One benefit of the Dine In Brooklyn promotion is its annual roll call of restaurants that have escaped my attention. Canaille, on the fringes of Park Slope, is an example of such a place. Though it's been around since October of 2007, I'd not heard of this Fifth Avenue French bistro previously. Its website, however, seemed rather appealing and gave all indications of being a safe $25 bet.
Some of Brooklyn's most popular eateries are fully booked before restaurant week even begins. Since Canaille (pronounced kuh·NYE) opens at 6:00 P.M. and does not accept reservations, I arrived early to avoid disappointment. Though my fears of competing for a table were unfounded, there was ample disappointment nonetheless.
For the better part of an hour, my Comestaccomplice and I had the entire bistro to ourselves. Although the (effectively) private dining room was pleasant, it signaled a problem. From what I could tell, the lack of customers was not due to the cooking or the décor. Rather, it seemed to all boil down to a single component: co-owner Philippe de Crespi, a native Parisian whose contemptuous arrogance is exceeded only by his bad attitude. His demeanor suggested annoyance with our presence. He appeared to be suspicious, nay, disdainful, of anyone temerarious enough to enter his establishment. Even the name Canaille (a pejorative term that refers to the riffraff or the unwashed masses) affords an insight into his regard for his clientele (or lack thereof). The friendliness of co-owner Marie MacLean, on the other hand, provided a warm antidote to her partner's disagreeable behavior. Her pleasant, nearly apologetic tone was not enough to overcome Monsieur de Crespi's insuperable imperiousness, however.
Aside from the aforementioned situation, there seems to be no reason for this business to be foundering. What de Crespi lacks in personality, he can almost offset with his cooking. With part-time assistance from Lyonnais Chef Christophe over the past year, the kitchen is in competent hands. Our meals were really quite tasty.
Philippe's background as a sommelier and his predilection for French wines are evident in Canaille's well-chosen, albeit overpriced, wine list. Except for the Domaine Saint-Vincent Brut NV (from New Mexico), every wine comes from France. Our choice of the crisp 2008 Jean Rosen Pinot Blanc from Alsace turned out to be a fine match for the courses to come.
Comprising two starters, three main courses, and two desserts, the Dine In Brooklyn menu was somewhat spare, and not all that representative of the bistro's regular carte. We began with complimentary southern French hors d'œuvre of garlicky tapénade and toast. Before we even had the chance to amuse our gueules, however, de Crespi asked us whether we were going to eat it. Franchement! Happily, we saw more of Marie than of Philippe the rest of the evening.
Having tried both available offerings, we felt that our starters lived up to expectations. Though my companion's Citrus Salad (mixed greens with orange and grapefruit segments, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) was fresh and appetizing, it was not much more than a good salad. My Carrot Cumin Soup was a better choice. Velvety, and tasting exactly as advertised, it's a dish I'd order again. Both starters were prepared well using ingredients appropriate to the season.
Our mains were somewhat mixed. While my Comestaccomplice's Tarragon Chicken Linguine (tarragon-braised fowl, pasta, and julienned carrots and zucchini) was satisfying, it was predictably ordinaire. (Perhaps she'd have fared better with the third option of Moules Frites.) My main course, on the other hand, was superb. Served atop a split pea purée, the Pork Butt Confit was mouthwateringly flavorful, succulent, and tender. The leguminous accompaniment to the pork's subtle seasoning was a succès éclatant.
For dessert, we were given the choice between banal and dull. Both of us rejected the Milk Chocolate Roll in favor of the Crème Caramel. The custard was just as we expected it to be—nothing more, nothing less.
To his credit, Philippe de Crespi turns out respectable comestibles. While I consider some of his dishes worthy of another visit, his demeanor is simply too deterring to warrant a return. Until he recognizes the extent to which his personality is militating against his success, it's improbable his bistro will thrive. How can any business prosper if it treats its customers like canaille?
Canaille Bistro Français
78 Fifth Avenue (between St Marks & Prospect Pls), Park Slope, Brooklyn
By train: 2,3 to Bergen Street
By bus: B63