I’m multitasking as I sit here typing this review of Brendan Sodikoff’s Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf. To my left a half-dozen bulging takeaway containers from the previous night’s dinner at the River North “European steak house” are competing for my attention. The creamed spinach I was served, already fortified by blue cheese, has been given structure by a hardened overcoat of brown, blistered Chihuahua, and I’m stuffing it into my face cold with one hand as I struggle to communicate how powerless I am to stop eating it.
Before that I polished off the rest of the stroganoff, chubby batons of compressed short rib and caramelized cremini mushrooms tossed among wide, handmade pappardelle. This mass glued itself together in the fridge overnight as the creamy horseradish sauce congealed, and I had to cut it into pieces with a knife. Then there were the thick, supercrispy, amorphous masses of hash brown with a latkelike consistency and a surprising shelf life for something ideally eaten hot from the fryer.
There was leftover steak too. A lot of it.
Thing is, I don’t normally do this. I almost always take leftovers away from restaurants, but I tend to pass them on to the more needful—the homeless, the family, the cat. Sometimes I just stare at them and thank God I survived the night.
But on these rare occasions when the meals haunt the mornings and I’m powerless to resist their call, it’s always instructive to see how restaurant food changes in the daylight. When it takes on a wholly different but equally irresistible character, you know you have something special on your hands.
Bavette, incidentally, isn’t the name of some comely, salty-tongued mademoiselle Sodikoff encountered in Intro to French Lit, but the word for flank steak en francais. Still, the restaurant replicates to some degree the belle epoque vibe of Sodikoff’s Maude’s Liquor Bar, with similarities to Au Cheval and Gilt Bar too. Traces of Au Cheval’s absurd and wonderful excesses are particularly apparent. Take the “meatball and pasta”: long tendrils of toothy rectangular noodles nesting a softball-size pork meatball—it’s a consummate Au Cheval-ball. In a city lately crowded with chefs making their own pasta, this dish stands out despite the immovable boulder of ground meat that occupies all sight lines and will quickly have you regretting any red meat you might be partaking of later.
As at Gilt and Maude’s previously, Sodikoff’s kitchen is led by Jeff Pikus, the Alinea vet who has long since joined the ranks of chefs who can do little wrong in this town. Many of his appetizers, salads, entrees, and sides are such well-executed improvements of typical steak-house archetypes it seems a waste to give away any digestive real estate to relatively mundane slabs of beef.
This is first evident with the complimentary bread service. Lots of restaurants have been upping the ante for bread in recent times—and charging for their efforts—but I can’t think of any that’s better than the thick slices of hearty sourdough batards that Bavette’s is serving up gratis. With a mantle that shatters over a chewy crust and a pillowy crumb, they’re something I’d wait in line and pay for if they were sold from Sodikoff’s Doughnut Vault.
The seafood towers and the short selection of oysters that became the signature at Maude’s are here too, and while those are fine vehicles with which to get started, I found myself much more interested in exploring Pikus’s other offerings. The foie gras torchon he served at Maude’s was devastatingly good, and I wanted to know if his cognac-spiked foie gras terrine matched up. Jacketed in ivory fat and sprinkled with flakes of sea salt, it is every bit as good, served with blackberry jam and more of that sourdough, this time grilled. Besides that, the appetizers are mostly surf-related: salt cod brandade, shrimp de jonghe, shrimp cocktail, and a fat and fluffy baked lump crab cake, not as dense as its size might indicate yet devoid of filler.
Massive salads provide an early indication that a representative sampling of this menu will require endurance and strength. A creamy, almost too cheesy Caesar with smoked whitefish has a superb textural surprise of hidden crispy potato chips, and tender, buttery Bibb lettuce is served with a fatty avocado half stuffed with a formidable scoop of sweet crabmeat. These could stand on their own for delicate eaters, but certainly won’t provide much in the way of vegetal respite if one plans to branch out.
A wide-ranging array of entrees apart from the steaks seems designed to distract from trophy meat too. There’s a burger and a shaved prime beef sandwich, fried chicken and meat loaf, and a huge slab of beef tongue so tender it falls apart if you wink at it. This is served along with braised carrot and celery sticks bathed in a slick demi-glace that competes with the finest pot roast I’ve ever encountered. Just try to eat some steak after that.
It’s almost as if the steak is provided for the pickiest, most conservative eater who might wander into a Sodikoff restaurant. The signature 24-ounce prime dry-aged rib eye is certainly a respectable piece of meat, but there’s nothing about it that rises above the desirability of that meatball or the tongue. So too with the most modestly priced steak on the menu, a lean, chewy, ten-ounce flatiron, with frites. Then again, if these are too pedestrian there’s always the option of adding on Roquefort or roasted garlic, or a dino-size trench of bone marrow.
As at most of Sodikoff’s spots there’s a better than perfunctory cocktail list, this one based on the classics—a balanced daiquiri (Bavette’s Punch); an old-fashioned with the option of rye, cognac, or bourbon; and a Sazerac featuring cognac commingled with the standard rye, as well as a half-dozen sparkling cocktails, none more pleasing than a simple glass of bubbly with a sugar cube and Angostura bitters. Desserts are a bit more pro forma: cheesecake, lemon meringue and chocolate cream pies, and a Gold Brick sundae on which chocolate sauce solidifies on contact with the ice cream.
This is all served in an environment that hints at the Melman-esque, particularly the books on the walls that no one will ever read and the painted mirrors touting “baked crab cake” and “fine brown spirit.” This isn’t surprising given the time Sodikoff spent at Lettuce Entertain You earlier in his career, but with the subterranean lounge and its big red-leather booths, Oriental rugs, and cool-jazz soundtrack, Bavette’s has the effortlessly enjoyable atmosphere Paris Club only aspires to.
That’s the thing about Bavette’s. It resides in the part of town whose arteries are clogged with goofy unserious places like that, and high-end, expense-account steak houses, few of which manage to distinguish themselves. But to those who would say we don’t need another steak house—and often I’m one of them—it breaks the mold and excels in practically every aspect. Except steak.