Second Avenue near the United Nations is not exactly expense-account row, which makes Château 49 something of an anomaly, in more ways than one. There aren’t many spots in this area where you can order two glasses of red wine at high noon without apology, tuck into slow-cooked coq au vin and relax over lunch without once having a complete stranger announce, “Hello, my name is Jacques, and I’ll be your server today.”
In France, servers keep their distance. Here, too, where you’ll find not only faithfully rendered French fare but also one of the owners discreetly refilling glasses and whisking away plates at a pace that suggests style over efficiency.
So not whisking exactly. If you’re in a hurry and expect that fat, perfectly cooked brisket-and-filet-mignon burger to fly out of the kitchen in a New York minute, dripping with Brie and nicely caramelized onions, all sitting on a brioche-style bun that someone took the time to toast, this place is not for you.
Château 49 may not have white tablecloths at lunch, but this year-old resto and wine bar on Second Avenue at 49th aspires, as the French say, to being correct. And that means you must take the time — and spend the money — to do more than simply refuel.
Small wonder it is becoming a getaway for the UN diplomat crowd, like the group we spotted one recent midday taking a much-deserved break as they murmured over their $25 prix fixes.
While the atmosphere is low-key, the kitchen is skilled. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the prettily plated rose-pink raw tuna appetizer, the creamy low-rise quiche Lorraine, the tender, blood-red filet mignon, a salade Niçoise made with fresh tuna or a jaunty lamb shank that had been simmered for hours in a rich red wine sauce with carrot and baby onions before being dropped onto a bed of couscous — protein is a French thing. But how about a vegan dish featuring spiralized zucchini and pureed avocado that was so tasty we ran home and tried to replicate it?
Château 49 rose from the ashes of Matisse, which served as a neighborhood anchor and as an unofficial clubhouse for a number of UN officials until it closed unexpectedly last spring. Château 49 will have to work to gain the same neighborhood traction — prices, while not crazy, are on the high side for Turtle Bay, with main courses $19 to $34; lighter choices like cheese and charcuterie plates, tartines and salads $11 to $19; and nearly a dozen appetizers $6 to $19
But let’s give a loud merci for a daily happy “hour” that lasts from noon to 7 p.m., with five wines at $7 a glass and three beers at $5 each. And how about a cocktail of the day like the Boulevardier, a variation on the Negroni that uses bourbon instead of gin and costs only $11 when ordered in the afternoon? (And now, monsieur, we recommend a nap.)
The best deal in the house may be the $25 three-course prix fixe, for lunch only. The appetizer options during our visits included pâté de campagne, served with slices of baguette and cornichons, and a tartine de tomate, an open-face sandwich starring chopped yellow and red cherry tomatoes and lots of minced garlic, served with mixed greens and an excellent house vinaigrette.
Prix fixe mains included moules-frites (steamed mussels and skinny French fries), the house — er, Château — burger and pâtes à la forestière (pasta in a mushroom and cheese sauce). Desserts included Château beignets (French donuts) and a flawless crême caramel. We also sampled the apple tart, which wasn’t on the prix-fixe menu and found it oddly bland.
The decor is spare, with vintage posters hung along a white-painted exposed-brick wall. Lunch doesn’t get busy until after 1 p.m. and even then allows for easy conversation. The dining room seats 32 on comfortable wooden chairs at heavy wooden tables, and there’s room for seven at the bar. Outdoor tables with bistro-style chairs wrap the corner of Second Avenue and 49th — should weather and traffic permit.
Adding to the French atmosphere is the presence of the co-owners, Rrok Tanaza and Florianne Bako, who double as the restaurant’s waiter, host and bartender.
Château 49 is open Monday through Wednesday from noon until 2 a.m., Thursday and Friday from noon until 3 a.m., Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m., and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. at 924 Second Avenue at 49th Street; (917) 261-6022.
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.
Deborah Baldwin is a veteran editor and writer, most recently for This Old House; previously, she was an editor for The New York Times, working on the Style section and other parts of the newspaper. She and her husband, Irwin Arieff, wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s.