Chouchou: A Romantic French-Moroccan Rendezvous

Hidden behind a sultry, unmarked storefront, Chouchou is easy to miss, but impossible to forget. No sign or lights mark the way to this secret corner.

Gaining its name from a French phrase that acts as a term of endearment, best likened to “darling,” the restaurant has plenty of critical praise and positive press despite its unassuming façade.

I can honestly say that Chouchou a place I would never have found if I had not been invited to a private tasting dinner.

Its Moroccan menu primarily offers two sets of either meat or vegetables: tagine and couscous. It looks very limited, but between the execution and the parade of familiar Mediterranean appetizers, it’s a charming and engaging journey. Executive Chef Meryem Michra is talented at all the classics, but also has plenty of twists in store.

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Hummus, baba ganoush, pita, and shakshuka all make an appearance here. I found them simple yet well executed in the standard fashion.

The most exciting of the appetizers were large deviled eggs filled with paprika and other spices. Mostly known as being a European appetizer, Chouchou’s version has plenty of personality. They were creamy and smooth with a lightly peppery yet satisfyingly umami flavor that contrasted with their cool temperature. They served us three halves that I would have gladly devoured all by myself. When a fellow diner admitted they were allergic to yolks, their portion found a most happy home in my gullet.

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Amongst the entrees, I was most impressed with the chicken and lamb tagines.

The chicken tagine was pleasing in both appearance and flavor. Its golden skin was streaked with crimson. Chef Meryem told me she bastes it with herbs then cooks it in the olive sauce before baking the flavor into it again. The result ends up being moist morsels of mainly dark meat encased in a crispy cocoon of skin.

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If it weren’t for the bones, I would have thought the lamb was more liquid than solid. It slid off that easily. Served with plump apricots and prunes sweet as candy, it was a savory, refreshing oasis devoid of gamey toughness or bitterness.

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For dessert, we enjoyed some tiny almond cookies and other assorted pastries. With hints of aromatic spices between each breaded bite, I felt a bit like I was carried on a desert wind.

I would like to give special mention to the green tea, which was poured in the traditional, flashy Moroccan fashion—from a great height. It acted as the perfect palette cleanser between courses and very much both woke me up and welcomed me with invigorating doses of sugar. It was so lively and refreshing I opted to skip out on the wine in favor of more of that sweet, sweet tea.

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Between the meat, the tea, and those luscious deviled eggs, Chouchou is definitely a restaurant I hope to revisit. For now, it will remain in the shadows, but seldom does a secret spot like this stay that way for long.

Chouchou

Address: 215 East 4th Street (Between Avenues A & B)

Website: http://www.chouchounyc.com

Phone: (646) 869-1423

Hours:  5:30 PM-12:00 AM Midnight from Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Mondays.

Sel Et Poivre Revisited: The Game Festival

Three years since visiting and reviewing Sel Et Poivre, I was invited back to taste some new and varied offerings on the restaurant’s traditional French menu.  The restaurant was busy and lively as ever with a surprisingly packed dining room for a chilly winter Tuesday night.

For the rest of February and well into March, Chef Christian will be serving a variety of rarer meats as part of the restaurant’s annual game festival. In addition to classic French fare like duck, steak, and veal kidneys, you can expect wilder visitors such as venison, quail, and even antelope!

The meal started with two game sausages: one made of pure venison and the other a mix of venison and wild boar with cheese and jalapeno peppers ground in for extra flavor. I had never tasted venison before, but had heard that it can taste quite gamey when not hunted or prepared properly. Gamey flavor, often described as musky or pungent, and tougher texture come from meat being left out for a time after hunting.

The venison sausage I tasted was salty and filling with flavors that reminded me a bit of spiced lamb though the texture was a little bit firmer. The wild boar variant was both peppery and a little sweet with a mouth feel that felt lighter and more traditional for sausage.  I would not call myself a game enthusiast quite yet, but I found the pure venison sausage to be pleasant and different in an earthy way.

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Venison Sausage and Venison and Wild Boa Sausage

 

Next I tried the escargot, which was slathered in garlic butter and parsley, a classic combination. It was a delightful appetizer bursting with succulent juiciness, savory flavor, and a light spring breeze of herbs. The texture of the snails was melt-in-your-mouth rather than chewy–delicate enough to make me forget what I was slurping!

