December 12,1999

Table Hopper
By Pia Nordlinger

   Restaurants in the Meat-packing District have been creating a buzz lately, but when it comes to celebrity sightings, the newcomers will have to measure up to neighborhood veteran Florent, which has been attracting stars for nearly 15 years.
   Though the reasonably priced French bistro's fare is an attraction, the main event here is the crowd, which, on weekends, never sleeps. At any hour Friday through Sunday, especially late night, the place is packed with an eclectic mix of revelers.
   Those colorful patrons stand out against Florent's low-key backdrop. The walls are covered with simple stainless steel, mirrors and framed maps of cities.
   When famous folks stop by owner Florent Morellet, a sprightly Frenchman, will often escort them to table 19, a cozy spot in the rear of the room that provides a measure of privacy. Madonna, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Jodie Foster and the late artist Roy Lichenstein have all been seated there.
   Occasionally, celebs slip in with little fanfare. In fact, a waiter had to give Morellet the heads-up when Susan Sarandon was led to one of the not-so-private tables in the center of the room. The center tables are the right thing for Spike Lee, when he has his children in tow. But in his kidless days, Lee usually took a seat at the counter. Other counter-friendly guests include Willem Dafoe, who was spotted not long ago munching the goat cheese salad with a friend. The late Malcom Forbes used to sit counterside as well.
   The banquette that lines the other end of the room has attracted a long list of actresses such as Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth, Sandra Bernhard and Catherine Deneuve. Not to be outdone by the on-screen talents, directors Roberto Benigni and Steven Spielberg have also snagged spots along the banquette.

    ORDER IT: Start out with one of the many salads or the sesame chicken brochettes. And if you're a fan of boudin noir (blood sausage), you can get it here--it's one of Morellet's favorite items on the menu.

   Four steaks are offered--all of which go wonderfully with Florent's fabulous frites, or fries--including the steak au poivre, which is topped with a delicious mustard sauce. Here, there are two ways to indulge in mussels: in the regular sauce of white wine, lemon, garlic and onion, or the mussels du jour. Either way, they come with frites.

   For a decadent dessert, try the chocolate truffle cake, or choose the light, but luscious rice pudding from the list of homemade treats.