eater's digest: buvette

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There are some restaurants that fit like a glove. Barely through the door, even without seeing the menu, you sense familiarity. It's not quite déjà vu, because you've rarely seen this before - your kind of restaurant, manifested in the flesh.

Now that doesn't mean this is the best restaurant you've ever eaten in. Of course, it has to be great. But a restaurant that feels like you imagined it yourself is not a constant succession of "wow!" moments. Like Alice in Wonderland, you've tried the bottles that made you bigger and smaller. That was good fun, but this is the bottle that will turn you back to "just right".

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Getting to the point, this restaurant - for me, in New York - is Buvette. The first time I went there, I had only a glass of wine and two small plates, but that was enough. From then on, I called it "my favorite restaurant in New York". Sure, I cock my head to think after saying it, knowing I've had more earth-shaking meals elsewhere, but that's not the point.

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The point is the charm, the desire to return, again and again. The waiters and bar staff that range from pleasantly gruff to more than accommodating, all dressed in dapper ties and half-aprons. The random assortment of ceiling mirrors that reflect the hustle and bustle of the small space. The conscious and obvious eaves-dropping of the conversations around you. The bathroom whose haphazard "je ne sais quoi" qualities make you wish you had brought your camera.

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But for all my affection, it was just this month that I ate a full, proper meal at Buvette. I brought along one of my favorite eaters - a friend whose wealth of cultural experiences has not dampened her enthusiasm for simpler pleasures (case in point: her favorite food is macaroni and cheese). I introduced her to brandade de morue, a long-time provencale favorite of mine. Buvette's was an appropriate balance of creamy and light, briny and balanced. We followed with more seafood, an octopus salad with celery that stunned with its simplicity. If there was a dish of food to eat every day it might be this. Tender, crunchy, refreshing, textural.

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As for sides, I insisted on poireaux. To get properly cooked leeks is always a pleasure, and these were cooked in the traditional French vinaigrette style, tender (but not mushy) with an ample dose of whole grain moutarde. As for the cauliflower gratin (chosen by Ms. Mac n' Cheese), it was a reminder of this overlooked vegetable's myriad magical qualities. I'll take mashed, steamed, pureed or roasted cauliflower over the omnipresent potato any day.

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And then, the pièce de résistance. I had heard rumors about this chocolate mousse - that it was whipped by hand in copper bowls to achieve a most wonderful texture. However, I could never have imagined what I was about to experience. Luxurious, dense, creamy, resistant and yet yielding - I'm not sure you can even legitimately call it mousse. It's too intense to eat alone, even with its dollop of exquisite whipped cream. The essence of dessert, hailing from a time before we decided to emulate the hyper-sweet, high fructose corn syrup universe in which we currently live. In short - and in summary - it's not to be missed.

eater's digest: calliope

One of the (only) downsides of having lived in Paris is that New Yorkers assume I'm an authority on French food in New York. Truth be told, I'm a "when in Rome" kind of eater, and have rarely discovered NYC eateries that resemble the fresh, creative and elegant preparations I grew to love in France. Instead, I typically find fussy, heavy cuisine - a fault I assign not so much to the chefs, but moreso to American diners' expectations of "French" food.

That said, every once in a while - and often when I am least seeking it - I discover a restaurant that so utterly embodies the food of France that it bypasses nostalgia and heads straight to simple pleasure. No restaurant in New York has done this more for me than the recently opened Calliope, in the East Village.

A few weeks before Calliope opened, I saw chef Ginevra Iverson speak at a panel about the Farm Bill, where I was impressed by her no-nonsense views on sustainability in restaurant cooking. I thus came to her restaurant expecting something akin to Northern Spy Food Co (which I also love), but discovered a more subtle approach to seasonal eating. In fact, it resembled the perspective of the Parisian chefs I know: that we should eat seasonably because it tastes better, requiring no further, self-conscious examination of edible ethics.

The food at Calliope was beautiful, from the complimentary anchovy toasts (saltily paired with peppery raw radishes) to the warm, home-baked madeleines we received as a goodbye treat. But no dish was more visually stunning than my favorite, the leek and lobster terrine. Here, the noble leek (which is so often cooked to smithereens) was allowed a bit of al dente. The lobster was a clean complement with its meaty flesh, tarragon added herbal complexity, and a crunchy dose of sea salt sealed the textural deal.

We followed the terrine with the tomato tart, an uniquely red and intensely flavorful use of this omnipresent fruit. Also impressive was the elegant, golden-crusted roast chicken with chanterelles, a dish that harkened back to the true French classics. On the other hand, the less typically French rabbit pappardelle was not a flavor or textural combination I enjoyed, though the rabbit itself was very well cooked and Pete Wells seems to have appreciated it. As for the sides, the chard and sorrel gratin was rich, but less so than expected - a perfect definition of modern French cuisine.

Calliope 84 East Fourth Street (212) 260-8484