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Escargot in Garlic Butter and Parsley Sauce

The third course was both the simplest yet the most enthralling for me: a creamy red pepper bisque. With a kiss of cream and a dollop of potato, the dish had a wonderfully viscous texture whilst still remaining relatively light and frothy. I cannot stress enough that I really dislike bell peppers, but I adored this soup. The dish carried the full-bodied summer aroma and sweetness of the pepper, but bolstered and grounded it with a rich swirl of cream and salty potato. I’m sure Chef Christian could work wonders with any vegetable, but this seasonal bisque special was a total treat for me.

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Red Pepper Bisque

The first main course we tried was cod served on a bed of lentils. Despite an intense aroma of fish stock around the dish, I found the fish flaky, light, and just right in terms of saltiness. Covered in cream and garnished with little peppery punches of mustard seed, the lentils made for a strong and filling contrast as a side.

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Cod and Creamy Lentils

The second main course we enjoyed was quail stuffed with goat cheese in a port wine sauce. The quail was delicate with crispy,  seared skin and savory meat without a trace of gamey flavor.  Quail is a bonier, smaller bird than chicken with more delicate morsels of meet. The sweet, slightly acidic sauce mingled beautifully with the billows of melted, salty-tangy goat cheese nestled within. It was served with wild rice and pureed sweet potato that balanced out the decadence nicely.  I’m told you get a pair of quail to gobble down when ordering off of the regular menu!

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Quail Stuffed with Goat Cheese, with Wild Rice and Pureed Sweet Potato

 

We began dessert with the smoothest creme brulee I’ve ever tasted. It was garnished with a perfectly ripe raspberry. I only wish it had been topped with more.

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Crème Brûlée

Following that was an incredibly fluffy apricot crepe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Chef Christian attributed the meticulous, eggy delicateness of the crepe’s thin layers to a simple flick of his wrist. The apricots were warm and spiced, melted down to a heavy syrup that had been expertly drizzled over the crepe to impart their flavor without leaving it soggy. It was a dazzling yet wonderfully understated dessert.

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Apricot Crepe with Ice Cream and Mint

My second visit to Sel Et Poivre was a forest full of flavor. Between the game animals and artful arrangement of fruit and vegetable flavors, at times I felt like I was enjoying courses from the king’s last hunt at a medieval court feast.

Sel Et Poivre

Location: 853 Lexington Avenue (Between East 64th and 65th Streets)

Website: www.seletpoivrenyc.com

Phone:  212 – 517 – 5780

Lunch 12 PM-4 PM on Mondays through Fridays

Dinner is 4 PM-10:30 PM on Mondays through Thursdays, 4 PM to 11 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, 4 PM-10:30 PM on Sundays.

Brunch is 12 PM-4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays.

The game festival runs until mid March!

Le Village: Liberty, Equality, Uh Gluten-Free?!

The mere thought of French food conjures up decadent dreams of heavy cream, warm pastry, and juicy duck confit for me, so naturally, I was surprised at the sound of a restaurant that achieves all this and more. Le Village is a French restaurant nestled within the East village that specializes in vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes while still catering to customers who appreciate hearty meat dishes. While there isn’t a selection of wine or drinks here, the restaurant is BYOB with no additional fee (limit one bottle of wine per two guests), a rarity for the area.

Le Village’s store front is tiny and unassuming, almost blending in with the rest of the quiet block. I’ll admit I almost missed it while walking down the street, but once inside, I found a culinary experience I enjoyed immensely.

Le Village’s owner, Chef Didier Pawlicki, served us a dazzling array of options with several French classics, some original creations, and even a few surprise courses.

In addition to Le Village, Chef Didier also runs two other French restaurants,  La Sirene and Taureau.

In addition to Le Village, Chef Didier also runs two other French restaurants, La Sirene and Taureau.

