238 Malcolm X Boulevard., Bedford-Stuyvesant
The techniques and traditions that inform French gastronomy are so equally entrenched in American food culture that we barely even register their presence anymore, whether we’re digging into a bowl of macaroni and cheese doused with béchamel or spearing bites of carrot cut into meticulous brunoise.
But as globalization goes both ways, there are also very few restaurants left in the city serving entirely unfettered French fare. You can currently find Spanish mackerel rubbed with charmoula on the menu at Café Boulud, and lobster and tarragon ravioli (a spin on classic thermidor) at La Grenouille. This makes Bed-Stuy newcomer L’Antagoniste—and its utterly faithful renditions of out-of-favor warhorses such as Blanquette de Veau, Tournedos Rossini and Duck á l’Orange—seem positively audacious. (Even more so because of its bathroom wallpaper, patterned with frolicking threesomes captured in various states of congrès sexuelle.)
Especially unlikely is its location: There are countless blocks in Brooklyn we’d sooner expect to spot persillade-daubed escargot and $2000 bottles of Bordeaux than on this bare stretch of Malcolm X Boulevard, previously populated by a 24-hour bodega and a neon-lit branch of Crown Fried Chicken. Then again, perhaps it’s only appropriate for a place that celebrates France’s social, political, and cultural “antagonists” with a floor-to-ceiling photo mosaic featuring humorist and activist Frigide Barjot, Charlie Hebdo founder François Cavanna, and one cheeky, incongruous addition: borough resident and New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells.
L’Antagoniste’s original menu was equally challenging, printed almost entirely in French—a tricky prospect for anyone who doesn’t know their Sole Colbert from their St-Jacques Meuniere. Potentially, the restaurant could have found itself constantly reenacting a familiar scene from one of those fish-out-of-water comedies, where the hapless American unwittingly orders frogs legs. They’ve since acquiesced with a few terse English subtitles, although it might not have mattered after all — perhaps because locals were already weaned on hyper-modernized iterations like Do or Dine’s Dr. Pepper-glazed amphibians? As such, almost every table seems to sport a plate of fine-boned Cuisses de Grenouilles, swimming in a grassy celery foam, atop a lily pad of potato and salt cod brandade. Popular too is a towering, eye-catching Soufflé Fromage: stinky compté cheese skillfully tempered with an exuberant froth of egg white, and delivered with a single silver spoon of tangy crème fraiche, meant for driving through the dramatically inflated middle.
As for the entrees, it’s like L’Antagoniste ripped a few pages from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; save for La Grenouille’s ravioli, when’s the last time you’ve even heard mention of Homard (lobster) Thermidor? But chef Frederic Robert makes a strong case for tradition, dressing a tender length of tail meat with butter, tarragon, cognac and mustard, accompanied by a swirl of fresh pasta, and a dollop of shellfish-scented fumé.
We’re not generally enthused by salmon, but the rosy fish is well served in Saumon à l’Oseille, swiped with a white wine beurre blanc brightened with citrusy leaves of sorrel, and deposited over nutty grains of Camargue red rice. And although it’s considerably more expensive at $25, Poulet Roti may inspire Crown Fried Chicken loyalists to take an occasional break from greasy joints of bird in favor of burnished hunks of juicy, roasted poultry blanketed in sauce forestière (made with cream and wild mushrooms) and served with a sinful scoop of potatoes dauphinoise (a cheesy gratin).
The defiantly Francophilic L’Antagoniste may not have the same far-reaching, socio-political agenda as its trailblazing heroes, but it’s definitely game for some culinary rabble-rousing in Bed-Stuy.