A retro-chic steakhouse conjures 1930s France.
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Not nearly on a “black street,” as its French name translates, Rue Noir stands on well-lit Route 22 in the building that was Loukas’ L.A. (Last American) Diner until Hurricane Sandy ripped off its roof. Nik Renieris, a Loukas family member, now manages the property and has turned it into a steakhouse.
“My concept was steampunk—a style that reflects the industrial look of 1930s France,” he told me on the phone after my visits. “People could go to these backstreet or blackstreet places to relax, raise their hemlines and be themselves.”
Renieris used to own steakhouses in Florida, but that hasn’t helped Rue Noir transcend its diner genes. The renovation added some handsome details. But the chromed front door, low ceilings and diner-style booths fight the desired image. With offerings like Thai shrimp, Moroccan chicken and curried eggplant, the menu seems conflicted as well.
Our first surprise was discovering that the menu is all gluten free. Our nervous young waitress nonetheless asked if any of us avoids gluten. One spoke up, and we received a plate of baked polenta along with, oddly enough, a loaf of regular bread. Unfortunately, both were dreary. (Renieris, also Rue Noir’s executive chef, said his family has eaten gluten free for years. His older son has a wheat-flour allergy.)
A generous and fresh Caesar salad piled with shaved Parmesan had a house dressing that tasted no better than bottled. Though Renieris insisted, “nothing frozen, everything fresh,” a shrimp cocktail was rubbery and a crabmeat cocktail bland. Fresh, tender, rice-flour-crusted calamari came with lackluster sauces. House-cured salmon carpaccio was pale in color and flavor. Much better were fresh clams steamed in a flavorful wine broth, and perfectly cooked shrimp in a creamy, Pernod-laced, tomato-based sauce. Grilled mushrooms stuffed with flavorful Boursin cheese were rich and satisfying. French onion soup was tailored to the American palate, with a big hunk of bread under a choking mass of cheese. At least the broth was tasty.
Filet mignon, ordered medium, came rare. When we asked to have it refired, the waitress speared it with a fork and escorted it to the kitchen on a small plate, leaving my sides cooling and looking forlorn. It returned at the right temperature, but lacked the flavor you expect of a steakhouse cut, even one as mild as filet mignon. A duck breast stuffed with forcemeat showed good, if dated, French technique. Braised beef tips, roast free-range chicken and steak frites reminded us of competent diner food we wouldn’t have minded eating at diner prices. Classic steakhouse sides of creamed spinach, mac and cheese, and potatoes au gratin lacked the finesse and flavor that make these calorie bombs worth indulging in.
Rue Noir does not have one of those showcases in which huge layer cakes and cream pies rotate, adding to the gaudy fun of so many diners. Yet the desserts we tried conjured that world of childlike fantasy more than the French sophistication Renieris seeks. When you enter dark and inviting Rue Noir, you dream of so much more.