Touboul moved the 5-year-old La Cigale from Atlantic Avenue to its just-off-the-beaten-path location this year, dropping the "Brasserie" and adding a tag line: "A taste of the Mediterranean." Presumably the change reflects the chef's heritage (Farid Oualidi, who was sous chef at the old place, is Moroccan); it also speaks to Touboul's astute grasp of the zeitgeist. With the exception of French and Canadian tourists, we don't go to French restaurants much any more, happy as we are, occasionally, to eat Gallic. "Mediterranean," a style of cuisine now as ubiquitous as the euro, sounds like sunlight and marine breezes wafting over acres of artisanally cultured vines. And, somebody or other says, the food makes you thin.
True, true. You'd have to eat an awful lot of jumbo steamed artichokes cored and filled with sherry vinaigrette ($10) or blue-point oysters with mignonette sauce ($12 for a half dozen) or tricolor roasted pepper salad with anchovies, capers, and balsamic vinegar ($11) to pack on any serious poundage. The lighter-than-seafoam foods of the Mediterranean appeal to 21st-century moderns, I think, as much for their ethereality as anything else we can eat without eating. And maintain, along with our svelte thighs and toned bellies, the illusion that sun-ripened tomatoes are still lovingly hand-picked by cheerful, wizened farmers on some Tuscan hillside, that moules are still sold by the bushel in charming seaport towns. At any rate, La Cigale has held on to a few of the saucy French delicacies served in their previous incarnation (the foie gras; snail and wild mushroom casserole, $9; sweetbreads with chanterelles, $10; Dover sole, $36) while taking on the Med-inflected tomatoes and fennel bulbs, braised artichokes and asparagus tips, the morels and the pink, curling slivers of prosciutto. Chef Oualidi has developed a few dishes with a Mideast or Greek accent as well Moussaka ($18), roast duck with dried fruit, almonds, basmati, and spices ($22); an antipasto platter that includes hummus, grilled halloumi cheese, kalamata olives, stuffed grape leaves, roasted peppers, and paté de campagne with cornichons ($16).
We've been to dine twice. The first time, a busy Friday night, we slouched at the bar with complimentary cocktails because our table, reserved for 7:30, wasn't ready. Unlike some other chichi joints I won't name, the staff at La Cigale actually treats a reservation as a thing to be honored. The fact was, the middle-aged ladies enjoying their demitasses and dessert at the table designated for our party weren't going anywhere fast. We stood nursing our drinks a few feet away, eyeing their fruit tarts and sniffing their coffee- and Chanel-scented aura like basset hounds while they gossiped and preened, two plump, oblivious partridges. But their waiter certainly wasn't going to hurry them along he knew better.
Somebody eventually found us another table, with graceful apologies, and that was all right. We'd been able, anyway, to check out the scene. La Cigale is two mellow rooms done up in flame-colored walls with exuberant ovals in jewel tones that hang in the air just under the ceiling, like multicolored plates thrown up by an efficient juggler. There are similar ovals behind the bar that change color slowly, so the alteration of hues seems subconscious. There's a list of martinis that come in jewel-tones too, like the "Med-tini" ($12), a satisfying, sweet-tart cocktail made with pomegranate juice, clear and bright and cold as liquid garnets. A guy near the door played flute and saxophone and did what he could with Bill Withers and UB40 lyrics. The clientele ran the gamut from A to B: well-pulled-together ladies of a certain age, four-tops of chic septuagenarians, generously tailored businessmen, and young dudes who looked like any second they planned to drop to one knee and present little velvet boxes to their simpering dates. (Thank God it never happened.) Somewhere, somebody was celebrating a birthday. And if a corseted female wobbled a little on too-high heels and too much gin, there was always a polite waiter at her elbow to steady her.
We had the foie gras, twice, and it was wonderful both times. It's pan-seared, drizzled with a sweet cassis reduction, balanced on a slice of buttered, toasted brioche. Both times too, our waiters were confused by a request for a wine recommendation with the foie and offered Sancerre. Then somebody thought better of the idea and brought us a sweet Muscat (once) and ice wine (the second time). The service here is good but a little tentative our waiters acted like very competent understudies who had suddenly been called on to replace "the star." When we asked them for menu specifics, they'd answer firmly, with bravado. But there was a quiver of hesitation behind the eyes.
We had big, bold, beautiful salads ($13 for endive, $12 for arugula) that almost made up in presentation what they lacked in flavor. Arugula salad with prosciutto and shaved parmesan was ruined by tough or wilted leaves. The endive was better edgy, bitter flavors cut with the smoky blue notes of gorgonzola and earthy walnuts, with occasionally a tart, blush-colored grape (I didn't find the pears, though, listed on the menu). A dish of fresh calamari softened in a bath of escarole and white wine and bitingly hot, sour cherry peppers ($10) was stimulating.
The pommes frites that came with my aged, 12-ounce Chairman's Reserve strip steak ($34) may go down in my personal history as some of the best potatoes I've ever eaten. If it hadn't been social suicide, I would have stuffed my jowls with big, salty, oily handfuls until the last fry was just a memory. They're cut very thin and fried crisp, and nothing else gets in the way of their total deliciousness; they're just fine forked up with the steak drippings, and I'm sure they'd be heaven with ketchup. I wish the steak had been as perfect but only some of it was. Parts were rare and melting, other parts tough and fatty (so tough they could have served it with a hacksaw). Rack of lamb ($27) with tiny cipollini onions, caramelized in their sweet juices on a bed of sautéed Swiss chard, was better meat for the money. We had also a rather dry, roasted half duck that, if it had been cooked more carefully, would have been divine with the exotic dried fruit and spice-infused rice it was served with, emanating whiffs of the Orient.
We were happy with seafood feuillette ($22), a gentle dish of sautéed sea scallops, shrimp, delicately julienned carrots and zucchini, and mild, buttery champagne sauce. My favorite entrée, though, was pan-seared branzino ($23), a Venetian sea bass of mild and melting flavor, accompanied by fennel that had been braised, oven-dried Roma tomatoes whose flavorful juices had condensed to a sweetly pungent paste, and a dark, salty olive tapenade. It was a meal to make me remember why I love fennel (I went home and roasted some of my own the next day) and how well its light licorice flavors complement fish and tomato. And its spirit was oh so Mediterranean.
None of us was particularly thrilled with the desserts a cappuccino cake ($7) and a mousse cake ($8) that were so similar, I wondered about the dollar difference in price. They tasted as if they'd been made well ahead and frozen. Monsieur Touboul tells me they're made in-house, but in that case, they might think about hiring a pastry chef, because Chef Oualidi evidently has other things on his mind than the consistency of his mousse. If you go, you'll be happy with thick black coffee and a sweet liqueur. I was, and will be next time too.