In many a French neighborhood, there’s a corner hangout frequented more for its comfort than its kitchen. The food is good, but the ambience is the draw. Often, the place will serve as the unofficial cantine for neighbors and office workers in the vicinity.
For those who live near or work at the United Nations, one such restaurant is Matisse, a friendly little French place on 49th Street and Second Avenue. The tables are close and the cooking erratic but the staff is gracious and efficient, glasses of wine are seen on almost every table at lunch, and a pleasant buzz hovers in the room.
One of Matisse’s big attractions is the daily special, dubbed the “You Cannot Be Serious.” This three-course fixed-price menu is $19.99 and must be paid for in cash (you will be charged $5 extra for putting it on plastic). It is served weekdays from noon to 6 p.m. and after 10 p.m.
But is it really so unbelievable a deal?
On one recent visit I enjoyed a “Cannot Be Serious” lunch of a delectable buttery filet of sole accompanied by sautéed snow peas, carrots, corn kernels and onion slivers, preceded by a small and somewhat dry celery root remoulade and followed by an otherwise tasty pear tart whose crust had gone soggy. With an excellent espresso and a 20 percent tip, my bill came to $30.
My next “Cannot Be Serious” package pivoted on a flawed sausage and couscous plate. The meal began with a tempting-enough salad in a tangy vinaigrette and was capped by a flawless crème caramel dessert. But the main course delivered yet another serving of that same salad accompanied by lumpy couscous in an inappropriate brown sauce and a sausage that tasted like an American breakfast link rather than the zesty North African-style merguez you expect with couscous. (Merguez lovers can be certain of what they get by ordering the merguez-and-fries plate from the regular menu for $17.)
All in all, these were decent meals and a perfectly reasonable UN-neighborhood version of the traditional three-course meals found in your typical French neighborhood joint. Such meals are, after all, not known for their culinary brilliance but for their effort, honesty and value.
Attesting to its success in the eyes of its customers, the house is typically packed at lunch and dinner, so you’d be wise to reserve a table at both times.
The restaurant may be small but manages to seat 40 to 50 people inside and — when weather permits — another 20 at outdoor tables extending along 49th Street. The decor mixes wooden boards on the ceiling with a white-painted brick wall, black-and-white photos, old-fashioned clear-glass light bulbs and overhead fans.
The napkins are linen, the service is very attentive and the noise level is fairly conducive to conversation, including ones laden with gossip. If you eavesdrop, you’ll almost certainly hear foreign languages coming from the many nearby diners wearing UN ID badges. As one UN chief noted about Matisse, it’s the place to go to signal that you are having a very private lunch.
The regular Matisse menu, served at both lunch and dinner with the same prices, is quite broad in a traditional way and for the most part competently prepared. Alongside the three-course special appear such French standards as bouillabaisse, steak-frites, beef bourguignon, salade Lyonnaise, onion soup and croque monsieur. There’s also a selection of “So Not French” items, including a burger with fries, Cobb salad and fish and chips.
A full bar and an ample list of wines, most of them French, are offered as well. The wine is sold by the six-ounce glass ($7 to $14), the 16-ounce carafe ($18 to $39) or the bottle. If you’re feeling nostalgic, you can also quench your thirst with an Orangina or a bottle of Perrier.
Appetizers are $8 to $16 and main courses $16 to $32. The croque monsieur, available only at lunch, is $12. A separate brunch menu is served weekends from noon to 4 p.m., and live music on Saturday nights is played from 8 to 11.
Matisse is open Sunday through Wednesday from noon to 10 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. It is located at 924 Second Avenue at 49th Street. (212) 546-9300.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.