Thursday, May 15, 2008

A taste of France (Belgium?) in Bryant Park

Today I was treated to a lovely lunch with a colleague at the relatively new Le Pain Quotidien at Bryant Park (on 40th Street, near 6th Ave). LPQ is one of my favorite chain-ish places in New York; I've been to the one on Madison on the UES several times before, and it's always yummy. Sure, sometimes there's attitude-- hey, it's French, or possibly Belgian, I'm not quite sure-- but it's worth it to plow through that crap for the delicious food.

The new Bryant Park location is relatively large, with a huge to-go takeout area dominating the front part of the restaurant. My colleague and I were led to the back, where the sit-down tables are arranged. As always, there was a long communal table, one of LPQ's trademarks, in the center of the room, but we were seated at a small two-top against one wall. All the tables were rough-hewn wood and rustically styled, to match the rest of the place. The restaurant was well-lit and bright, even on a semi-overcast day like today, but it got noisy as more people showed up. (I guess fabric-covered surfaces aren't "rustic.")

The communal table, with a peek at the take-out area

The menus arrived quickly, and we chose what we wanted. There are so many lovely things on the PQ menu, especially for a vegetarian, but definitely for anyone who likes really fresh, tasty food. I've had their Salade Vegetarienne several times before, which is a mesclun salad topped with all sorts of delicious cheeses. If you can put aside the fact that you're consuming approximately 13,000 calories' worth of cheese in a "salad," it's uncommonly delicious. Hey, even if you can't put that aside, it tastes damn good.

This time, to restrain myself a little bit (there's a work event/party tonight, sure to be a binge-worthy time), I chose the simple mesclun salad. The salads come with bread on the side, and I chose their organic whole wheat, although their baguettes are also a top-notch choice. The salad was reasonably sized, and it came with sliced cucumbers, sliced radishes, a couple of tomato wedges, and a small slice of cantaloupe (anyone seen the Jacques/bowling/brunch episode of the Simpsons? "It comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end"? Anyone? Anyone? Shout out in the comments section... you'll win some sort of prize.). One of the best things about LPQ salads is the pesto-olive oil dressing-- they just put a drizzle on there so the salad isn't drowning, but it's truly delicious and flavorful. I managed to eat the radishes without being too put off by their taste; overall, a very good salad.

Mesclun salad, with cantaloupe wedge obscured behind the tuft of greens.

But of course, the most important part is the bread. I ate my whole wheat slices alternately dipping it in the dregs of the dressing and slathering it with their nutella-like spread (no chocolate, just hazelnut), which comes in the condiment caddies you can request. PQ also makes good jams, which populate the other two spots in the caddy, but I stuck with the hazelnut spread, because it is just. so. good. Smooth and sweet without being sugary, it makes even virtuously healthful whole wheat bread somehow bad for you.


Condiment caddy, with hazelnut spread on the left. All restaurants should provide hazelnut spread along with ketchup and mustard at every meal.

My companion ordered the tofu salad, which I've also had before. It's a similar type of basic mesclun salad topped with several wedges of tofu, each one dabbed with one of a couple different sauces/marinades. It's Asian-inflected, with a couple sheets of nori in the salad to bring the concept home, and highly flavorful. But it's a lot of tofu-- you've gotta really commit to the idea of eating tofu in quantity to be up for the challenge of this salad. As my friend put it, "This is more tofu than I eat in an entire year." And she's a vegetarian as well.

Tofu salad. Isn't it pretty?

Service was brusque (just usual New York-style, not French attitude-style, which was a relief) and efficient-- in fact, the whole experience was quite efficient. We didn't wait long for our food to appear, and once we were done, the dishes were cleared and the bill delivered in a highly timely manner. This restaurant, at least at this time of day, is unsurprisingly clearly geared toward the work lunch crowd. We were in and out in probably 45 minutes. The atmosphere wasn't rushed, but it wasn't the type of place where I'd feel comfortable loitering.

The only other notable thing about my experience was the bathroom. It wasn't a Tao-style, blow-you-away-in-a-confusing-manner bathroom, by any means. In fact, it was sort of utilitarian, a shade on the dingier side of upscale. But the best part was the paper towel dispenser. It was one of the kind where you wave your hand and it dispenses a given amount of towel. Usually, I find with those that the amount these dispensers give is just a bit too little to dry your hands completely, but of course two sheets is more than you need and is wasteful. So you're caught in some kind of damp-handed purgatory. But this paper towel dispenser produced the perfect in-between length! Hooray! I'm not exactly sure why I'm dwelling on this, because it's sort of weird, but this is one of my pet peeves, so I was glad to see a restaurant that got it right.

Overall, LPQ provided a very good lunch. I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a mid-level sit-down lunch option in midtown. It's probably also great for people who want to get some take-out from the front part of the restaurant and then go sit out on the grass at Bryant Park in the nice weather. Either way, I'm definitely adding this place to my list of good lunch places in the area. For being delicious and reliable but still a get-em-in-and-out chain, I bestow upon Pain Quotidien three offset spatulas.

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