Old France in New York

terrine at Les Trois Chevaux

Ambitious, decadent cooking leaves an impression.

I walked into Les Trois Chevaux in New York’s West Village for dinner with an elegantly dressed lady on either arm (one of them my wife). Such an entrance appeared to be in keeping with this restaurant.

Instructions as to one’s dress code feature prominently on their website. Blue jeans, shorts and sneakers are strictly prohibited, it proclaims, and dinner jackets, in the American sense of the term, are requested, although this stricture was not enforced on the night we ate there.

The room, a corner site, seemed to shine in anticipation. The white tablecloths glistened. The bar – at which there are seats for nine – reminded me of Manet’s painting of the Folies-Bergère. Behind it were large vases stuffed with tall laurel sprays, and at the far end was an elegant contraption, the likes of which none of us had ever seen before.

It comprised a large lamp hung over a square, highly polished silver plate and throughout our dinner we discussed what its role might be. As we left, I asked the young, impeccably attired, Mexican maîtresse d’ what it was. ‘Oh that’, came her response, is a carving tray for when we have pigeons on the menu.’

tray for carving pigeons

By then we had spent three and a half hours at Les Trois Chevaux. I had spent just under US$900 and we left extremely impressed not only by the restaurant’s cooking but also by its ambitions and its delivery. Distinctive and distinguished were the adjectives that we used as we headed back uptown.

The person responsible for all this is chef Angie Mar, whose dream it is that for as long as her guests are there, time stands still. Her technique-heavy menu, her style of service, and the sense of collective warmth that greets you are all aimed at trying to recreate a restaurant that may have existed in the 1950s somewhere in France.

We had just been seated and offered water when Mar appeared at our table. Dressed in chef’s whites, Mar is distinguished not only by her expansive smile but also because she wears more eye make-up than any chef I have ever seen. She welcomed us and then headed back to her kitchen leaving us with her menu, the contents of which I have also never seen before synthesised onto a single sheet of paper.

The first courses included white asparagus, frogs’ legs, veal brains, and foie gras with an optional truffle soup for an extra $55 per person. The main courses are as varied: sweetbreads ‘en crepinette’, Dover sole ‘bonne femme’, foie gras (again, naturally), as well as lobster. At the end there is one dish for two, a dish of duck and Japanese cherries.

But just as unusual as the language, French on the left for the dishes, English for the minor ingredients on the right, is the list of the culinary techniques. It must be 20 years at least since I had seen all of the words millefeuille, pithivier, ballotine and mousseline on a menu outside France. We were intrigued.

We began in style by sharing a first course, described as ‘the nymphs of Giverny’, the gardens made famous by Monet, that comprised pork, foie gras, persimmon and black pudding all encased in chaud-froid, the classic French aspic. What arrived was a montage – a slice of terrine with all the ingredients distinct and the slices of persimmon imitating water-lilies. The terrine itself was rich, with the varied colours of the meat quite obvious, but the richness was cut by the elegance of the aspic. There was richness too in a millefeuille of duck foie gras and the cannelloni of seafood; less so, perhaps, in a mousseline of frogs’ legs in which Alsace Riesling provided the acidity.

Fine chopping as well as excellent execution played their part in the main courses. A leaf of Savoy cabbage held together veal sweetbreads, diced carrots and mushrooms with a Madeira sauce; the classic Dover sole bonne femme lay in a lovely broth laced with turnips and scallops; while the ballotine of chicken and lobster sat in a cognac sauce.

ballotine at Les Trois Chevaux

At this stage of the meal, when the three wines by the glass proposed by the knowledgeable sommelier, Adrian Murcia, had had their effect, Mar very sensibly takes all the decision-making out of your hands. The next course is a simple, refreshing salad of flavourful baby gem lettuce, expertly seasoned. Four ‘desserts’ then arrived, but again they were rather different from the very sweet norm. There was a custard of wild mushrooms and candied morels, a bowl of fried choux dough balls with Madagascar vanilla and scented with orange blossom, honeydew ice cream with white pepper, and finally what was billed as ‘caviar et chocolat’: candied beluga lentils with a white chocolate and crème fraîche mousse. None of these was cloying or sickly and they were all enjoyed to the full despite what we had enjoyed beforehand.

Mar is playing a high-risk game. The cost of her raw ingredients is high. Her labour costs are too, as she employs 10 in what looked like a particularly calm, well-lit kitchen on the same floor as the dining room, plus another five in the restaurant. Her menu price of $180 per person for four courses is high as well. And when I asked by email about the restaurant’s finances I received this blunt response: ‘I am independently owned – this restaurant is solely mine, no investors or partners.’

Les Trois Chevaux 283 W 12th St, NY 10014, New York; tel: +1-917-261-6085