Monday, March 31, 2008

Gaslight Adds Fuel to Fiery South End Dining Scene

Ever have the urge to sample delicious French cuisine without leaving the comfortable confines of Massachusetts? Some diners might actually prefer taking the red-eye to Paris than splurging on a meal fit (and priced) for a king at the upscale Back Bay eatery, L’espalier. Gaslight Brasserie, conveniently located in the South End on Harrison Ave, is a more reasonably priced alternative established by Boston’s renowned culinary team, Aquitaine Group. Boston Magazine and Phantom Gourmet have recently bestowed the dreaded ‘it’ label upon this new dining hotspot. Would Paul’s Palate agree with these assessments or spit out Gaslight’s cuisine like bad pate?

Give Gaslight’s creative team credit: in terms of overall authenticity, the restaurant’s mosaic subway tiles, reclaimed wood floors, nicotine-stained walls, beamed wood ceilings, and shimmering antique mirrors all shine brightly (no pun intended). Although the handcrafted Parisian zinc bar is visually breathtaking, it attracts such a large number of hip patrons this evening that they practically spill over into the dining area. While I am appreciative that Aquitaine Group intended for this bistro to be more casual, these surroundings are completely devoid of any sense of privacy and intimacy. Our party needs to resort to shouting in order to maintain any semblance of conversation. It doesn’t help matters that we’ve been seated behind a partition that is not completely shielded from the main entrance, which results in sporadic, periodic bouts of the chills. Seating arrangements are creative enough, if not a tad chaotic, ranging from café and communal tables to booths and banquets.

Gaslight’s cuisine, however, is what has attracted us to this locale in the first place, and fortunately it offsets any minor issues we’ve encountered with the ambience. Though its fare is less sophisticated than L’espalier, Gaslight serves what is essentially Parisian comfort food. For starters, the Onion Soup Gratinee (fancy term for French Onion Soup) is the ideal remedy to the aforementioned chills we’re experiencing, with its hearty broth saturated with sweet onions and gooey slabs of cheese. The Escargots de Bourgogne (snails served with garlic and parsley) are neither as meaty nor garlicy as I had hoped. The moist steak tartare, however, which comes highly recommend by our patient, courteous server, is a revelation, served with aioli and croutons. The former ingredient infuses the tartare with just the right amount of spice.

Entrees are equally enjoyable. I find myself strangely drawn to a non-Parisian dish, the Choucroute Garni. This German-themed dish consists of frankfurter, garlic sausage, braised apples, duck confit, and sauerkraut. Strange choice, you ask? You bet. Overall, I’d rate the dish as slightly above satisfactory for the following reasons: the frankfurter is a tad bland, the garlic sausage above average, and the duck is moist and divine. I would have preferred a more pungent apple broth base (sorry, no actual apples to be had) as opposed to overkill on the amount of sauerkraut. I must, however, applaud Gaslight for its willingness (like my dining tastes) to venture out of its comfort zone. They refuse to play their food selections safe. Other foreign items on the menu I’d venture to try the next time I’m there include veal wiener schnitzel and daube nicoise (braised beef ragout with olives, orange, tomato and buttered noodles).

My wife orders a more traditional French steak frite with béarnaise sauce, and it is mouth-wateringly good, perfectly cooked to a pink medium. The bar steak is equally delectable, and a tad spicier, layered with a mustard cream sauce. The couple across from us order the poelee espagnol (cod pan roast with shellfish and chorizo). While the fish is moist enough, the chorizo lacks expected spice, in part due to the accompanying sauce a l’amoricaine, which is nothing more than a fancy term for bland marsala wine sauce.

Without a moment’s hesitation, our server recommends the housemade chocolate beignets with crème anglais. What are these, you ask? Imagine chocolate fried dough with a molten chocolate lava center. Hey, are you still with me here? I forgive you for your lack of attention. I, too, lost my focus when dreaming of popping these delicious bite-sized morsels into my mouth. This concoction is the showstopper of the evening, and has all of raving about it long after we have departed for the evening.

In terms of value, what’s not to like about Gaslight? For one, I’ll take the complimentary free parking, a rarity in this section of Boston. Hors D’oeuvres (appetizers) average between $7-$10. Cocktails fluctuate between $8-$11. The majority of Plats prinipaux (entrees) range between $16-$19 and all desserts come in just a shade under $7. You do the math: take a highly satisfactory meal, about three-quarters that of what you’d experience at L’espalier, but cut your bill there in half. I don’t claim to possess strong math acumen, but I believe former game show host Bob Barker said it best: the price is right.

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