Wednesday, May 6, 2015


My first visit to Paris came when I was so young, never having traveled alone before, never really traveled at all, actually.  I arrived in the early evening, and ventured out for dinner at a typical neighborhood bistro: whichever nondescript address I happened upon first.  Perusing the menu with a puerile grasp of the French language, I ordered fish and potatoes, requesting the fish be not fried in butter, as best as I could mutter out in stilted French.  I meant not fried at all, but there it arrived, crispy golden-brown, a baffling disappointment.  My waiter reassured me "Oui, mademoiselle... it is not fried in butter.. it is fried in oil" with absolute sincerity.  Of course he was correct, but it didn't change my chagrin, and starving, I ate most of it anyways.  I don't remember if it was any good; I'm sure it was perfectly
 serviceable.  All I recall was the feeling of disappointment in both my linguistic capabilities and the lackluster first meal in the City of Lights: not light, and not culinarily memorable by any stretch.  So when I dined at La Gamelle, I suppose my experience was absolutely accurate in terms of authenticity and nostalgia of that first visit to Paris.

Not to disparage La Gamelle entirely- it expressly does what it intends to do: authentic French bistro fare, reasonably priced and humbly presented.  The room is Balthazar-esque- they even imported the bar from France.  It's a new French bistro in the neighborhood, for sure, but there's nothing new about it beyond that.  The menu is a fairly strict list of classics: the one item that I was preparing on ordering after a quick glean of the website  (a roasted cod with asparagus and salsify) was certainly the most novel option, but had already been eliminated upon my visit even though the space has only been open a couple of weeks.  It opened up the opportunity to order the asparagus "mousseline" as an appetizer, however, that featured many similar elements.   Tender asparagus alternated green and white underneath a heavy blanket of hollandaise, which didn't get much mousselined as I might have hoped, as the stalks were all but smothered underneath the bright herby sauce.    A French onion soup exhibited similar heft: a heady, rich broth
dense with melty onions and soup-soaked crouton, all of which was capped with the classic layer of thick gruyere.  All this just in time for bikini season.  Granted, these are absolute text-book perfect reenactments of classic French bistro fare.  They really couldn't be much more deftly executed.  But for my  tastes, there is a reason food evolves from that which was served a hundred years ago, and these plates seems mired in an antiquated heft.

As for entrees, you know what your getting yourself into with Steak Frites, served with the inevitable mountain of excellently crisp fries.  The meat was a little tough, though, surprising too since it was cooked less than desired: easily medium rare as opposed to the requested medium.  It was a nice, manageable portion- not too big or small, and enough fries for the table had we been  on a double date.  For just two, there were certainly frites to spare.  More sauce (Bearnaise this time) is on hand, but the mediocre meat could use it, and the fries don't suffer in its midst, either.  Having been slighted the roasted cod option, I took a whole grilled branzino in its stead, the crisp-skinned fish alone on the plate but for a halved lemon, but a side of rustic, course-chopped ratatouille-style vegetables arrived as accompaniment.  Too salty on their own, it helped cut the slight fishiness of the
 branzino, which tasted a little muddy and proved cumbersome to de-bone.   We also tried the garlicky haricots verts, which were a lovely emerald and perfectly tender, but sluiced in such a deep pool of oil it was prudent to let each one drip-dry momentarily before eating.  Or else this is when the bread basket comes in handy, as a swab.  The bread was good, though, too, fresh and sturdily crusted- a pretty good baguette by New York standards. 

The best thing we had all night by far was the nougat dessert, a frothy-light mousse studded with crunchy roasted nuts and a generous crown of chantilly.  A jammy puree of red raspberry accompanied in a silver pitcher aside, daubed on generously achieved the best bites.  Decaf is only offered americano-style, and was a little dirty and stale tasting, as if prepared from an old moka that needs to be re-seasoned.  And while  I wouldn't nearly categorize La Gamelle as dirty or stale,  it's definitely not on the forefront of innovation.  So if you're pining for the standards, you couldn't find a better purveyor.  "La gamelle" is French for the dish the dog eats out of; this little doggy would find more intriguing vittles elsewhere.

241 Bowery
tel.  (212) 388-0052

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