At the sweetly funky Onyx coffeehouse on Vermont, the art was bad, the tables mismatched, the coffee mediocre, and the customers more often than not scribbling away. Gone now, the Onyx has been replaced, in what seems a sign of the times, by the quietly lavish, sophisticated Figaro.
Lovingly furnished with French antiques, Figaro could have been lifted directly from the Sixth Arrondissement. By day its north door is open to a boulangerie and coffee bar featuring croissants, artisanal breads made with organic flour, and darn good coffee. A romantic old hand-painted, glassed-over ceiling of blue sky, fat clouds and cherubs is bolted overhead. This small room alone, with its dark wood and palm trees, great aromas and cheerful counterwoman, is a boon to the neighborhood. Smokers and other sidewalk aficionados can sit in classy red café chairs just like those cluttering St.-Germain-des-Prés. By night, via the south door, Figaro is a full-service restaurant, dimly lit by breathtaking chandeliers of green globes, hanging crystals and incandescent candles. An enormous antique mirror, spotted with age, presides over the dining room; the bar is zinc, the glass etched.
Figaro opened around the holidays with a lengthy menu in untranslated French, and French-speaking waiters with authentic attitude.
“Vin rouge, please,” said a friend of mine.
“What’s that?” said the waiter.
“Vin rouge,” my friend repeated.
“I do not understand.”
“Red wine, please,” said my friend.
“Ah, vin rouge!” said the waiter, at once triumphant and contemptuous.
From the moment it opened, Figaro was packed. It was overrun before the waiters knew the menu or the kitchen ran smoothly or the hostess knew how to book the room most efficiently. After a couple months, many of the bumps had been smoothed, but the food, as translated from the menu to the plate, was generally disappointing, and the wait staff still could not remember the glass of water, or the second glass of wine.
Some of the classic French-bistro fare was terrific: a fish soup with rouille and grated cheese, the Gruyère-topped onion soup, sautéed foie gras. Otherwise, the food was simply prepared — stewed chicken, grilled fish, fresh vegetables, appalling amounts of butter — and often served in magnificent copper pans. The entrées were pricey, belying the actual preparations, and it felt as if one were paying more for those fabulous copper pans than for their contents.
And then, in a remarkable moment of self-appraisal — rare in the restaurant industry — Figaro closed down. The doors were locked. The owners reconfigured the kitchen, the wait staff and the menu, and reopened a couple of weeks later with more tables even more tightly packed. In fact, looking at the unbroken lines of tables along the two banquettes recently, my first impulse was to flee. There was no privacy, no elbow room to cut your meat, and you’d be trapped on the bench, strangers on either side.
The menu, however, is simpler and more straightforward. There is a vague sense of capitulation to the generic bistro image: steak frite, coq au vin, crème brûlée. But the salads are vastly better, especially a colorful beet salad on arugula with walnuts, and one with goat cheese on fresh greens. The frisée and lardons salad, two-thirds of a classic lyonnaise, is beautifully dressed and served in a deep bowl; I wished for a poached egg, but still loved what I got.
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Entrées are clearer and fresher than before, the quality of the ingredients an obvious virtue: plump, juicy chicken breasts in a tarragon cream; a thick, tasty tuna steak judiciously grilled and served with a lemony house-made tartar sauce. The steak, encrusted with peppercorns, is a large, good cut of meat. Fresh vegetables, lightly cooked, no longer swim in butter. This is not remarkable food, but it’s decent bistro fare. Pot au crème de chocolat is made with good, deep dark chocolate, but the texture is grainy. The crust is soggy on an otherwise pleasant lemon tart.
If Figaro seems quieter and less ambitious than when it first opened, there is still definite improvement. Fortunately or not, it has established for itself an implicit goal: to be as delicious as it is beautiful. This may take some time, but the owners have already demonstrated an unusual and brave willingness to change.
1802 Vermont Ave.; (323) 662-1587. Open for dinner Tues.–Sun.; lunch and weekend brunch to begin soon. Full bar. Bakery open Tues.–Sun. from 7:30 a.m. Entrées, $15–$25. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: beet salad, frisée and lardons salad, steak frite, chicken tarragon.