La Promenade des Anglais is a chic, but unpretentious restaurant marrying tribute to Nice’s main thoroughfare, its flaneurs* and a kind of low key, Art Deco glamour. Its high ceiling is decorated with images of enormous striped umbrellas, abstract pieces of granite walkway, graphic foliage, and French text. Classic black and white diamond marble tile demarcates a stylish bar hung with polished brass balconies holding functional bottles. There are intriguing house cocktails and a bar menu, making this an attractive meeting place for whiling away time. Mirrors are large and well situated to provide the illusion of spaciousness. Seaside blues and dark woods elicit calm.
Lighting is, for the most part, blessedly indirect-which means flattering and unobtrusive, but efficient where necessary—as the small table lamps with which one can read a menu even as overheads dim. Antique brass fixtures add timeless class. Velour-upholstered banquets are comfortable and generous, table seating not so close you need to be conscious of elbows. One can converse above the music mix, though on a crowded evening there’s little to absorb the sound of people having a good time.
The atmosphere of La Promenade des Anglais, might as easily attract a middle aged foodie couple as young neighborhood fashionistas or arty Villagers. Visitors from both the Upper East Side and abroad are comfortable. Dress is casual but one wouldn’t feel out of place stopping in attired for an event. Proximity to the vibrant Meatpacking district is handy after an afternoon wandering Chelsea’s galleries, shops, or The Highline.
A balcony offers semi-private dining accommodating up to 25 guests.
*”A person who walks the city in order to experience it” Charles Baudelaire
Alain Allegretti’s menu for La Promenade des Anglais offers the fresh taste and textures of the French Riviera’s Italian, Spanish and North African influenced cuisine. Fennel, fava beans, faro, and artichokes appear like signature flourishes in artfully composed dishes whose sauces enhance rather than overwhelm. Indigenous accents include plump Perugina sausage, which gets its zest from ground pepper, ventresca tuna, in a league with foie gras and caviar, and barigoule, a traditional Provençal dish of braised artichokes in a warm and slightly tangy white-wine broth. Idiosyncratic coherence carries from dish to dish so that a succession of individual choices will never be dissonant.
My companion and I begin with Heirloom Tomato and Buratta Salad (Italian cheese, made from mozzarella and cream) with black olives, basil, scallions and basil oil. The delicate, lightly dressed combination starring possibly seared tomatoes, is a perfect way to prime our paletes.
And Octopus a la Plancha with nutty farro salad, a smidgen of artichoke, fava beans, and slightly spicy pepper coulis. The plate looks like a still life, its undisguised centerpiece freshly fished. Octopus is succulent, not rubbery, mixing particularly well with the pasta-like grain salad.
Putting ourselves in the eminently capable hands of General Manager James Morrison for wine selection, we’re served a light, dry, refreshing Château de Campuget, Cuvée Prestige Viognier, Costières de Nîmes, 2010 whose excellence seems a difficult opening act to follow.
Next, two pastas: Black Tagliolini with shrimp, sea urchin, chili, preserved lemon, and batarga (silver mullet roe) and Paccheri with confit rabbit, peas and toasted hazelnuts. The squid ink tagliolini, given texture by a sprinkling of pepper, is more robust than most pastas. Nuanced essence of shrimp adheres instead of simply being present as the naked crustaceans themselves.
Paccheri is made inventive by the tender meat and subdued nutty shading, but it’s an unidentifiable, dusky red sauce that really gets our attention. Upon inquiry, we learn this is made from melted Andouille sausage! Of the two this choice won out.
These are accompanied by a Pierre Duret Quincy from the Loire Valley. A bit like Sancerre, the wine is fruity, and fuller bodied. It holds its own with the pastas, highlighting without interfering.
Swordfish complimented by splendid stuffed confit fennel (I could happily eat a plate of this deceptively simple side), fennel salad, and romesco sauce, whose ingredients feature roasted garlic, olive oil, and nyora peppers, is restrained and a little salty. Veal Medallions, on the other hand, have great character. Presented with olives, spring radishes, fava bean tagine, and the Sardinian pasta, fregola sarda, the veal is succulent and perfectly rare, orchestration of savory accompaniments pitch perfect.
Entrees arrive with Domaine Poulleau, Côtes de Beaune, Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, France, 2008, an aromatic, full bodied pinot noir with smooth, earthy taste.
A sweet (but not too sweet), citrusy Domaine des Baumard, Quarts de Chaumes, Loire, France, 2007 is suggested to settle the meal and inform recommended desserts. Convinced to sample three, we try the Vanilla Pot de Crème infused with subtle passion fruit, the Strawberry Rhubarb Fancier with almond streusel and basil gelato, and the Guanaja Chocolate Mousse with salted caramel, feuilletine, marshmallow, and hazelnut gelato. The pot de crème is subtle and delicious, excellent epilogue for someone without an after dinner sugar craving. The mousse is a decadent confluence of velvety, sweet components almost successive in tasting composed with oddly bitter chocolate and tandem, knock-out gelato. The fancier was undefined.
We’ve had a distinctive (if excessive) and beautifully composed meal sustained by creativity, authenticity, and attention to detail including precision cooking. Wine has been ingeniously paired. Take my advice and discuss with or simply ask James.
