Sunday, February 8, 2004
By David Corcoran
A Timeless Taste of Paris Tucked in a Corner of Jersey City
MADAME CLAUDE is only 16 months old, but it already feels steeped in tradition. It’s the sort of restaurant – part timeworn, part timeless – that you might be thrilled to find in Paris late one famished night, its front window spilling a warm pool of yellow light onto rain-soaked cobblestones.
It is a tiny place, out of the way even in downtown Jersey City (that 1/2 in its address speaks volumes), and its Left Bank cafe air is no accident. The owners, Alice Troietto and her husband, Mattias Gustafsson, grew up in France and immigrated to Hudson County in the early 90′s. With a partner, Martine Fayolle, who has since moved on, they sought to recreate the kind of restaurant they remembered from their youth: casual, neighborhood-friendly and nearly always open, the menu heavy with dishes – crepes, onion soup, moules frites – that are easy to make and easy to eat, distinctly retro but al-ways in fashion.
It may seem an obvious concept, but it’s a welcome one. New Jersey’s urban core, once left for dead but now fitfully reviving, has many Italian, Portuguese, Mexican and Asian restaurants built on roughly the same low-cost lines, but few if any French ones. And while the execution in the kitchen can be uneven, the sense of belonging, of being in the right place, is so strong that flaws are easy to overlook.
You enter through an infinitesimal lobby crammed with coats into a narrow, crowded, dimly lighted one-time bar whose walls are hung with globe lamps, a magazine rack, and paintings and sculptures by young local artists. On the sound system, Edith Piaf, Astrud Gilberto and con-temporaries do their best to make themselves heard over the din of conversation. Earnest couples face each other earnestly over bottles of wine they’ve brought; on the banquette along one wall, a party of six trade platters of cheese and pate maison. There is plenty of dialogue, plenty of hair. All that’s missing, thankfully, is the choking fog of Gauloise smoke.
The menu is straightforward, the prices gentle. The chef, Ricardo Castro, has two of the electrified pans called crepieres going at all times, so some sort of crepe seems almost obligatory.
On a weekday evening, the one called 1′Atlantique – with mussels, parsley, garlic and creme fraiche – was rich and highly satisfying. a lot of food for $8.75. The crepe itself, made with buckwheat flour, was at once light and substantial, its faintly toasted flavor balancing the mussels’ marine tang. A generous mesclun salad provided balance of its own.
On a Saturday night, however, the crepe aux trois fromages (blue, Gruyere and goat cheeses), was punishingly rich, and the blue had the off taste of the wrong kind of mold. A far better choice, it turned out, was spinach quiche, a round tart about the size of a CD, with a short, buttery crust and a lovely overtone of nutmeg.
Other main courses are similarly unpredictable. Each night offers a different plat quotidien, or daily special. Blanquette de veau (Wednesdays), the homey veal stew, is filled with mild, tender meat in a creamy, winy sauce over rice spiked with coconut. Lamb shank (Saturdays) looks inviting, but the meat is dry, and its brown sauce is viscous and salty.
From the regular menu, mussels with fries are as advertised – the tender mussels lively with garlic and wine, the potatoes thin, long and just a bit greasy – but hanger steak is distractingly tough. A thick salmon fillet is precisely baked, and its accompaniment of tomatoes and green
At these prices, it is tempting to pile on the appetizers and side dishes. Onion soup is a fine specimen, steamy and herb-scented under a thick, blistered mantle of melted Gruyere. Legumes vapeur, or steamed vegetables, may sound like boarding-school fare, but they are cooked only long enough to hold their crunch, and they carry an agreeable tang of sherry vinegar. Gratin dauphinois, potatoes sliced thin and baked with creme fraiche under a; layer of cheese, is filling and fine.
If you somehow failed to order a main-course crepe, you have another; chance at the end of the meal. Dessert crepes, made with regular flour, lack the character of the savory; I ones, but they make a nice wrapping for chocolate, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce (la Bronzee) or simple and excellent lemon with sugar i(Citron sucree). Only baked pearj with chocolate sauce (la Belle Helene) misfired, because the pear was underdone and tasteless. If you’ve had your fill of crepes, tarte Tatin and chocolate mousse are both well above average. So is the coffee.
Madame Claude, the restaurant’s namesake, is someone you might like to meet. Her real name is Fernande Grudet, and in the 1960′s and 70′s, according to one of many contemporary accounts, she ran “a call-girl; service of such high quality and exclusivity that she became almost an; extension of the French state and’ was considered to have its protection.”
Not enough protection, apparently, because she was finally convicted of tax evasion and jailed for four months. But as best I can determine 1 she is still alive, somewhere in France, age about 79. I like to think she would be honored by this tribute – a winning gesture, audacious and sly, an inside joke carried off with a, wink and a grin. Like this restaurant, it is very downtown. And very French.
3641/2 Fourth Street, Jersey City
ATMOSPHERE: A French bistro without the smoke: tiny, noisy and often packed.
SERVICE: Competent but a bit aloof.
SMOKING: Not allowed.
WINE LIST: Bring your own.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Onion Soup, pate maison, spinach quiche, crepe 1′Atlantique; gratin dauphinois, steamed vegetables; veal stew, mussels with fries, baked salmon; dessert crepes (except with pear), tarte Tatin, chocolate mousse.
PRICE RANGE: Soups, $6 and $6.50; salads, $5.50 to $9; savory crepes, $7 to $9.50; sandwiches, $7.50 to $9; entrees, $12.75 to $18; desserts and dessert crepes, $4.25 to $6.50; breakfast dishes, $4.50 to $8.75.
HOURS: Closed Mondays. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m; Thursdays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: Not accepted.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Everything is on one level, but the restroom is almost too small for a person, never mind a wheelchair.
IF YOU GO: The restaurant is at the corner where Fourth Street meets Brunswick Street and Newark Avenue in downtown Jersey City, about half a mile southwest of the Holland Tunnel entrance or half a mile west of the Grove Street PATH station.
REVIEWED: Feb. 8, 2004.
RATINGS: Poor, Fair, Satisfactory, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Extraordinary. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.