Nouvelle Cuisine

Julie Besonen

French food is holding court again in New York City, dominating the conversation in a way that hasn't been seen in years. Since Bastille Day is nigh, it's time to storm your way into the best ones. Top toques, from Andrew Carmellini to Tien Ho, are lightening up recipes and reinterpreting classics—forgoing vats of butter and extravagant checks. Prefer nostalgia? Old-school gems like La Grenouille (1962) and Le Périgord (1964) still glitter. The more nouvelle Cafe Luxembourg (1983) and Balthazar (1997) continue to draw hip, animated crowds for unfailingly excellent cuisine and stunning surroundings. Several of Daniel Boulud's restaurants are rooted in French tradition, celebrating classics like entrecôte de boeuf and pommes Anna at Café Boulud and grilled escargot en cocotte at db Bistro Moderne. Generating excitement more recently are Calliope in the East Village and Buvette in the West Village. At Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo, Francophilia has boiled over into mania, with lines around the block for cronuts—the half croissant, half donut that has inspired a remarkable devotion among fans. The Gallic specialties at Café Triskell in Astoria, Queens, hew more to tradition, with exquisite savory and dessert crepes. And for time-honored steak frites, tout le monde loves Midtown's low-priced Le Relais de Venise L'Entrecôte. For our other haute summer picks, see our slideshow.

Courtesy, Antibes Bistro

Antibes Bistro
112 Suffolk St., 212-533-6088, Lower East Side, Manhattan
The Left Bank comes to the Lower East Side at this amber-lit, under-the-radar bistro. Antibes is named for the resort town in the South of France but that doesn't stop it from looking like an intimate joint in the 6th arrondissement. Located on the seldom-traveled Suffolk Street, home to new and edgy art galleries, it's a quiet spot, secretive enough for those hiding from paparazzi. Tuck into country-style duck pâté, Roquefort and poached pear salad with toasted walnuts, and coriander-crusted salmon with olive tapenade. For brunch there's brioche French toast and mini pancakes with lemon crème fraîche. If you're looking for a quiet place to pop in for a drink before a night on the town, its cozy bar offers happy hour Sunday to Thursday from 5 to 7pm. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when there's live jazz, it is somewhat louder.

Photo: Adrian Gault

380 Lafayette St., 212-533-3000, NoHo, Manhattan
Your love affair with Balthazar is still going strong but that irrepressible wandering eye might still pilot you to a night at Lafayette. Pourquoi pas? The dining room is soaring, the aura has frisson, the food is stimulating and the players are worth getting to know. NYC golden boy Andrew Carmellini and partners Luke Ostrom and Josh Pickard are behind some of the hottest restaurants in town (Locanda Verde, The Dutch). During the day Lafayette makes no demands and is always there for you, be it a business breakfast, a takeaway almond croissant, an easygoing lunch or an afternoon pick-me-up of Stumptown espresso. At night it's more heated. Call ahead to avoid rejection. For hors d'oeuvres we recommend bracing oysters, seafood salad and beef tartare with poached marrow. Then move on to spaghetti Niçoise, rotisserie chicken and duck au poivre. Pick up some goodies from the patisserie on your way out for the morning after.

Courtesy, Le Philosophe

Le Philosophe
55 Bond St., 212-388-0038, NoHo, Manhattan
You're in for a treat: the classic French food at Le Philosophe is delicious and up-to-date, and the service is gracious, dexterous and unstuffy. As for the wine list: sacre bleu! When was the last time you saw a bottle of Rhône red for under $20? The high-ceilinged bistro is tricked out with exposed industrial pipes, glass factory lights and oversize images of French philosophers. The crowd looks educated, the sort that could ponder the theories of Derrida and de Beauvoir. When it comes to Matthew Aita's mind-blowing cuisine, the place has soul. His duck a l'orange, lobster thermidor and handmade garganelli with wild mushroom ragout and hazelnuts are keys to happiness. The chef honed his skills at DB Bistro Moderne, Jean-Georges and Sullivan Street Bakery, and while he's not afraid of butter and bone marrow, flavors have an ethereal lightness. You will be talking it up to your friends for weeks to come.

Photo: Henry Hargreaves

158 Eighth Ave., 646-596-8838, Chelsea, Manhattan
When you have good bones, you don't need much of a face-lift. For more than 20 years, this Chelsea bistro was the captivating Gascogne. Et voila! Montmartre is its new identity, spruced up with white paint, black tabletops and photos of music icons like Mos Def, inevitably leading to talk of concerts you're jealous you missed. This is Gabe Stulman's latest downtown sensation (after Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey's Grocery, Fedora, Perla and Chez Sardine, in case you haven't kept up), teaming up this time with Tien Ho, a Momofuku alum. He perks up French classics with Asian accents, such as coconut, chili and cilantro flavoring the broth for moules frites. Then there's pot-au-pho for two, a seductive blend of short ribs, oxtail, leeks, Thai basil and hoisin. At lunch the most tempting item is croque monsieur topped with smoked salmon, scallions and a sprinkling of salmon roe. The space is as narrow as an alley in the Parisian neighborhood it's named for, leading to a beautiful back garden.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Three Letters
930 Fulton St., 718-622-4679, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn
French country food interpreted by a fantasy grandmère and real life Brooklyn guys is what you'll find at this cool blue space meant to mimic a 1970s French truck stop. The poetic Three Letters was conceived by three owners whose first names all have three letters: Cam Honsa, Asa Johnson and Pip Freeman, who is also the chef. On diner plates he dishes up pâté de campagne with pickles, kale and anchovy mustard, and black sea bass with morel butter. Dessert takes tasty little detours off the traditional route, such as a citrus-based napoleon and coconut-infused pot de crème. Freeman used to be vegan and hasn't forgotten his former brethren, making a thoughtful seitan entrée cooked with prunes, smoked hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and Madeira. Wine on tap and craft cocktails are other contemporary touches.