Over the course of two visits to Crème Brasserie in the Renaissance Courtyard in Yorkville this summer, I had a total of 10 dishes presented by three different servers and, each and every time, without fail, they presented me with the wrong food. It ultimately became a bit of a game: While waiting for dessert on that final visit, I was secretly hoping they would maintain their perfect record.
Sure enough, I was presented not with my original order - crème brûlée, a respectable, pudding-y version with a thin, malleable caramelized-sugar crust and sticky poached plums - but with the flourless dark-chocolate cake with peanut butter ice cream. I wanted to cheer at the consistency of it all and had to restrain myself from high-fiving the person across the table from me, who had ordered the cake in the first place.
Such simple entertainment isn't guaranteed, but there are plenty of other distractions to keep you amused at Crème, especially the first-class people watching.
Profoundly tanned but paradoxically smooth-skinned octogenarians, Amazonian blondes in garish maxis and Maradona look-alikes sporting watches the size of dinner plates all make the scene. For those sitting on the lovely courtyard patio - bordered by tall buildings and open to the sky, it renders crowd noise into a gentle murmur - the view is even better, punctuated as it occasionally is by the odd tweaked-out junkie or gang of wobbly roller-bladers who traverse the space.
One evening, I overheard an exquisitely groomed young woman at the next table say to her dapper fiancé: "Wow, that woman over there has had a lot of facelifts - at least I think it's a woman."
The only problem is that the people watching is often more interesting than the food.
Crème Brasserie harkens back to an earlier culinary era, a time before bespoke pork and designer chicken ruled our menus, when the provenance of a rutabaga wasn't a political statement and eating seafood was devoid of environmental implications.
The menu is classic brasserie and brooks no trendy techniques or fashionable flourishes. It is a restaurant straight out of a simpler time, right down to the shrimp cocktail and Cobb salad. The closest it gets to avant-garde is probably the tian of avocado and goat cheese, which would have been novel in 1981. It's a decent little salad, pretty enough in its ring mould layering, but the goat cheese is gentle to the point of flavourless and the avocado was beginning to brown.
It has long been thought that a restaurant can be judged on its soup and this is an area in which Crème comports itself admirably. One evening's special - curried carrot and orange, which is really pushing the envelope here - is naturally creamy, piping hot and well balanced between earthy sweetness and complex spicing. Similarly, the uniformly chunky gazpacho has a pronounced tomato flavour and a bright, refreshing acidity.
Less successful are things like the fricassee d'escargots with brie, a weird dish in an unfortunate shade of dark brown punctuated by 13 morose little black nubbins and a desperate-looking slice of cheese. It is something of a challenge to eat.
Spaghetti alla Bolognese is also a bit of a dud: Although it boasts "hand minced steak" in a tomato, white wine and veal jus sauce, the unincorporated ingredients give it a pallid, greasy Hamburger Helper quality.
The kitchen does a much better job with a pretty bowl of pan-seared black cod piled high with a refreshing grape tomato and fennel salsa. Black cod is renowned for its ability to remain tender despite overcooking and here that quality is put to good use as the fillet is flaky and lush. A creamy, bacon-enhanced succotash gives the dish heft.
As you would expect, there's a serviceable steak frites - the steak's a bit tough, but flavourful in its dark, rich Roquefort jus - topped with a smattering of dark caramelized shallots and paired with some very good fries that would be excellent if only they were warmer.
Likewise, fanned-out slices of seared duck breast are chewy but rich in their slick of grand veneur (a red-currant jelly sauce sometimes enhanced with blood, although it isn't here). The insanely rich and savoury stack of Savoyard potatoes are excellent, but the steamed vegetables - baby carrots, broccoli and asparagus - are tedious.
While Crème Brasserie is certainly not the most exciting place to eat in the city, the pretty white-on-white dining room, gorgeous patio, dapper if perpetually confused servers and motley crowd go some way toward making up for the uninspired food.
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