Tour de Tartes Flambees NYC
Strasbourg may not ever be the first choice for budding Francophiles considering their study abroad choices or a first foray into the land of cheese. Paris will always symbolize all that is sexy about French culture, while Lyon has built up a reputation as a foodie mecca, and smaller cities like Montpellier offer a glimpse into the charms of the countryside.
With its long history of being tossed back and forth between French and German possession, the region of Alsace has developed a unique personality within the Hexagon. It’s often caricatured as the unrefined cousin of other regions. This is no doubt due to the influence of German on the local dialect and heavy fare such as sausage, the infamous choucroute (meat-adorned sauerkraut) and muenster cheese.
But the culinary stylings of Alsace are not to be underestimated. As a student in Strasbourg, a weekend rarely passed without a stop at Au Brasseur, an artisan brasserie packed with communal tables and annoyed French servers. The centerpiece of the menu was the Formule – Tarte Flambées a volonté (unlimited!) with a pitcher of craft beer for a mere 12 euro. A recipe for hours of snacking and revelry.
What’s a tarte flambée you ask? Also known by its Alsatian name, Flammekeuche, it is a sort of meant-to-be-shared pizza or flatbread, distinguished by a thin and crackery crust, and toppings of a crème fraiche/fromage blanc mixture, thinly sliced sautéed onions, and finely chopped bacon or “lardons”.
Since my arrival in New York, I’ve relentlessly sought out an authentic and unpretentious tarte flambée. New York being New York, there are a handful of attempts out there and I’ve come across the good and the bad. They’re also notoriously hard to find (a random Chow.com thread mostly directed my journey). So, for future tarte-seekers, here are my very personal opinions on what NYC has to offer, accompanied by previously promised mediocre photography:
W.53rd between 5th and 6th, $14.00
The influence of Chef Gabriel Kreuther’s Alsation roots make the Bar Room menu a standout against other upscale French offerings in the city, and is certainly not lost on the tarte flambée. Larger than several other equally pricey small plates, it was easily shared between four of us. Although a tad too rich due to an overabundance of crème fraiche, the blend of sweetness, smokiness and tanginess was spot on. But in this trendy locale, you can hardly stick with just a tarte and overpriced cocktails, so I would reco this as a special occasion tarte to kick off a special occasion meal.
1136 First Avenue at 62nd street, $12.00
This café/wine bar/ grocery is one of my favorite places to meet friends for a casual weekend lunch and pick up a package of Prince cookies (Frenchie has been known to finish a packet in under three days) or a tube of crème de marron. They serve several tarte variations, but I stick to the “Authentique” – which, technically, is a “Gratinee” as they add gruyere to it. Lunch-sized, their version is filling and tasty. The onions here are caramelized, which ups the sweetness, but it’s well balanced by the lardons. Best if enjoyed in the quiet backyard garden that makes you forget for a moment that you’re in Midtown.
2665 Broadway at 101st street, $12.00
The tarte at this neighborhood-y Alsatian restaurant way uptown (or so my downtown friends would say) was a pleasant surprise, if not entirely on target. It was visually promising with appropriately sized lardons and pools of crème fraiche. At first bite, I thought I’d found the one. However, the addition of herbs created a mildly strange aftertaste and although we couldn’t put our finger on it, my accomplice, a Strasbourg veteran herself, and I deemed the crust not quite right. Still, the welcoming bistro feel makes Picnic a nice option for a glass of wine at the bar and perhaps a pre-dinner tarte.
238 Madison at E. 37th street, $13.00
The French banter between the bartender and the manager seemed like a good sign when I settled in at the bar of this small restaurant in a rather barren part of Midtown. While service was great and I enjoyed that they served Kirs, the tarte was uninspiring. The overall effect was bland – my guess was an inadequate amount of crème fraiche. Although the crust was light, crispy and had a cracker-y texture, far too much of it was topping-less and it hardly satisfied my craving.
1695 2nd Avenue at E. 86th Street, $9.75
I had high hopes for Café D’Alsace but was most disappointed by their interpretation. Though reasonably priced, the small, square flatbread was far from authentic. The “crème fraiche” tasted more like sour cream and lacked the creaminess of the real thing, while the crust was too thick and too chewy, putting it squarely in the pizza family. And the saltiness of the bacon – chunky, dry pieces, rather than juicy lardons – overwhelmed the dish.
This post will inevitably be updated in the near future, as it seems the Alsatian gods have heard my prayers. Just a few weeks ago, an Alsatian with the same frustrations opened up La Tarte Flambee on the Upper East Side – a resto devoted to the specialty and even offering an unlimited option! Needless to say, I’m itching to try it out.
Is there a tarte hiding out there worth trying? Let me know!
PS: Many thanks to Frenchie and the friends who have agreed to be dragged across town in the ongoing search for the perfect tarte flambée!