High above Sixth Street, diving into French-inflected dishes
DINE Although I deplored Julie & Julia — a dreadful bit of movie pap, except for the scene where Julie discovers that Julia hates her bloody blog; priceless! — I was mesmerized by the al fresco dinner cooked and served by the unsinkable Julie on a Brooklyn rooftop. There is a magic like no other in floating motionless above the nighttime city, with a soundtrack of soft conversation, gently clicking tableware, and the odd horn honking on the street below.
The street below the rooftop dining patio at Passion Café — opened not quite a year ago by Steve Barton and Jacques Andre — is Sixth Street, between Market and Mission, and it has more than its share of honking horns, along with speeding traffic, trash spread like autumn leaves in sidewalk tree wells, and a Dante-esque population of the shattered and lost. Sitting under an umbrella at a long picnic table 50 feet above all this on a rooftop patio framed by trellised vines and with a tall potted ficus at the end of the next table, is slightly surreal (though pleasant). If there is indeed a stairway to heaven, as Led Zeppelin once suggested, it might well begin here.
Passion Café will never be confused with the Fifth Floor, a few blocks away. Fifth Floor is higher up, totally enclosed, and all but lacking a ground-level presence. Passion Café, on the other hand, has its feet solidly planted on terra firma: there's a large ground-level dining area, complete with exposed brick and oil paintings (for sale), just inside the door. But the draw of the place is definitely the roof, which you attain by climbing two flights of wide wooden stairs that creak. At the landing between the flights is a small tea table set for two — the perfect spot for a civilized break up, or maybe (for the less civilized) a discreet shove.
The food carries mostly French nomenclature and takes a variety of familiar French forms — the menu offers a variety of tartines, along with plates of charcuterie and paté — but the execution is strongly Californian. Many of the plates come heaped with mixed green salads, and white rice is served on a scale I have never remotely seen in France.
The ratatouille ($14), for instance, included a berm of rice that looked like something left behind by a Tonka-truck snowplow working its way through a blizzard. The vegetable stew itself, meanwhile, wasn't a stew at all but more of what appeared to be a stir-fry of long, rather tough eggplant strips, lengths of red bell pepper, zucchini chunks, and tomato, but not enough tomato. It was as though the kitchen had thoughts of transforming a peasant's dish, a way of using up the end-of-summer surplus from a vegetable garden, into a gourmand's delight, as in the movie Ratatouille, but lost its nerve after a few hesitant steps. I would have liked a bit more thyme and garlic, too, but the dish was still flavorful.
Napoleons are typically confections of layered pastry one finds on the dessert cart, but Passion's version ($14.50) was savory and made with pasta — lasagna, basically, with ground beef, baked in an oblong crock. Beside it rose a low mountain of mixed greens dotted with olives and croutons and dressed with a cumin-inflected vinaigrette.
Cumin, an easterly breeze, reminds us of the French connection in the Middle East and so it wasn't completely surprising to find yet another hint of it in Passion's paté ($5). The spice added a note of exotic excitement, but the paté itself (mounted on yet more salad) fell short of an ideal creaminess; despite the thinness of the slice, its texture was almost leathery. It was like a bit of old shoe sole that had fallen away into a clump of wet grass.