Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Where everybody knows your na-a-ame.

Ouest is one of those lucky Manhattan restaurants that has managed to become an institution by virtue both of location (in that there's practically nothing else like it in the area - not a huge feat in the West '80's) and the quality of its food. I've eaten there upwards of 30 times over the last three years, and the meals have never been less than very good, and have sometimes verged on excellent.

Over the last year or so, my favorite spot in this "restaurant and tavern" has been the latter: eating dinner at the bar (either alone or with friends) is great fun, particularly if you manage to linger late over a glass of wine. Around 11:00, the bartenders turn just a bit raunchy, the television is turned to AMC, and talk turns to old movies and slightly dirty jokes. (Do try and avoid the slightly skeezy older gentlemen customers who linger on weeknights, however - they managed to waylay a friend of mine for almost two hours back in December, when her faculties had been compromised by too much wine at dinner.) Settle back into your red leather bar stool and relax.

My meal last Saturday ended just that way. It started with an aborted attempt to eat pasta up at Celeste on Amsterdam and 83rd. The half hour-long wait (and no bar at which to pass the time) drove me and my friends Cristin and Paul down to Broadway to grab a drink at Ouest's bar. When we all ordered glasses of the Ex Libris Cabernet, the bartender suggested a bottle. An hour's drinking later, we had finally snagged three seats at the bar and opened our menus.

Ouest serves what may well be the best green salad in the city. Large lettuces mix with small in a generous pile (portions at Ouest are never less than big), lightly tossed in a red wine vinegar dressing, its tang softened by the salty, umami flavor of the Parmesan. The cheese is emulsified into the dressing, so it coats each green, making their surfaces just slightly rough on the tongue. I'm a sucker for a salad, and this is one of the best, hands-down.

In December, I started with the smoked duck and crispy egg, another strong choice. The egg arrives atop paper-thin slices of smoked duck, coated in a crispy batter. A poke releases the yoke, which oozes out slowly, moistening the dish. The egg's crunchy exterior contrasts with the duck's meaty texture, but the flavors, all rich, eggy smoke, meld together.

On both visits, I had the squab for my main plate. It's pan-roasted and served with a duck liver risotto. The squab itself is lovely - more delicate than gamy - and the risotto is rich and earthy, topped with crispy chanterelles that offset the creamy texture.

Ouest's menu is particularly heavy on the game (venison, squab, rabbit) and organ meat (liver, braised tripe), and is not at all vegetarian-friendly (though it boasts some very nice seafood plates). Overall, the food is rich and heavy - comfort food. This is not the place to come for a light meal - even the simple grills are imposing in size. The prices reflect the generous portions; dinner with wine has rarely run me less than $80 per person, though I find it's typically worthwhile.

And, toward the end of the evening, if you're an entertaining guest, my guess is that Sid or Dan will top your glass off a few times for your trouble.

2315 Broadway
Between 83rd and 84th Streets

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