Dirty French is to French cuisine as Marc Chagall was to the French tradition of art. In boldly and brashly referencing material far beyond the confines of the classic canon, the restaurant creates a serious meal that somehow feels much more charming, and much more fun.
I probably relate food to art far too much, but more often than not, the analogy fits. Conceptually, Dirty French is one of of the most ingenious restaurants to open in New York, for many of the same reasons that we praise post-modernist painters and thinkers. The rules of French cooking here are challenged with a confident bravado, the discipline of the classic cuisine pushed to include influences from Tunisia, Morocco, India, Vietnam, and even Louisiana. Dirty French imagines what French food would look like if the relationship between France and its post-colonial territories were more reciprocal, and the result is as instructive as it is inventive. These types of cultural statements and fusions are doubtlessly the most exciting aspects of contemporary art, and indeed, of this restaurant as well.
The Mille-Feuille bridges geographies in an enlightening display of technical dexterity, with thin, silky slivers of royal trumpet mushrooms layered, pressed together, and roasted, flaring the edges with a thread of crispiness. The buttery, almost noodle-like texture is then complemented with a fresh, green Thai curry that adds an additional energy to the dish. And it’s only the introduction to a meal that is so clearly French, but without all the trappings of tradition and formality.
Paradigms of French cooking are elevated with style, particularly in the Lamb Carpaccio, which takes soft, paper-thin slices of lamb and infuses the meat with flavors of spicy, aromoatic oil, eggplant, yogurt, lemon, and various fresh herbs. And it’s the most deeply flavorful treatment lamb has ever seen.
The main courses also look toward this diverse evolution of French food, where Duck à l’Orange is treated with ras el hanout, a Morocan spice blend with strong notes of cinnamon, cumin, clove, and peppercorn. Preserved mandarin oranges frame the irony, juicy piece of duck, whose extraordinarily crispy and salty skin crackles with every solid bite. The flavor of lime cornichon against the hangar steak in the Au Poivre also adds a refreshing vitality to a classic cut, proof that the seemingly unnatural, garrish, and outlandish combinations at Dirty French are actually enlightening and enchanting lenses through which we can look at French cuisine.
Unfortunately, the service at times can come off as anything but enlightened. While our waiter was only one of two in this city that have ever been able to understand my bivalve allergy without needing me to make a clam shape with my hands and list everything that comes in such a shell, the front of house is jarringly vapid and inexperienced. One hostess just seemed confused when she accidentally tried to seat the wrong party at the wrong table, awkwardly then bringing them back to the bar to wait even longer for their seats. It’s unfortunate that a restaurant this wickedly smart cannot seem to employ anyone with nearly as much thought and focus as those found behind the kitchen doors.
But once one gets past the few incompetencies in service, it’s clear that Dirty French is a stylish French bistro that has roared into New York with guns blazing, flashing glamor and arrogance with none of the pomp and circumstance that the old cuisine seems to require. It is a restaurant that embraces a radical way of thinking about French food, and the dining scene in the city is unequivocally better for it.