Executive Chef Alain Allegretti
Alain Allegretti was born in Nice, spent 7 years in Palermo and returned to his heart’s home, the south of France. It was here on his grandparent’s working farm, he learned about nature, growing things, and the integral connection between fresh food and good cuisine. His father’s mother was Italian. Her kitchen was the house’s heart. The boy liked to keep her company and do what he could to help. When a tomato was needed, he went outside and harvested one. “I know what it’s like to pick something still warm from the sun of the day, what vegetables and fruits should taste like.” His family made their own olive oil, wine and salumeria. Allegretti developed a sensitive palete.
“The first thing I cooked with my grandma was roast rabbit.” Allegretti was 12. He’d petted the rabbits since he’d been a toddler. Now, following instructions, he held one by its hind legs chopping hard at the back of the creature’s neck with a flat hand. Then, he opened the animal’s throat draining it of blood and made a small incision to pull out its organs. “I wasn’t really happy about it, but it’s part of what has to be done.” The dish came out well. He spent more and more time cooking.
“I decided pretty late that this is what I wanted to do for a living, at 15 or 16. Alain Ducasse was already working in a professional kitchen by then.” An unforced decision was made to finish college first. “If it doesn’t work you have a base at least.” Prudent. At 17, he enrolled at the Lycée Professionnel Paul Valéry in Menton, France. During the three year program, like all serious students, Allegretti worked in professional kitchens every summer. “You learn to peel carrots, to cut up a chicken, filet a fish. They use you too for every dirty work that nobody wants to do.”
A seasonal job at the Chantecler Restaurant of Hotel Negresco on Promenade des Anglais became full time when he graduated. “You start by cleaning dishes and the kitchen for pretty much a month. I was watching, dipping my finger and tasting sauces. You can’t ask questions. Just shut up, be lucky and slowly make your way up.” Allegretti got his break when asked to replace a man who had cut himself, moving as it were, from the chorus to a featured role. The hierarchy in a fine kitchen is firmly established. One progresses from apprentice to 3rd commis, 2nd commis, 1st commis, chef de partie, tournant (working in various stations), jr. sous chef, sous chef. “There are 8 or 9 levels to becoming an executive chef. You can’t jump.”
“I was pushing at the door of Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo. He said I have no space for you now and sent me to his mentor Jacques Maximin in Mionnay. It was a three star Michelin restaurant, fantastic, but in the middle of nowhere. I was young, 20, in a small village and needed a social life.” Allegretti fulfilled his promise of time and left a chef de partie.
Again, he showed up on Ducasse’s door. After five months working at a consultancy job in St. Tropez, he was finally accepted at Restaurant Louis XV. “I left as a tournant after three years.”
Allegretti continued working elsewhere in the south of France. “The type of cuisine I wanted to do was there. All the chefs for whom I worked had the same influences—Italian, Spanish, Moroccan. This is the cuisine I grew up with, the one I feel, love to cook, and love to eat. This is who I am.” In 2000, Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque came courting. The young chef flew to New York. “They treated me like the Sultan of Brunei; put me in a hotel suite and gave me a driver. It was spectacular, but I’m not stupid. I said I want to live in a bed and breakfast for some months, to take the subway, get lost, and have a real feel for the city to make a decision.” He accepted the position as Executive Chef. “It was a great experience, a challenge.” Cooking was, as expected, 75% Maccioni, 25% Allegretti.
When Le Cirque closed, Allegretti’s reputation opened the door to Atelier on Central Park South, but he was not, he decided, “a corporate kind of person.” Having taken the kitchen “to the extreme of fine dining,” he left at the crossroads of 2007/2008 to open his own first venture on West 22nd Street. Timing couldn’t have been worse. The market collapsed. His restaurant survived two years. Still, “If I hadn’t closed it, I wouldn’t have met my partners for this restaurant.”
La Promenade des Anglais opened September of 2012. Its size allows Allegretti to make everything personal, to keep control and to create relationships with his patrons. “We’re an ambitious neighborhood place but also a destination.” Much of the food is artisanal. “I want to be as proud as in my childhood with the cuisine, for it to be simple, fresh, but creative, interesting.” The menu changes every three months in accordance with what is seasonally available.
I ask Chef whether he has time to food shop himself. “Of course! I love it. I like to see what’s new, what’s coming, what I can do with it. A dish doesn’t start by opening a book, it starts with the inspiration of fresh ingredients.” Allegretti is always tasting, always experimenting, whether traveling or in New York.
I ask whether he’ll share some Manhattan restaurants he admires. “I think Andrew Carmellini at Locande Verde has a spectacular gift for cooking real, rustic Italian. As seafood, I really do love Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin). Oh, my God, just the simplicity of a piece of fish brought to a different level. Also Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park—wonderful, David Chang (Momofuku), and Daniel’s Boulud Sud, partly because it touches my roots.
I ask what the future holds. “Eventually, I’ll want to diversify. I have a fantastic heritage of Italy and Vietnam (on his mother’s side.) Perhaps French Vietnamese next time, but I’m going to have to do some work to bring it to a different, vibrant level. For the moment I have two pots on my fire and I want to make sure they’re both healthy.”
La Promenade des Anglais
461 West 23rd Street
Open 7 days a week for dinner, Saturday and Sunday additionally for brunch.
Chef Alain Allegretti also helms the brand new Azure by Allegretti at Revel (Hotel) in Atlantic City.
Photo credit interiors: Noah Fecks and Daniel Kreiger
Photo credit food: Byron Smith
Photo of Chef Alain Allegretti: Noah Fecks