At L’Accolade, a new French restaurant and wine bar in the West Village that focusses on natural wines from small producers, laissez-faire service meets passionate oenophilia. The level of freaking out about wine was high during a recent happy hour, when a man who was already a regular (L’Accolade opened in June) sampled a white and declared, “If I was blinding this I’d be screaming Muscat.” The ponytailed bartender, who had poured himself a taste, too, said, “It is, in a way.” What that might mean is anyone’s guess (there was no Muscat on the list), but they seemed to be having a great time.

Dreamy French pop seeped through the speakers while two other men intently analyzed a bottle of sparkling Le Petit Beaufort (“A hundred per cent Chardonnay,” one of them said, in awe) and a couple of snacks. These delightful little dishes, available for eight dollars each between 4 and 7 p.m., are artful appetizers posing as drinking food. They include a gutsy melon composition—pickled shaved cucumber, tiny Mexican cucumber, yellow watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe assertively spiced with cumin seed, coriander, and black pepper—all brought together by a pool of tangy buttermilk cream. Fried spheres of cod and potato, intriguingly named Brandade Dauphine, sit atop a piquillo-pepper purée, showered with Parmesan. And, if gougères weren’t decadent enough, the chefs, Ben Traver and Nate Kuester, have fixed that by filling cheese puffs nearly the size of tennis balls with molten aged Cheddar infused with smoked jalapeño—the puffs won’t win any beauty contests, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

One evening, two women waiting for friends to arrive sought instructions from the bartender, who doubled as the host: “Should we wait at the bar?” “You can do whatever you want,” he said with a smile, gesturing wide around the room, which was dotted with hanging succulents, wine bottles, and sophisticated young grownups. There’s a similar generous flexibility to the dinner menu, offered à la carte or in two- or three-course sets. But the ambitious food that Traver (who worked at the Modern and at Café Boulud) and Kuester (who has cooked at Aquavit) are making belies L’Accolade’s nonchalant atmosphere.

That evening, the barbecued carrot, among the small plates, was too intriguing to pass up; listed with mustard, sour cherries, and country ham, like a Kentucky picnic, it ended up seeming like little more than carrots with barbecue sauce. The Lettuce and Lentils was half a head of gem and radish curls tinged with a sweet bacon-infused sherry dressing. The gooey Parisienne Gnocchi, studded with thick rounds of red hot chili peppers, was pleasingly confusing. Fluke, often the least favorite fish in a sushi combo, was supremely soft in a crudo, and confoundingly luxurious when mixed with tart white strawberries and quinoa. A jar of textbook duck rillette, with an improvised topping of tart-sweet plums stewed with black vinegar, was polished off completely, scooped up with über-sesame cracker shards.

As the night went on, the music shifted to early-eighties Grandmaster Flash, a formidable cheese plate was demolished, and there was no sign of the main course. Eventually, the heretofore gregarious waiter appeared, abashed, with an explanation: “I’m sorry, the plate of chicken fell on the floor. They have to make a new one.” More wine was ordered.

The entrées, when they finally arrived, looked beautiful, but there were problems. Thick slices of duck, a tad too magenta, straddled an irresistible plank of fried bread. Beef Flatiron, next to an appealingly sticky rice cake, was not medium rare but raw. A silky slab of arctic char, however, accompanied by sweet tomatoes and steamed kohlrabi, had a nicely crisp skin. And that chicken was worth waiting for: wonderfully tender, in a summery sea of corn-and-bean fricassée.

The waiter, back to his carefree self, returned with a parting gift. “The two glasses of wine I’m taking off the bill. Due to the chicken story.” (Entrées $22-$28.) ♦



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