Harold Moore knows it well: it’s not the chef who makes the menu, it’s the customers. At his new French bistro Pierre Lapin (inspired by the character Peter Rabbit) in the West Village, this rule creates a few surprises. “I took the croque-madame off the menu because no one was ordering it,” says the American chef. “On the other hand, the eggs in aspic and the pig’s ears work well. This encourages us to go further with the menu.”
In a city where new restaurants try endlessly to push the limits of cuisine, Pierre Lapin appears to be an exception. Here, they are not “trying to reinvent the wheel,” as Julia Grossman, the partner and fiancée of Harold Moore, stresses. Instead, they are trying to recreate the great classics that found in French bistros. As well as the eggs in aspic, they serve escargots, frog legs, blanquette de veau, and scallops. “New York cuisine has gone so far in these past few years that patrons want to rediscover the classics that stand the test of time,” mentions Grossman.
“In high-end restaurants, when no one knows what you make, you can say anything to the customers about the dishes. But when working with the classics, it’s more demanding. The customers have expectations,” adds Moore.
This isn’t the first time that a young chef from New Jersey has taken an interest in French cuisine. After being educated on “white trash Italian food” like “spaghetti and meatballs in tomato sauce” and some time in culinary school, he started in 1994 at Daniel, French chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant. Here, he rubbed shoulders with stars-to-be like patisserie chef François Payard and American chef Mike Anthony. “Daniel had just opened. The kitchen was overflowing with talent. The opportunities to learn were limitless,” remembers Moore.
He brought the “discipline” and “precision” he learned at Boulud to the other restaurants that he went to work in: one year at Jean-Georges, then several experiences in France, notably at Taillevent and L’Arpège, then as executive chef of the famous French restaurant Montrachet in New York. After this last experience, where the 27-year-old was noticed by critics, he decided to abandon French cuisine. “The market was reduced to the high-class spheres of the cuisine. Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse came to New York and suffered. They fought each other for the same clientele.”
The gamble to move away from French cuisine was successful: he received a Michelin star alongside chef Wayne Nish at March, serving sophisticated American cuisine. In 2008, he opened his first restaurant, Commerce, and in 2016 he inaugurated Harold’s Meat + Three, a restaurant well known for its Southern food.
With Pierre Lapin, the Francophile makes his return to the universe of French cuisine. “New York is missing a relaxed bistro. The bistros are all influenced by the Balthazar model. Yet this has nothing to do with traditional bistros. We didn’t want a restaurant with tiled walls or leather seats,” explains Moore. To accentuate the traditional side, the couple recovered the walls with floral wall paper which reminds of “grandmother’s house” and filled the restaurants with objects found at flea markets in France.
On the mirrors behind the bar, the daily specials are written: pig ears, frog legs, veal kidney in mustard sauce, or goose breast in cherry sauce. “There are customers who think that it’ll be weird,” admits Grossman, “but when they realize that the quality isn’t lacking, they’re reassured.”