I knew what I wanted to order before entering the revolving door and descending the red-carpeted spiral staircase of Brasserie 8½. I walked past the long, chic bar and cozy lounge, down the stairs into the main dining room, where the maître d’ showed me to a booth facing the stained glass window of Fernand Léger’s Les Constructeurs (The Builders) .
All thoughts of my imminent dinner vanished. I held my breath and studied the work surreptitiously. Two suited men, very possibly from the offices above, were seated directly in front of it. They looked like a modern day, New York version of the artist’s Les Constructeurs.
When my guest arrived, our waitress, Margot Sabbon, took our drinks order. I ordered a glass of Loire Valley Sancerre from the extensive wine list. Sancerre is a versatile, dry, bracing wine, with a berry aroma and a citrusy flavor that I knew would mingle well with food. Before Margot returned with the wine, we turned our attention to the varied menus: on Sunday and Monday Nights, guests can bring their own bottle of wine if they choose and enjoy a dinner of soup, grilled sardines or shrimp croquettes, three main dishes made with lobster and dessert or imported cheeses.
During weeknights the Oyster Happy Hour (raw oysters on the half shell) is a big hit at a dollar each, as is the Sunday brunch buffet, which features crêpes, omelets, salads and a luscious pastry station. Waiters are attentive to theatre goers and will make sure they’re out at the appointed time. Two rooms to the right of the long bar are reserved for private parties.
The main dining room is a comfortable, elegant space. Overstuffed booths line the left side; each are separated cleverly by a rippled glass panel, while tables in the center are spaced far enough apart so as to not interfere with other seated guests. Beyond a wooden bank in the center of the room, upon which water and champagne are displayed, are glass paneled, club-room like spaces, which set tables apart from each other. Directly ahead is the Léger.
It was the first time I’d seen this particular oeuvre. I knew the artist began as one of the “Fauves” (the Beasts) along with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Jacques Villon (many of their originals are located throughout the restaurant), and writers Max Jacob and Apollinaire in the first decade of the 20th century. One of the major contributors to the cubist style, Léger would hone his patterns eventually and use brilliant colors and strong linear definitions to outline human and machine forms. I envisioned him sitting with friends arguing the styles that grew out of the early to mid 20th century.
Léger visited New York in the 30s and again in the 40s and was stimulated by the atmosphere here. He returned to France in 1946 to decorate churches and public buildings with stained glass windows. The window before me was one of two which aren’t in churches. Upon the purchase of Les Constructeurs, Mary Clerkin Higgins cleaned, conserved and installed the work in a glass case on the wall. Lights, which show the work at its most powerful, were designed by Fischer, Moranz. Still thinking about Ms. Higgins mamouth task, my mind wandered back to my guest and the menu.
I hadn’t seen a “cosmopolitan” since the late 1950s. Still Brasserie 8½ makes their own with Absolut Citron, Cointreau, Aperol, lime and a splash of white cranberry. Other drinks feature rye whiskey and G&Ts, made with Pinnacle Gin, Blueberry and Raspberry Purée, St. Germain and tonic.
A purist like Léger, I stayed with Sancerre and then ordered eight oysters.
Originally from Japan, West coast oysters are smaller and have a slight sweet after flavor. In France, they’re classified with their own AOC (Controlled Origin Name). With a little fresh lemon squeezed atop, the savory mollusks were delectable.
Les Moules or Moules Frites on the menu followed. This was a gastronomic feast. For Executive Chef Franck Deletrain formerly from the Sea Grill, Four Seasons, Café Centro and Patroon in New York who turned his culinary genius to a Provencal interpretation of classic French dishes at Brasserie 8½, this was a “pot boiler.” I rather envisioned being in the company of Le Fauves while I slurped the mussels and soaked the bread in the soup/sauce. The mollusks were tender, moist and delicious piled high on top the mussel broth, butter, white wine, garlic and thyme. Two pieces of crusty butter-laden and thyme-sprinkled bread were on the side. The frites were salty and crispy. Why I never took the rest of the sauce/soup home is beyond me. I couldn’t finish it but it would have gone well with anything I decided to cook.
While my guest finished her red wine, I cut wedges of a P’tit Basque Pyrénees French sheep’s milk cheese that, after reaching room temperature, had a nutty, earthy flavor. The nut raisin bread was sweet against the delicate semi-soft cheese.
Open since 2000, Brasserie 8 ½ remains a timeless, stylish heaven for office workers, shoppers and out-of-towners to come and relax with a drink, have a brunch, an early week BYOB Lobster Dinner, or select from a sumptuous Prix Fixe or an À la carte menu. The restaurant is as well defined as its centerpiece, Les Constructeurs.
For more information, call 212.829.0812 or visit www.brasserie812.com for a complete menu and price listing. Brasserie 8½ is located at 8½ West 57th Street in Manhattan.