What is eggs Benedict?
790 Eighth Ave. (corner of 48th St.), New York 10019 (Upper West Side). (212) 489-2233. 1/2 to 86th St.
Pigalle, Pigalle, Pigalle. . . . What was Pigalle? Craving eggs Benedict, I was walking up Eighth Avenue in the upper eighties at noon, but all I found were diners (where the hollandaise is powdered) and Brazilian restaurants (where that sauce is nonexistent). On the corner of Eighth and 84th I found Pigalle, a new-looking 24-hour French bistro. Pigalle, Pigalle. It wasn't cheap, and there was a big brunch menu. Worth a try. Pigalle. . . . I'd heard the word before; it sounded notable. But it couldn't be. Hotel restaurants can be great, but this one was in a Days Inn.
Only after brunch did I remember the name of the Parisian red-light district. If the exterior of New York City's Pigalle didn't remind me of hilly streets filled with French hookers, the inside didn't either. There are stamped ceiling tiles painted the color of hollandaise, and frosted glass, and clear glass painted with the appropriate curvy typefaces. There's a long, decently equipped bar cranking out a dozen different brunch cocktails. But the clean, careful décor is a too-bland interpretation of a bistro, not a brothel. The recessed lighting and curved plywood and generic posters make you think of Applebee's, not whorehouses. The clientele are frumpy, blow-dried tourists from the hotel above, and there are few of them, filling only a fifth of the room.
But the room is warm and bright, and a magazine rack, though ignored, offers three dozen titles. The cute floor staff looks more sex-positive than the customers, and there are many of them -- buspeople pushing brooms and toting glassware, waiters replacing silver after plates are removed, and both constantly offering refills or replacements of drinks. A $6.50 mimosa had freshly squeezed juice but little champagne. A bloody Mary for the same price tops a bland mix with tasty Absolut Peppar and Citron. $2 coffee was good.
I decided to risk the steak tartare ($8 as an appetizer, $15 as an entrée), which I hadn't had since a September 2001 trip to Paris, where I saw fresh ground beef being eaten from rolled paper on the streets. Who was I to fear E. coli after dozens of eggs Benedict meals had proven salmonella free? It took a long time to come, which made for an awkward lull from the otherwise over-attentive staff. Steak tartare doesn't even need cooking; what were they doing in the kitchen? Sculpting: it turned out to be a delicious, perfectly edged cylinder of minced steak and garlic, chopped parsley, and tiny marinated cocktail onions, plumed with frisee and flanked by crunchy wings of potato chips cut into delicate lattices, and bordered by streaks of "pesto" oil. Well worth the wait.
The eggs Benedict ($8.50) was served on a large slice of toast and with grilled sandwich ham. But the bread was a flavorful semolina with a wonderfully thick yet sliceable crust, and the wide, thinly sliced sheets of ham were very good. Eggs were well poached and there was plenty of spicy hollandaise, topped with a garnish of sliced parsley. The accompanying potatoes with onion were disappointingly bland. A side order of bacon ($2) was greasy but hot and lightly cooked just as I like it, and generous in quantity.
My waiter touted a pear-and-almond tart for dessert, but it turned out to be too cold from too much refrigeration, and hard to cut. The almonds piled next to the pastry, rather than baked with it, were less notable than the unexpected accompanying scoop of ice cream.
Pigalle's near-empty, awkward chain-hotel ambience is no jam-packed scene, and its eggs Benedict doesn't come close to the best served on the Upper West Side, which is found several blocks southwest at Isabella's. But its big bistro menu has other French appetizers besides steak tartare, such as cheesy onion soup, terrine of foie gras, and a charcuterie plate. There are also alternative brunchy entrées such as croque monsieur, eggs cocotte (with chicken liver and cream), and a "breakfast croissant" scrambled with with bacon and Gruyere, all rare finds in most eggs Benedict emporiums. The food prices, if not the drink prices, are good, and there's so much service per person that you might wish that you were indeed in a brothel.
Rest rooms: A large, bright, and clean unisex single-seater, which would be far too little sanitation were the restaurant not underattended.
Cupping Room Café
Knickerbocker Bar and Grill
Corn Bread Café
Park Slope Brewing Co.
12th Street Bar and Grill