True cuisine à la campagne on the Upper West Side and a homage to the humble cassoulet – 8/10
I walked into La Sirène (80th and Amsterdam) on a very quiet Wednesday lunchtime with every good intention of only having a quick $26 Restaurant Week lunch before wandering across Central Park to The Frick Collection. Unfortunately, the waitress cunningly handed me the full menu as well and, after two minutes scanning the list of seductive southern French dishes with increasing lust, my curiosity got the better of me. The idea of a quick lunch had flown right out the window and was now firmly lodged in a drain somewhere on the far side of Amsterdam Avenue. I ordered a glass of Château la Cardonne Cru Bourgeois Médoc 2009 and settled in for the afternoon.
The menu at La Sirène is a gastronomic tour of the south of France and almost every item is accompanied by a cute little quip: the Gnocchi Parisienne au Gratin are defiantly “from Paris, not Italy“; the Onglet Poêlé à la Luchonnaise is “signature, not found in NYC or anywhere!“, which I can well believe as I’ve never even heard of it; and the Moules proudly declare “we don’t do French fries, but we have excellent bread with it“. Clearly Didier Pawlicki, the chef and owner, has a passion for tradition and a sense of humour, both of which are transferred to his unpretentious and thoroughly enjoyable food.
The only other diners when I arrive are two sixty-something ladies who lunch – both glamorous, one clearly recovering from chemotherapy. They cheerfully slurp French onion soup and talk loudly about cancer, death and lost friends, as The Show Must Go On plays over the restaurant’s speakers. Later, a photographer or journalist joins us and tries to negotiate the Restaurant Week menu with the waitress. “Do you have any vegetarian options?” he asks. “Yes, there’s the Comté-stuffed ravioli, the Croque Madame…” “Oh sorry, I don’t eat dairy,” he adds. “Ah, so you’re vegan?” the waitress asks. “Umm, kind of, but I eat fish.” She pauses for a moment. “Ok, let me ask the chef what we can do for you. Would you like anything to drink in the meantime?” “Yes, I’ll have a third of a glass of wine and make sure it’s organic.” Poor girl. I order a second glass of wine and smugly look forward to my meat-filled lunch.
A beautiful steak tartare arrives, topped with half a cherry tomato, a slice of radish and a magenta pansy. The steak is very finely minced and the mix of spices and pickles is just enough to teasingly tickle the tongue without being overpowering. Little slices of heavily toasted French baguette are the perfect vessel for scooping up the meat, although I should have asked for some butter.
I won’t even try to explain all of the various stories about the origins of cassoulet. Instead, I will just recount my favourite story with the caveat that it is likely to be a complete fiction. The curious among you can read a little about the etymology and history of cassoulet in these two articles: one by Clifford Wright and another from 1992 in the New York Times.
The apocryphal legend tells that, during the Hundred Years’ War, the besieged and starving residents of Castelnaudary prepared the first cassoulet using the only ingredients they had to hand, in order to nourish their soldiers and rouse them to defeat their English attackers (which, of course, they duly did). Fortunately for the rest of the world, those ingredients just happened to be beans, sausage, lard and confit duck (or sometimes goose). Fast-forward about 600 years and there are only three main variations of cassoulet: the original Castelanaudary, the Carcassonne (often using partridge or lamb) and the Toulouse (sometimes adding pork skin or mutton in addition to the local sausage).
To show you how serious the locals are about their cassoulet, one Carcassonne chef, Prosper Montagné, expressed it as follows:
Le Cassoulet est le dieu de la cuisine occitane. Un Dieu en trois personnes: Dieu le père est celui de Castelnaudary, Dieu le fils est celui de Carcassonne et le Saint-Esprit qui est celui de Toulouse.
The cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. One God in three persons: God the Father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the son, that of Carcassonne and the Holy Spirit, that of Toulouse.
Regardless which type of cassoulet you are looking for, one thing is for sure: the best cassoulet will never be found in a restaurant. It will be found gently simmering in a rustic French kitchen, steaming up the windows and keeping out the winter’s cold, waiting for Laurent the farmer to come home from a hard day’s toil. Somewhere a faithful dog will be patiently salivating, hoping for some juicy scraps. Stories abound of the “same” cassoulet being kept on the stove for 15 or 20 years, nourishing generations of farmers, the beans, meat, lard and water being refreshed on a daily basis.
La Sirène’s interpretation of cassoulet involves cannellini beans, whole plum tomatoes, carrots, garlic duck confit, a fat slab of American bacon and Toulouse sausage, served at the table in a cassole brimming – nay, overflowing – with juices and sauce and topped Toulouse-style with crispy breadcrumbs (known as a “chapelure“). As I break the crust and start to spoon it out into a separate bowl, the pungent aroma of garlic erupts out of the pot – surely strong enough to keep the island of Manhattan safe from vampires for the foreseeable future.
The beans are perfectly cooked: firm enough to stand up to the rest of the ingredients, soft enough to have absorbed a lot of the cooking juices and meat fat. The Toulouse sausage – usually boiled before being added to the stew – is packed with garlic and herbs. The confit duck is rich and flavourful, falling off the bone with a gentle tug of the fork. Crispy duck fat is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but the skin here is soggy, so I take it out. Altogether it’s a sublime concoction, just as good as any I’ve had in the south of France and even more surprising that it can be found on the Upper West Side of New York City.
La Sirène is one of those places that would be easy to overlook if you were walking past it in search of dinner. From the outside, it is a relatively understated building with low net curtains and a side entrance on 80th Street, but this belies the homely, self-confident cooking taking place within. If I had more time in New York, I would have returned to try at least five or six of the other southern French delicacies on the menu.
A hearty lunch for one (plus leftovers) cost $76, including wine, and is thoroughly worth it. There is a second location on Broome Street in SoHo and Didier Pawlicki also owns a fondue restaurant called Taureau in the East Village.
A Moveable Feast