“This is my little baby,” Ricardo Valdez said with an excited grin, opening the door to his brand new bar on Orchard Street. A former floor manager at one of New York’s premier French destinations, Ladurée Soho, Valdez capered off with Chef Johann Giraud (who has a truly jaw-dropping internet 1.0 web-xistence), to launch their own take on the old world. The result: Excuse My French, an irreverent tapas bar dedicated to all things Francophone.
The small slip of a place serves as a nice complement to the Tenement Museum across the street. It does seem, oh shall we say, “authentic”– stepping inside definitely felt like we’d been transported back to the 1920s, and shipped across the Atlantic (the same trajectory, perhaps, that many New York bartenders took during Prohibition). In tribute, the cocktail menu features French classics from the first half of the 20th century, including a few American classics.
“I thought the Sidecar was very American,” explained Valdez, who said he spent hours pouring over the Savoy cocktail book and researching online to come up with the menu, which includes brief historical summaries for each drink. “But during Prohibition a lot of the very good New York bartenders moved to France, and they remained.” And ok, so Valdez isn’t going completely old fashioned on us– he’s reserved places for both vodka (perhaps to make the oligarchs feel comfortable?) and Mezcal (at the risk of appearing not-hip).
All the wines are sourced from France, and the menu includes creative nods to other French drinking traditions as well: variations on Kir Royales mixed with homemade syrups, like lavender and Forget-me-not; a Pastis service that combines the cloudy, anise-flavored liquor with grenadine or mint syrup.
At the far end of the bar, Giraud holds court with an electric stove. “Usually the kitchens are hidden or downstairs or you never see them, but he said ‘Oh, I want to be able to talk to my guests,'” Valdez explained, gesturing to his business partner. “You can see it’s tiny, but he works his magic there.” For such small working conditions, the menu’s range is pretty impressive. It’s all based on French classics, but conceived of in small shareable plates, tapas style. Of course there’s the obvi cheese and charcuterie plates, but there are also creative interpretations on classics like foie gras lollipops, Cajun chicken tagine, and a whole cauliflower head cooked in mustard and cheese.
Valdez, who grew up in Mexico but has always been a Francophile, said he wanted the space to feel like a French grandmother’s cozy, elegant home. Sometimes the decor veers into how “French” is presented by the tourist mongers who hang along the Seine,
dabbing at Chinese replicas “painting” landscapes– the walls are lined with replicas of French impressionist painters like Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, and the back area is surrounded by a painted-over bookcase, a few books thrown on the table for effect. And the theme never quite lets up: in keeping with the Belle-Époque vibe, blue and gold damask wallpaper lines the wall.
“I always loved this area. I thought we need to do something kind of classic– it’s the era,” Valdez said. “There’s something very, je ne sais quoi about it.”
Excuse My French is located at 96 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Open Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 pm to midnight, Friday through Saturday, 4:30 pm to 2 am.