There is a type of New York bistro that people like because it reminds them of other New York bistros. Some of the older examples of this type were built in imitation of actual places in the real France, but some of the younger ones didn’t go that far away for inspiration. They just looked around at Manhattan’s other bistros, brasseries and bistro-brasseries. (The line between the two, still sharp in France, has always been blurred here.)
The mismatched floor tiles, the distressed mirrors, the menus that invariably offer steak frites and onion soup and Niçoise salad — they get repeated and recycled until they lose whatever connection with France they once had. They may evoke fond memories of French meals, but most of those French meals were eaten in dining rooms built by Keith McNally.
Every once in a while, though, we get a New York bistro where you can catch the flavors of France. I knew Libertine was one of them as soon as I tasted the eggs mayonnaise.
So common in French cafes and bistros that they are almost taken for granted, eggs mayonnaise have never really caught on in the United States. In its classic form, the dish is essentially an egg salad that hasn’t been made yet: hard-cooked eggs, a crunchy vegetable, mayonnaise, The End. Max Mackinnon’s kitchen at Libertine doesn’t make it in its classic form — a good sign, because it suggests he isn’t copying a copy of a recipe from 1974.
The yolks aren’t pasty. They’re as smooth as jelly. Instead of the obligatory mini-salad, crunch is provided by a sprinkling of trout roe, tight little bubbles that burst against the roof of your mouth. The mayonnaise itself is creamy, airy, almost frothy, and flowing; it coats the plate like custard. It is as flattering a sauce as any soft-cooked egg could ask for, and it tastes completely French but not completely familiar.
Mr. Mackinnon and his business partner, Cody Pruitt, opened Libertine in May on a corner near the western end of Christopher Street in the West Village. The idea was Mr. Pruitt’s, as is the wine list, dedicated to noninterventionist French producers. (He also serves as the general manager of the natural wine bar Anfora, several blocks away.)
Le Baratin and L’Ami Jean are often described in terms like “stripped down” or “bare bones.” You wouldn’t quite say that about Libertine, but it is separated by New York bistro standards. The walls are bare except for a Dalí travel poster, a framed Cy Twombly lithograph and a poster for Serge Gainsbourg’s “You’re Under Arrest” album featuring mug shots in which he looks every bit as dissolved as you’d hope. Also hanging around the room are several blackboards, the only menus you’ll get.
There’s probably enough empty space between the tables and the zinc bar for a couple to dance a tango on the tiled floor. In part this is because the two-tops are small. For two people with big appetites, they may be too small.
Then again, it’s not unusual here to see two people making a meal of three appetizers. Try this at L’Ami Jean and the servers might look at you the way they would if you were thoughtfully chewing on your napkin. But you won’t stand out at Libertine if you and a friend work your way through, let’s say, a scallop gratinéed in the shell (velvety leeks underneath, the scallop in thin slices that are barely warmed and slick with seaweed butter) and steak tartare (hand cut, seasoned with laserlike focus, topped with fried shallots and, superfluously perhaps, a soft-cooked egg) and a simple green salad that is an absolute model of the form (with lots of fresh tarragon and chives and flaky salt, dressed in savagnin vinaigrette by somebody who knows how to make vinaigrette).
There’s another appetizer to consider, the lobster stuffed cabbage. This is essentially a seafood sausage, with chunks of lobster suspended in a sweet scallop mousse. A leaf of tender cabbage serves as the skin that holds it all together. It wouldn’t be out of place on an Alain Ducasse menu, although Mr. Ducasse would probably serve it with an American sauce that takes two days to make. Mr. Mackinnon simply surrounds it with crème fraîche, then spoons leek oil over it.
You could also eat a single appetizer followed by a single main course, strange as that sounds in New York these days. The main courses, though, don’t hit their marks as often as the appetizers. The kitchen has a habit of overcooking the monkfish. The roasted half golden chicken, or golden chicken, is named for the bright yellow fat under its skin, supposedly the result of a steady diet of heirloom corn that an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania feeds it. It was one of the most flavorful chickens I’ve ever tasted. With a little more salt, especially on the skin, this half-chicken could be worth its $64 price.
Is the duck a good buy at $72? It comes in two installments, a small gratin of confit under potatoes and a separate plate of sliced breast with pepper. Both are good, and the breast is so very good that you might just hand over your wallet and say, “Please take my money.”
Or maybe your head is more level than mine. In that case, there is the $29 sausage puree. Lying on a bed of potatoes is a single curved link of pork sausage, seasoned with garlic, cooked until it’s pink, and as juicy as a ripe peach.
It would be great with a $50 bottle of Brouilly. There’s one on the list for $75, among the lowest numbers in a sea of three-figure prices. Libertine’s heart may well be in France, but her real estate is still in the West Village.
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