721 Ninth Avenue, East Village
I didn't know how fond I was of Parisian-style neighborhood bistros until I found myself living without one. A bistro is a place to enjoy a good quick (or slow) lunch, to depressurize after work with a glass of wine and a nibble, and perhaps stay for dinner if the menu sounds better than what's at home. Café Chloe's arrival signals a change in the East Village, and what has been a blighted area is starting to look a real neighborhood.
Chloe is sleeker than most bistros in Paris: It's light and bright, rather than dark and stained by decades of Gauloise fumes. The tall windows, creamy walls, bittersweet chocolate trim, and chrome-framed art photos delight the eye. The main dining room has bentwood "bistro chairs" and small white tables (for two or three), a bar counter, and a separate coffee bar. Left of the coffee bar, in what looks like a cubbyhole, is one of the two tiny, separate kitchens where food is prepared. (The other is upstairs.) Next to the main dining room is a semi-private "Man Ray" room, with a large table and chairs for a group. A sidewalk patio wraps around the front and side of the restaurant. The background music is thoroughly eclectic, hopping from light jazz to Nashville to Mississippi blues to ironic French cabaret tunes.
The menu hints at a feminine sensibility, with its emphasis on the lightest dishes of the classic bistro repertory. Don't look for the two-fisted, manly fare of working-class France (if any workers there can still afford their bistros) -- there's no cassoulet simmering on the back of the stove, no garlic-rubbed chicken roasting in the oven, nor even a chilled shellfish assiette perched on the bar. Instead, Chloe's menu is as smartly edited as a chic Parisienne's afternoon outfit. Portions are sufficient -- not overwhelming -- so that if you lunch here, you'll go back to work both well fed and awake.
But let's begin with sunup. Unlike most European bistros, Chloe is serious about breakfast. You can always grab a fresh-brewed coffee and croissant (from St. Tropez Bakery), but if you're in no hurry, some sybaritic starts await you. Poached eggs with sage-truffle beurre blanc, for instance, offer an inspired twist on Eggs Benedict. Perfectly cooked eggs arrive on a bed of sautéed mushrooms, spread over a crisp round of toasted sage-rosemary bread from Sadie Rose Bakery (formerly Upper Crust) on G Street. The sauce, resembling eggless Hollandaise, is spiked with fresh sage shreds, cutting the richness of the yolk and butter. Alongside is a perky salad with the gentle house dressing, a citrus vinaigrette made with fresh orange, lime, grapefruit, and lemon juices and extra-virgin olive oil.
Or you could start with a house-cured gravlax plate. With the mildest possible cure, the medium-thin slices of moist salmon come with chive crème fraîche, roasted cherry tomatoes, red onion slices, wheat bread, and a small heap of mâche greens. Costarring is a bland puréed egg salad, more like French-style small-curd scrambled eggs than America's mayo-drenched picnic fare. If the sage in the previous dish signals a sense of adventure, the egg salad marks an opposite tendency in Chloe's kitchen -- the vague, recessive flavors of some dishes may have you reaching for the salt and pepper. Before you do, pile all the elements of this platter onto the bread: The mixture is better than its parts, with the assertive onions and sweetly acidic tomatoes providing the missing spark.
One breakfast dish I regret missing is an omelet of fines herbes (chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives) and époisse cheese, served with Bruce Aidells' luscious smoked duck sausage (an old friend, but so recently introduced at Chloe that it wasn't yet printed on the menu).
The lunch-hour mainstay is the tartine, a Gallic-style, warm, open-face sandwich. A steak version features chewy, flavorful hanger steak. (The same cut recurs in a full portion at dinner as "steak frites.") The meat lies over a slab of walnut bread slicked with St. Agur blue cheese and dotted with small, sweet roasted cipollini onions. On top is a whirl of frisée (curly endive) and tiny halved tomatoes, and on the side a surprise treat -- raw tart apple slices, Belgian endive leaves, and candied walnuts. This trio is so harmonious, it needs only sequins and voices to cut a hit single. Other tartine toppings include roast butternut squash with fennel and goat cheese, egg salad (same as on the gravlax), and a daily special.
A number of dishes straddle lunch and dinner, including poached mussels with pommes frites. Our bivalves, all open and succulent, floated in a winey broth with sliced onions and crimson saffron threads. A small cup of lemony saffron aioli came with it, along with a vertical pile of French fries in a paper cone set inside another cup. The fries, strewn with kosher salt, are slim, pale, limp, and addictive, especially when dipped in the mussel broth. (The potatoes are also available on their own, arriving with three dips, including the saffron aoili.)
Macaroni and cheese (available at brunch, lunch, and dinner) is the heartiest entrée in the house. Made with smoky bits of chopped pancetta and four cheeses, including a pouf of gorgonzola mousse, it truly deserves to be called "cheese and macaroni." Richer than Donald Trump, it's probably best shared -- by a trio or quartet.
Its opposite number is a light salad of frisée with sautéed pancetta, which also runs through the menu as a lunch/brunch entrée, returning at dinner as a half-size "petite bistro salad." Many customers adore it, but having been spoiled by Fringale (in San Francisco), I find its flavors and proportions a bit awry. A daunting field of greens is topped with a poached egg that's a tad overcooked, if you want a runny yolk to goop through the rest of the ingredients. Interspersed with the greens are Stonehenge-sized croutons of toasted brioche, too large to soak up egg or dressing, or even to eat comfortably. (And as long as I'm getting cranky about this, I find the house citrus vinaigrette too wishy-washy for this dish; I longed for the classic zing of red wine vinegar to partner with the slightly bitter leaves.)