Serving the feeling of Frenchness

Email|Print| Text size + By Devra First
Globe Staff / October 25, 2007

The first time I ate at Gaslight, after looking at the dinner menu, I tried to bet someone 100 bucks that tarte Tatin would be offered for dessert. He declined. It would have been a loser's bet; there's no way that textbook French brasserie dessert would have been left out at this textbook French brasserie. At Gaslight, it's not hard to predict what you'll find: Onion soup, steak frites, duck confit, and all your old amis are here, with a few curveballs (a Cuban sandwich, tagliatelle). That night, even Edith Piaf made an appearance - the Little Sparrow was singing her aching heart out over the bathroom speakers.

In some ways Gaslight feels derivative, one more American brasserie modeled after some ideal of the Parisian brasserie: convivial, with a bit of burnished flash. (The Aquitaine Group, which owns Gaslight, has practice emulating France.) The restaurant bears, for example, an eerie resemblance to Balthazar in New York; the two have extremely similar menus, down to the fonts. But the prices on Gaslight's menu are substantially lower - they cut off at $19.50 - and here's where we get to the second half of its name. Officially, if somewhat bulkily, it's called Gaslight, Brasserie du Coin (corner brasserie). It wants to be your well-priced neighborhood spot, open at all hours, where you drop in for a few drinks and a bite with some regularity. And if the South End's not your neighborhood, at least there's free parking.

People are certainly dropping in. The place is full even on the night of the first Sox-Indians playoff game, and there is no TV behind the zinc bar. A waiter making the rounds reports, "The bad news is we're out of the swordfish. The good news is the Sox are up 5-1."

Said swordfish was the plat du jour, listed as "espadon rotie au poivre." Gaslight's menu will have you racking your brains trying to recall vocabulary you learned in high school French class. It throws its "coquilles" and "gigots" around liberally, without translation. This is fun if you're in a "let's take a virtual trip to Paris!" kind of mood. But if your dining companion is in an "I'm too hungry to think" kind of mood, snappishness can ensue: "Does 'canette' mean cinnamon? Is an epaule something I even want to eat?"

Until you can figure out the translations, there is bread and drink. The former, as you'd expect, comes in the form of a baguette. As a signifier that Gaslight is an informal place, it arrives in a paper sleeve, and there are no bread plates. (Some of the time it doesn't arrive at all.) The latter includes a decent selection of beer - "brasserie" means brewery - and French wines in many handy denominations: glass, half-carafe, carafe, or bottle. There are also cocktails with names such as "L'Acolyte" (an excellent, Francofied riff on a sidecar, with a litchi-like aftertaste that turns out to be the elderflower liqueur St-Germain) and, yes, "Edith Piaf" (a martini of gin and a touch of Lillet Blanc, sure to make you regret beaucoup in the morning).

If all this talk of booze before food is going to your head, I apologize. It's simply that Gaslight's cocktails are very good, while its food is pretty good.

The broth in the onion soup could have more depth of flavor, but floating bites of short rib make up for that. Soupe a l'ail with mussels is rich with garlic and a touch of cheese, but quite a few of the mussels are unopened. There's nowhere to put the shells, and they keep sliding off the narrow lip of the plate. Replace one and another goes caroming away.

In a smoked salmon appetizer, the fish is served with oily, tasteless little cakes that the menu claims are chickpea blini. These are nearly inedible. If you want something from the sea, you're better off with grilled calamari. It's chewy, but it has an excellent smoky flavor, almost barbecued. A daily special of coquilles St. Jacques is also good, the scallops tender and served with pieces of green apple, bacon, and celeriac puree.

Choucroute garni manages to do something theatrical with humble sauerkraut, as waiters arrive bearing a Sterno setup and a cast iron dish. The big dish is set over the little flame, and the waiter looks very serious. "Don't touch it. It's really hot," he admonishes. The fermented flavor of the sauerkraut and the rich sausages (one tastes just like a halved Fenway frank) go well together, but neither meat nor vegetable is particularly hot. The cast iron is almost room temperature.

This being a brasserie with a capital B, there is, of course, steak frites on offer. The meat comes with a choice of maitre d'hotel butter or béarnaise - butter and herbs, or butter and eggs. The maitre d'hotel butter is slathered on in a thick, minty green layer; we wind up scraping much of it off so we can taste the chewy, just-past-rare steak, a cut called bavette in French (the English name, flap meat, doesn't sound nearly as good, points out chef Christopher Robins later by phone). It would be nice to also have the option of a wine-based sauce.

Now, the frites. Did Robins beat up Ronald McDonald and steal his recipe? They look just like McDonald's french fries. They taste just like McDonald's french fries. Just like them! No different! Me, I like McDonald's fries, on a road trip, eaten out of a cardboard container. I'm just a little surprised to run into them here. Maybe they're freedom fries - free from having to be exactly what you'd expect.

As much as food, Gaslight serves the feeling of Frenchness. The space is beautiful, with dark wood ceilings and floors, gleaming lights, white tiled walls, and antique mirrors. The restaurant is new, but that zinc bar already gives the feeling of being worn from generations of elbows. You can practically smell the Gauloises in the air, and the place was built four years after the smoking ban went into effect. Gaslight was born nostalgic - note the name. Americans have a craving for the ur-brasserie, just as other countries may crave the ur-hamburger joint (there are Johnny Rockets in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, among others), but in France many of the best-known brasseries are now operated by chains. There's a formula to this kind of restaurant, and Gaslight's got it down. Go for the ambiance, a drink and an affordable bite at all hours, and of course the tarte Tatin. It's the first item on the dessert menu, and it, too, is pretty good.

Gaslight, Brasserie du coin ** (2 stars)

560 Harrison Ave., Boston. 617-422-0224. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $4.50-$12.50. Entrees $9-$19.50. Desserts $6.

Hours Mon-Fri 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-1:30 a.m.

Noise level Very loud.

May we suggest
Appetizers Onion soup, soupe a l'ail.
Entrees Choucroute garni, steak frites.
Dessert Tarte Tatin.

Ratings reflect the restaurant critic's judgment of the food, service, and atmosphere in relation to the price, based on several anonymous visits.

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