The French Onion Soup was a bubbling molten cauldron of Swiss cheese over a light vegetable broth. The cheese formed a beautiful golden-brown dome that bubbled over the soup itself. Despite the deluge of cheese, I did not find the dish too salty as the slightly sweet flavor of the onion broth balanced things wonderfully. In terms of texture and flavor, it was one of the best french onion soups I’ve ever tried, and a tremendous portion for an appetizer. Chef Didier also offers a gluten free version that swaps out the bread in the middle.

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French Onion Soup

Next, Chef Didier brought us a surprise course of Foie Gras au Torchon. It was a classically smooth and creamy pate complimented with sweet jam and honey over bread. At first the bread seemed a little fragile, but combined with the spread, it made for a rich, flavorful bite that literally melted in my mouth–a treat I won’t hesitate to order again.

Foie Gras Au Torchon

Foie Gras Au Torchon

The Beet Carpaccio Salad was a welcome vegan reprieve after its luxurious predecessors. I’ve never been very fond of beets, finding their sweetness unsettling in a vegetable. Yet dressed up with red wine-infused raisins and crunchy almonds, the course was a lot more tasty than I had expected.

Beet Carpaccio Salad

Beet Carpaccio Salad

Royan’s Ravioles a la Creme followed, the menu aptly describing them as “sensual.” Little fluffy pillows filled with Comte cheese (think Gruyere but stronger and sweeter) and herbs drenched in surprisingly light heavy cream and garnished with an earthy slice of black truffle, they embodied everything I adore about French cuisine, though I had never tried French ravioli before.

Royan's Ravioles a la Creme

Royan’s Ravioles a la Creme

My inner child has always despised Brussels Sprouts, but Chef Didier’s unique take on Brussels Sprouts pleasantly shocked me. Fried and glazed in balsamic vinegar to the point of caramelization and tossed with ripe strawberries, they tasted like morsels of candy rather than veggies, and I happily devoured them–definitely the first time I have ever done that with Brussels Sprouts.

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

For our first main course, we sampled The Coq Au Vin, a traditional stew of chicken, red wine, bacon, mushrooms, and potatoes. The braised meat came off the bone cleanly, moist and tender soaking up the dark brown gravy. One of Le Village’s few dedicated meat dishes, it guarantees that carnivores won’t be left out.

Coq Au Vin

Coq Au Vin

The following main course was a vegan Cassoulet, a thick stew comprised of beans, potatoes, and a trio of mushrooms (Shiitake, Oyster, Portobello). The Portobello was smoked, almost giving it the texture and flavor of meat. Definitely a worthy alternative to the Coq Au Vin for vegetarians!

Cassoulet

Cassoulet

Continuing the trend of alternating vegan and non vegan dishes, we tasted the Gnocchi Parisian au Gratin, another creamy pasta dish with truffles. Slathered in a Mornay sauce and covered in swiss cheese, the gnocchi was like heavier the ravioli’s bulkier older sibling. Chef Didier has dubbed it “The French Mac and Cheese.”

Gnocchi Parisian au Gratin

Gnocchi Parisian au Gratin

Our last main was the Choux-Fleur Roti, a roast head of cauliflower served with sautéed greens and sweet potato over quinoa. By then I was close to stuffed so I took a small nibble of the cauliflower (which was gigantic). I really appreciated the quinoa which came with a zesty sauce of pureed red pepper.

Choux-Fleur Roti

Choux-Fleur Roti

For dessert, Chef Didier ambushed us with four homemade sweets: Banana Brûlée, Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cream and Ice cream, Apple Tart with Ice Cream, and Coconut Sorbet topped with Prunes. Of these, I enjoyed the Banana Brûlée the most. It added a sweeter, tropical twist to one of my favorite French desserts.

Banana Brûlée

Banana Brûlée

Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream and Whipped Cream

Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream and Whipped Cream

Apple Tart with Ice Cream

Apple Tart with Ice Cream

Coconut Sorbet with Prunes

Coconut Sorbet with Prunes

Ever since going to Europe, my cravings for French food have been intense, and at Le Village, I’ll happily gorge myself downtown with the peace of mind that what I’m eating is delicious, yet a little bit more healthy than other bistros.

Hours: Le Village is open from 5-10 PM on Sundays Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and 5-10:30 PM on Fridays and Saturdays.

Address: 127 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Website:  http://levillagenyc.com

Telephone: : 1-212-539-0231