By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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By Zachary Fagenson
A burgundy stream of Cavia Malbec cascades into a short-stemmed snifter and stops abruptly as our waiter snaps the bottle upright. Lifting the glass to eye level and looking closely at the lower, liquid-filled half, I see a convex reflection of Buena Vista Bistro's 24-seat room: black-topped tables lining the left and right sides of the floor, with a central swath of polished concrete floor for waitstaff to traverse; a wall adorned with a multitude of small black-framed photos and letters; the opposite, mirrored wall fancifully scrawled with the carte du vin; and to the right of that, the wines, racked above a small counter toward the rear. A pass-through slot to the kitchen, a chalkboard menu, and a TV screen take up the back wall. As I slightly lower the glass and peer through the upper, empty portion, I notice the person seated across the table. Her face is somewhat distorted by the convexity, but it's clear she isn't happy with the curry chicken in front of her.
Not discernible via my wine-tinted reflections are a smattering of outdoor tables and an impression that the petite rectangular space has been lightened and rearranged in a way that makes it appear twice as large as it was when the restaurant A occupied it. No disrespect to the block of NE Second Avenue between 45th and 46th streets, but the view afforded from this restaurant might be grimmer than that of any other Buena Vista bistro or café in the world.
Mala vista notwithstanding, this is the sort of unpretentious place a Parisian expat such as Claude Postel (chef and co-owner with wife Callie Bienvenu) might feel comfortable in — and that locals from the neighborhood have already made their home. It's easy to gauge the appeal when sampling a sassy starter such as Provençal-style escargots, sautéed to tenderness with olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Scallop carpaccio proved a winner as well — the shellfish disks thicker than expected but sumptuously soft and sensational with a simple mist of olive oil and lime. Lobster bisque was decent, if not especially delicate or creamy.
On one visit, slices of pre-dinner baguette were crusty on the surface from either age or poor storage, but a crabcake appetizer provided us with more than enough starch filler. The patty — sized and shaped like a half-pound burger — was characterized by the sort of sage-ish seasonings and mushy, bread-dominated feel that suggests crab-flecked turkey stuffing. A small clump of salad greens on the side was dressed in vinaigrette, but a similar swath of leaves accompanying a thick wedge of homemade duck pâté arrived naked (the cornichon count, however, was undeniably generous).
A dozen or so blackboard entrées include a few each of meats, fish, poultry, and pastas; three or four nightly specials are posted on a smaller board. The priciest pick listed is rib eye steak/frites ($25), which we thriftily mimicked via an order of four lamb chops ($15) with a side order of fries ($4). The meat was tastily seasoned and deftly cooked to requested medium-rare — although it might be noted that two double-chops provide twice as plush a pleasure as a quartet of singles. Fries were fantastic, of medium heft and crafted from fresh potatoes (avoid the seemingly second-class ketchup that heaves from the Heinz bottle). The frown-producing curry creation included strips of chicken breast, marginally moistened and barely curried, woven among chunks of yellow squash and apples.
Service is as good as the waiter you get — which of course is always the case, but the range of competence spreads wider here than other places. A couple of servers were consistently in sync with the diners, while others appeared to be focused more on what was on the TV screen than on the tables. For example: The aforementioned main courses were described on the board solely as "lamb chops" and "curry chicken," which prompted us to request sides of French fries and ratatouille, which was terrible. An even mildly attentive waiter might have offered that the chops come with mashed potatoes (milky-soft) and a ratatouille-like squash-and-tomato sauté, and that the chicken dish is likewise flush with squash .
On a different night, a sauté of squash, tomatoes, and bell peppers alongside snapper meunière was impeccably prepared — and the fish was likewise flawless, a fresh fillet bathed in sweetly browned butter brightened by bites of lemon and parsley. Upon taking a first bite of duck magret in green peppercorn sauce, I thought the meaty slice of breast had been accidentally crusted with cayenne. Wowza! The piquancy came from an overly zealous application of the sauce's namesake pepper, which dominated the tamely flavored bird. Fusilli alfredo flopped in the opposite direction — a bland Parmesan sauce atop overcooked noodles.
Wines are mostly French and, other than a short list of reserves, very affordable — in the $25 to $50 range (glasses $4 to $9). Buena Vista's food prices, too, are not only friendly and forgiving but also lovable and absolving: appetizers $10 or less, most entrées $10 to $18, sides $3, and desserts $4.
An apple tart would have titillated had it not been texturally tortured by microwave. Sliced apples capping the pie and the thin buttery crust below became elasticized, and the delicate attributes of custard in between were clouded by steam. A scoop of vanilla ice cream gets paired with the tart and also fills a duo of puff pastry profiteroles capped with chilled chocolate. Coffee was so horribly old and bitter that I can't imagine it tasting any worse had it been filtered through Jacques Chirac's jockstrap.
As optimists mull over their Malbec, they might think of Buena Vista as a laid-back neighborhood bistro that boasts basic bonne femme fare at bohemian prices. Those who reflect on the entirety of the glass, however, might conclude that the food could be much more consistent.