One of the most delicious ways of discovering the character of any big-city neighbourhood is by eating in its restaurants, since they often reveal so much about the locals and a full spectrum of their tastes. This was a thought that came to mind several times during a superb dinner at Frevo, an excellent new contemporary French eatery in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Everything about this restaurant is a suave and witty reflection of one of the world’s greatest urban neighbourhoods – that patch of southwest Manhattan where the rectilinear rectitude of the island’s street grid is relieved by meandering lanes and charming cul-de-sacs.
Intriguingly, however, this restaurant isn’t headed up by a native New Yorker but by Franco Sampogna, a very talented Brazilian-born chef who worked in France for many years.
And it’s tucked away, speakeasy-style, behind a miniature art gallery on Eighth Street that displays the paintings of French painter Toma-L – in fact, you enter Frevo through a door that’s hidden behind one of the artist’s canvases.
Once you arrive in the low-lit backroom, where there are 18 seats at a stone-topped bar and a chef’s table for six, you meet the hard-working and very charming young staff, who hail from France, Brazil and Portugal as well as nearby Connecticut.
In other words, it’s just the kind of diverse, creative, ambitious, international crew that is New York City itself writ large.
Settling in for the five-course $124 menu over a glass of champagne, we watched Sampogna in the open kitchen in front of us, and I marvelled at the balletic quality of a crew of chefs at work, since the most urgent element of any good meal, perfect timing, is so often hidden behind closed doors. Even though he’s only 28, Sampogna has already had a remarkable career, which began when he arrived in Nice to enrol in hotel school as a bright-eyed 17-year-old.
“I wanted France,” the chef told me with a smile. “And now I want New York.”
With his hotel-school degree in hand, Sampogna went on to work for a variety of great French chefs, including Fabrice Vulin at La Chèvre d’Or, Guy Savoy at his namesake restaurant, and Alain Ducasse at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. “France gave me the perfect tools for my career. But New York is the place that has really set my creativity free,” he added. Sampogna is indeed strikingly creative, but he’s also very subtle, as was displayed by the first course: a delicate, almost angelic, composition of crabmeat, curry and broccoli topped with Kaluga caviar.
Next came a charming dish of baby peas and crushed pistachios under a cloud of coconut foam – a nod to the cooking of Sampogna’s homeland, where coconut milk, meat and oil are common ingredients. Does this sound simple? It was, but the ecstasy of simplicity is the most difficult goal to accomplish in the French kitchen. And yet our next dish, Hudson Valley foie gras with dried figs, apricots, pistachios and fine ribbons of nori, was just as nimbly elegant and deeply satisfying.
My favourite was the halibut with braised fennel bulb in a fennel-seasoned jus, a sublimely refined dish that showed off the chef’s young culinary muscles. Colorado lamb with cracked wheat, roasted tomato, lamb caillette and yoghurt foam followed. The meal concluded with a refreshing composition of lemon, lime and almonds. Suffice it to say that a new generation of French-trained chefs like Franco Sampogna are renewing the superlative credentials of French cooking, not just here in New York City but around the globe.