We knew it wouldn’t be long before a fun French vibe returned to downtown
By Mary Kate Hogan
When you first spot Le Penguin with its charming white-and-cobalt-blue exterior, flowering window boxes and seemingly classic French menu, you may be tempted to make comparisons. This lovely bistro, which took the place of Restaurant Jean-Louis, might remind you of an elegant café you visited in France—that’s the first impression our dinner guests had as they recalled their driving trip from Avignon to Bordeaux. My mind went to St. Barth’s, where we once had dinner at a colorful little spot that also had an animal motif (a turtle). Of course, you could compare it to its fabled French predecessor, and Le Penguin will appeal to Jean-Louis devotees, but it’s more casual and lively, the type of place you might eat at several times a month. By the end of our dinner, however, we concluded that while the restaurant transports you, it’s really an original with a distinct personality well-suited to modern Greenwich.
The interior, designed by Lynn Morgan, is smart and crisp with a few quirky touches. Orange grasscloth walls warm up the space; mirrors enlarge the intimate dining room and maps of Paris add a sense of place. This restaurant seems playful thanks to its mascot, the singing penguin with top hat, bow tie and martini in hand, who appears around the dining room. He’s etched into the glass on the door, sketched on the craft paper that covers the tables, and greets you at the entry, a giant stuffed animal. The penguin’s musical side is a reference to restaurateur Antoine Blech, who co-owns the place with Anshu Vidyarthi and is also a singer and musician. At command in the kitchen is his son, Adrien Blech, who is turning out faithful versions of French favorites—hello, steak frites!—while also putting his own stamp on things. Touches of modernity appear in such dishes as a crispy black bass served with wild quinoa.
On a recent Thursday night, we started with a grilled jumbo shrimp that’s lightly herbed and served with greens, julienned carrots and crispy radishes in a light sherry vinaigrette. The menu description noted shaved fennel and I didn’t taste any of the herb, but the dish was still a refreshing opener. We had to order the Assiette de Charcuterie (meats and pâté), which are artfully arranged on a wooden board like a painter’s palette. The house-made pâté has a very mild flavor; it’s paired with the requisite toast slices, grainy mustard, cornichons and a relish; thinly sliced prosciutto and salami fulfilled our salt craving. Mussels can be prepared in a saffron cream or a white-wine-shallot broth; we opted for the latter and they came out in a large glass bowl served with a little tin dish of toasted bread for dunking. These tender fruits of the sea were immersed in a broth so flavorful that we devoured every one—and this was a sizeable portion, plenty for four to share. If you’re a fan of frisée salad, don’t miss this one. The poached egg on top was cooked just right so that the velvety yolk spills out over the greens and the lardons have a distinctly smoky flavor; they’re made from Nueske bacon.
With the spot-on service here—waiters and waitresses glide between the closely spaced tables with efficiency, yet never make you feel rushed—we were soon enjoying our mains. Everyone at the table wanted another bite of the Dijon Crusted Colorado Lamb, three thick loin chops lightly coated with mustard and herbs on a bed of white beans with a Provençale. Fresh rosemary and dollops of grainy mustard complement the tender pink meat (we ordered medium). Steak frites is a dreamy version served with a metal pitcher full of a rich and silky Bordelaise sauce; yes, you may wind up dipping those crispy frites right into the sauce. We also tried a special that we would happily order again: a succulent slab of swordfish over a bed of tender vegetables—green beans, spinach, young carrots and peapods—in a colorful pool of saffron beurre blanc. Grilled organic salmon topped with crispy onions is served over buttery whipped potatoes and asparagus in a citrus emulsion that’s laced with a bit of spice; a fresh and satisfying combination.
A most special dessert here is Ile Flottante, the “floating island” of poached meringue topped with nuts and traces of caramel all over a crème anglaise vanilla sauce. That meringue seems to melt away in your mouth (like a refined cotton candy), making the dessert light and ethereal, perfect after a filling meal. For a not-so-sweet ending, try the blueberry fromage blanc, a refreshing French-style yogurt with fruit. Not wanting to miss our favorite French sweets, we had to taste the lemon tarte and chocolate mousse; both are outstanding, the chocolate is laced with Cointreau for a lovely touch of orange.
With its blend of inspired cooking and stylish-but-relaxed atmosphere, this new hot spot seems equally suited to special occasions and everyday celebrations. Whether you feast on three courses of classics paired with a vintage Bordeaux or you stop in for salad, mussels and beer, the table is set for bon repas.