between saltiness and sweetness. Chilled artichoke ($7.50) proved refreshing. The only disappointment was a beet, endive, pear and walnut salad ($10.95) that was more endive and only a smattering of rather uninspiring beets.
The entrees, however, failed to match the strength of the first course. The skirt steak ($17.50) was cooked just right and covered lightly with a nice mustard sauce that added a pleasant flavor. But there was a slightly greasy quality to the steak. The crab cake served on an English muffin ($11.95) arrived over-fried. The roulade of chicken breast stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and Jarlsberg cheese ($15.95) was juicy and tender, though its exterior was over-fried. Large "pearl" couscous served in a spicy broth with merguez sausage and chicken ($16.50) dazzled the senses, but perhaps a bit too much.
For dessert, Florent offered typical bistro fare such as chocolate mousse ($6.50) and crème caramel ($5.50). The wine menu was simple with wines listed by type (pinot grigio, chardonnay) or by region (Sancerre, Gigondas) and ranged in price from $17 to $36.
It's when the bill arrived that I remember where I just ate. For nearly the price of an entrée at Del Posto, you can have a complete meal at Florent, and, while the food recalled the restaurant's past life as a diner, it remains a refreshing antidote in the Meatpacking District.
If the latest restaurants are the equivalent of mega-churches, something for everyone, but a little impersonal (and never an available table), then Florent remains your neighborhood church. A little funky, a little bit off-the-beaten path, but it's a welcoming place where you can quietly-even with George Clinton and Michael Jackson playing in the background-worship a time that has long since past. Amen, Florent.
69 Gansevoort St. (betw. Greenwich & Washington Sts.)