There is a type of New York bistro that people like because it reminds them of other New York bistros. Some of the older examples of this type were built in imitation of actual places in the real France, but some of the younger ones didn’t go that far away for inspiration. They just looked around at Manhattan’s other bistros, brasseries and bistro-brasseries. (The line between the two, still sharp in France, has always been blurred here.)
The mismatched floor tiles, the distressed mirrors, the menus that invariably offer steak frites and soupe à l’oignon and salade niçoise — they get repeated and recycled until they lose whatever connection with France they once had. They may evoke fond memories of French meals, but most of those French meals were eaten in dining rooms built by Keith McNally.
Every once in a while, though, we get a New York bistro where you can catch the flavors of France. I knew Libertine was one of them as soon as I tasted the oeufs mayonnaise.
So common in French cafes and bistros that they are almost taken for granted, oeufs mayonnaise have never really caught on in the United States. In its classic form, the dish is essentially an egg salad that hasn’t been made yet: hard-cooked eggs, a crunchy vegetable, mayonnaise, The End. Max Mackinnon’s kitchen at Libertine doesn’t make it in its classic form — a good sign, because it suggests he isn’t copying a copy of a recipe from 1974.
The yolks aren’t pasty. They’re as smooth as jelly. Instead of the obligatory mini-salad, crunch is provided by a sprinkling of trout roe, tight little bubbles that burst against the roof of your mouth. The mayonnaise itself is creamy, airy, almost frothy, and flowing; it coats the plate like crème anglaise. It is as flattering a sauce as any soft-cooked egg could ask for, and it tastes completely French but not completely familiar.
Mr. Mackinnon and his business partner, Cody Pruitt, opened Libertine in May on a corner near the western end of Christopher Street in the West Village. The idea was Mr. Pruitt’s, as is the wine list, dedicated to noninterventionist French producers. (He also serves as the general manager of the natural wine bar Anfora, several blocks away.)
Stopping by my table one night to effuse about a winemaker in Burgundy, he said he’d tried to pattern Libertine on his favorite bistros around France, like Bistrot Paul Bert, Le Baratin and L’Ami Jean, whose cloudlike rice pudding is the model for the excellent one at Libertine.
Le Baratin and L’Ami Jean are often described in terms like “stripped down” or “bare bones.” You wouldn’t quite say that about Libertine, but it is spare by New York bistro standards. The walls are bare except for a Dalí travel poster, a framed Cy Twombly lithograph and a poster for