The Delachaise has played a particular role for so long it's easy enough to peg the place. It's that stylish bar with upscale food served late, a spot for nights when you want smart cuisine — and don't mind paying for it — but want something more relaxed than the trappings of a conventional dining room. I've used it as the rallying point for after-parties, for instance, and as that first hungry stop back in town from the airport.
That's still the Delachaise, but in the three years since chef R.J. Tsarov took the helm, it has transformed gradually from a bar with a well-known kitchen into something that feels like a bistro with a booming bar business. Now, even on a busy weekend night, most people holding down tables have spreads of plates and bowls before them.
They nosh on flank steak bruschetta smeared with aji, a Peruvian sauce somewhere between aioli and chimichurri, or golden, silver-dollar corn cakes topped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and salty bursts of black caviar. Moreover, they're ordering complete entrees, like Tunisian-style chicken tagine or a recent special of manchego gnocchi topped with pork ragu that tasted like an Italian tribute to cochon de lait. People still come to the Delachaise exclusively for drinks, or to unabashedly hit on or be hit upon. But it seems for everyone making eyes at people along the bar, two more are studying the cheese list.
Tsarov's transformation has occurred by dialing down the food from the high-flying ways of his predecessor. Chef Chris DeBarr put the Delachaise on the foodie map before taking his intense, obsessively detailed cuisine to his own shop, the Green Goddess. DeBarr had grown-up grilled cheese sandwiches and fries cooked in duck fat on his menu, and these dishes remain standbys at the Delachaise. But he also was known to roll out specials like foie gras bonbons or to orchestrate elaborate degustation menus.
Tsarov has steered the food in a direction more universally accessible. The "Bangkok-style" shrimp Clemenceau, with perfectly taut shrimp, mushrooms, peas and potatoes in a curry base, shouldn't seem far out for anyone familiar with Thai food. And the lomo saltado, a frequent special, only sounds exotic until this Peruvian comfort food classic reveals itself as stir-fried steak with fries.
Diners order at the bar, vying for attention from bartenders who are frequently very busy pouring drinks. The kitchen staff later seeks out customers with armfuls of plates. It seems no one is directing service, so orders alternately come out very slowly or with no break between courses. Don't expect standard dining room service.
Such are the common dilemmas at the swelling ranks of bars serving restaurant-quality food these days, and the Delachaise has been working through them longer than most. But anytime the outcome is a plate of Tsarov's wickedly spicy remoulade frog legs instead of another basket of Buffalo wings, it will seem like a happy hour to me.