The problem with sequels is that they follow a successful first act. People
arrive at the new venture hoping that whatever they loved about the original
will be cloned and whatever they didn’t will be miraculously improved
upon. Inevitably, some expectations are met along with a few disappointments.
Fans of Neil Ganic’s now-defunct La Bouillabaisse who follow him
to his new Bouillabaisse 126 may need a few minutes and a glass of wine
to adjust to his latest cafe’s streamlined digs.
The original cafe was an anomaly when it opened on Atlantic Avenue in
1993. At that time, the street was known for its antique shops, not dining.
Patrons who entered Ganic’s French bistro, with its one dark, narrow
dining room decorated with French flea market clutter, felt like they
had discovered a secret bistro-salon where conversation was lively and
the food, well, that was an experience.
Bouillabaisse 126, which opened in December in the Columbia Street Waterfront
District, has two largish rooms. The front dining area (with one brick
wall and another painted in golden swirls) has brightly striped banquettes
and a noisy open kitchen. On a lower level is an airier room with the
bar and tables covered in blue-and-white checked tablecloths. Beyond that
is a lovely garden that makes an ideal setting for Ganic’s dishes
which his loyal followers will find basically unchanged.
Also unchanged, to some diners’ delight and others’ frustration,
is the super-sized blackboard carried from table to table, on which each
day’s menu is written.
On that blackboard, you’ll find the sweet, wine-poached pear with
its wedge of Gorgonzola cheese and his super-sized, crusty crab cake among
the original appetizers, and of course, his signature saffron-tinged bouillabaisse
is on the menu, still as lusty as I remembered. What will please carnivores
is the addition of more meat entrees that are just as homey and expertly
prepared as his seafood.
Ganic has always had a way with light, beautifully balanced salads. On
a recent warm evening he served lightly steamed asparagus, grilled red
peppers and slices of slightly bitter endive sprinkled with chunks of
Roquefort and served with a ring of basil-laced dressing. This salad was
salty, sweet and nutty. What could be more appropriate on a spring evening?
His crab cake is thick and dense with sweet crabmeat, and I enjoyed the
three petite dots of creamy aioli (mayonnaise flavored with garlic and
red pepper), hot mustard and ripe tomato salsa that partner the cake.
And that bouillabaisse. Whether it’s the real McCoy is open to debate,
as bouillabaisse is one of those dishes that varies from region to region.
Here, great bowls of the fish stew are placed on the kitchen’s counter
every few minutes, waiting to be whisked to a nearby table where diners
say, “Wow.” In a deep bowl is half of an entire lobster, big
sea scallops, plump shell-on shrimp, plenty of mussels and a chunk of
cod fish in a delectable saffron-scented broth. Each morsel of seafood
is cooked perfectly and that lobster meat is as sweet as any you’d
find in a lobster shack in Maine.
But what makes the stew really sing are the slices of crisp country bread
smeared with rouille. A bite of that garlicky toast, soaked with the briny
broth, is sigh inducing.
In a cafe known for great seafood, why order meat? Because at Bouillabaisse
126, it’s just as good. The filet mignon, usually a bland piece of
beef, was rich in flavor, crusty on the outside and really rare (as ordered).
It arrived with simple mashed potatoes and leeks julienned and sauteed
in butter. Lovely.
Desserts are standard bistro fare: creme brulee, fruit tarts, a chocolate
souffle and bread pudding. The bread pudding is studded with moist yellow
raisins and the texture is light, but it’s too dull to eat more than
a few bites — even with the stingy spoonful of blueberry sauce and
the big puff of unsweetened whipped cream.
The cafe’s thin sliver of lemon tart, served without adornment, is
as rich as a bake sale lemon square. It’s very good, but its solo
presentation looked forlorn. A couple of ripe berries or a dollop of fresh
whipped cream would enhance its taste and give its appearance some needed
Ganic and his cafe are truly New York stories. Where else would you find
a Yugoslavian-born chef cooking French food in what was once a mostly
Italian enclave? What else can you say but “merci”
Bouillabaisse 126 (126 Union St. at Columbia Street in the Columbia
Street Waterfront District) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Entrees: $10-$19.
The restaurant is open daily for dinner and serves brunch on Saturdays
and Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm. For reservations, call (718) 855-4405.