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Cottage Industry 

Even in the middle of summer, the little house with a tropical name works wonders with "cold weather" fare.

On the brink of Magazine Street's most boutique-intensive stretch, pushed up against a slender ledge of sidewalk that SUV-driving diners use as a parking lot, Martinique Bistro's yellow cottage appears precious -- maybe a little too precious when you're the one swerving to avoid that precariously parked SUV. But, like several cottage-like restaurants sprinkled around Uptown, Martinique actually harbors a desirable triumvirate of anti-pretension: an intimate, unfussy atmosphere; an informed and happy staff; and prices that even someone driving a humble sedan will find doable on occasion.

Plenty of well-located restaurants survive on such a triumvirate, but few of them last 10 years, as Martinique has, without a strong kitchen. Martinique's kitchen has the biceps of a live oak and then some, allowing no meal to pass without producing at least one unhinging dish. During dinner last August, for example, the stunner was the flat iron steak, still one of the best steak deals in town. A classic, beefy Diane sauce flatters the inexpensive but fashionable cut, which is as tender as filet mignon and as livery-rich as hanger steak when cooked precisely medium. In February, it was choucroute garni, housemade sauerkraut overlaid with a congeries of juicy, fork-tender meats: duck leg, pork loin, and smoked and Moroccan sausages. Last week, it was a caramelized onion and bacon soup du jour enlivened with sherry vinegar and thickened with the broken yolk of a poached hen's egg.

If the restaurant's tropical name and this northern European-sounding food seem at odds, it's in part because the menu has long had more French bistro inspiration than Caribbean; it's also because the original owner, Hubert Sandot, whose father was from Martinique, no longer directs the cooking. Sandot sold the restaurant late last year to restaurateur Cristiano Raffignone, giving Chef Kevin Reese, whose influence in the kitchen had increased over a five-year span, free reign.

Although you can see and taste sunshine in Reese's fruity shrimp and dried mango curry, he admits to an affection for "cold-weather foods." "I'll braise anything. I'll confit anything," he says of two techniques that require long cooking times and produce -- in his kitchen, at least -- succulent meats.

Having nailed the technique for braising lamb shanks so that the sweetly wild meat weeps from the bone with the slightest challenge from a fork, he entertains his dining audience with creative variations -- braising the lamb in Riesling, red wine or Guinness beer, and serving it with papaya, green olives or creamy white beans.

There's a lightness to even the darkest foods at Martinique. Like the works of every great artist, Reese's cooking has a distinct voice; you could pick his Diane sauce out of a lineup by the way an extra touch of lemon teases the darker flavors of Madeira and Worcestershire out of the shadows. A savory tart tatin appetizer involving shiitake mushrooms and dark, caramelized fennel levitates on a shimmer of tart vinaigrette. Seasoned with cinnamon, carrots and cocoa, a side dish of black beans (paired last week with overcooked yellowfin tuna) has the complexity of a Mexican mole sauce and an unidentified acidity that cuts through the thickness.

Alas, no amount of artistic manipulation could make a wintry Guinness-braised lamb shank -- or escargots basted in foie gras butter, or an oyster and chevre casserole -- pleasant summertime eating in Martinique's courtyard. (The few lighter fish dishes, such as the aforementioned tuna and the Riesling-poached salmon, would work in the courtyard, but I can't recommend them.) A fortress of green where the air hangs heavy with night jasmine, the garden patio is as spacious as the roughly 50-seat dining room, and more elegant. Servers don't encourage courtyard dining this time of year, but they do tolerate it, trotting out every few minutes to refill water glasses and make sure everyone still has a pulse.

Given the chef's agility with hibernation foods (long-cooked meats, sauerkraut, sausages), salads and custard-like ice creams are unexpected specialties at Martinique, and they make better matches for the steamy outdoors. Even when specific combinations are curious (like crabmeat with strawberries and blue cheese), the salad greens are always buoyant, the ingredients composed in thoughtful proportion and the dressings applied with merciful restraint. Barely moistened with lemon-Dijon vinaigrette, a crunchy chopped salad of bitter Belgian endive, tart green apple, sharp blue cheese and woodsy walnuts strikes a perfect symmetry of flavors.

Most desserts adhere to the all-American cake and ice cream model. As most of the former are bake-at-home basic, choose according to the dense and dewy ice creams. The world would be a better place if you could buy the Guinness, caramel and cappuccino flavors by the gallon -- at your corner grocery, say, at 3 a.m. Skip the often grainy, less flavorful sorbets. From its stylish Gruner Veltliner offered by the glass to several fine sparklers and Champagnes, the affordable wine list is the final argument for including this quietly excellent bistro in the highest category of Uptown restaurant gems. That said, Martinique is too accessible (open every night), too welcoming (warm yellow walls), too cramped (small tables) and too noisy (cement floors) to be categorically precious. Thank goodness.

click to enlarge Chef Kevin Reese of MARTINIQUE BISTRO serves up one - of his signature dishes, domestic lamb shank braised in - Guinness. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef Kevin Reese of MARTINIQUE BISTRO serves up one of his signature dishes, domestic lamb shank braised in Guinness.
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