February 27, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

All in the Family: Jeanne and Gaston


Chef Godard’s soufflés come on the prix fixe. Chana loves chocolate. Photo: Steven Richter
Chef Godard’s soufflés come on the prix fixe. Chana loves chocolate. Photo: Steven Richter


          It looks cute, with mullioned windows, a string of small lights and a board out front advertising the $40 prix fixe.  But inside, Jeanne and Gaston is almost empty - a mix of bare brick, an application of style in black and white at the bar, Rembrandt textile guild members in the mural on the back wall. I recognize them from the Dutch Masters Cigar box. I immediately start Googling my brain for somewhere nearby we can flee. Coppelia, the Cuban spot across the street, I think.


A dab of sour cream and wasabi caviar adds crunch and tang to the tuna tartare.


          Our friends, having arrived early, are sipping Pinot Blanc at the bar and sharing a tuna tartare. “It’s wonderful,” she says. “Crisp on top.” I taste. That’s the wasabi tobiko. Not exactly French.  But that is Jeanne and Gaston. A little French. Somewhat new world. Okay. We’ll stick around and see how hors d'oeuvre go.  


The room is almost empty except for this lively crowd up front. Photo: Steven Richter


          We are led to a dark corner alcove with a lone table for four.  It works - we escape how empty the room is.  We persuade a waiter to turn up the light. The bread arrives, like cotton. A sad excuse for bread suggests there is no hope here. Again, I’m thinking we should leave. But that thought is contrary to the menu, which at first glance is looking very French and quite promising. I sip my Qupé syrah. I promised my friends a simple French bistro. Of course we will have the prix fixe, cheaper than à la carte even if you chose a $16 souffle.


Beneath a seal of puff pastry is wild mushroom and chicken soup. Photo: Gael Greene


           I sample the onion soup – a heady nectar, generously layered with croutons and cheese, sealed with a stringy lid of Gruyère. We share a tarte flambée with onions and bacon and the classic crème fraîche, but more like a naked pizza than most tarte flambées.


Extra parsley and Pernod make the snails an homage to Godard’s father. Photo: Gael Greene


          Wild mushroom and chicken soup en croûte is not the pastry balloon the great chef Paul Bocuse served at the Elysées Palace, sealing in the scent of black truffles and foie gras, but  it’s a good bistro rendition, with slivers of chicken, shiitake, crimini and chanterelle in a soft-spoken broth. One of our companions borrows some of the pastry roof to dab at the leftover parsley butter of her snails. It’s a recipe of Chef Claude Godard’s father, Jean-Claude, from his Michelin-starred Restaurant Godard in Burgundy: the melted butter infused with garlic, a touch of shallot, Pernod and more parsley than usual, “For the intensity,” he tells me later.


Truffle’d macaroni, a nice balance of elbows and cheese, quickly disappears. Photo: Steven Richter


          Truffle bits in the macaroni’n’cheese give him license to charge $31 for a rather small serving in a cast iron skillet. The Road Food Warrior has chosen it as his entrée. Not wanting to deprive him, we order a second for the rest of us to share. His comes properly browned on top, small elbows in a balance of Swiss cheese and that pricey truffle dust. We send ours back for more fire. It’s not my crunchy stick-to-the-pan dream mac, but still, good to the last elbow. And a bargain, I suppose, next to Waverly Inn’s $55 version.


Lush and juicy shorts ribs in boeuf bourguignon style. Photo: Gael Greene


          I fall under the spell of “Le Bourguignon,” braised short ribs, fatty and lush, in a rich pinot noir sauce, with the glazed onions and mushroom caps of a classic boeuf bourguignon, nesting on very good pommes purée.  Squab, “farm raised,” the menu read, comes two ways –  slices of the bird (rare as I requested), and the legs deboned and stuffed with a forcemeat of its innards, a little veal, then crumbed and roasted. In the middle, wonderful old fashioned petits pois à la française, cooked with lettuce and shallots. Roasted chicken is full of flavor too, sitting on potato purée, napped with garlic jus.


Flavorful chicken in a nest of pommes purées. Photo: Steven Richter


          The chocolate soufflé ordered ahead is picture perfect, not exactly a dark thriller – with no whipped cream or chocolate sauce to pour in, just fine ice cream offered alongside. In an unexpected twist, the McIntosh crumble is a poached apple half sitting on a rubble of salty crumbs that would have made me happier minus the sloppy milk jam.  A lemon cookie spoon sits in quite acceptable Tahitian vanilla crème brulée.  


          Maybe it’s a find, I’m thinking, weighing my contentment. Maybe no one’s here because it belongs in the Village, not on this charmless strip of 14th Street. It’s almost a gem. Not a ruby, but an exceptional garnet. And it really is French. Complete with accents, though some of them might be Slavic for all I know.


Late arrivals at a big table in front of Rembrandt’s Dutch Masters. Photo: Steven Richter


          Suddenly, the place fills with men. It’s a group of friends - chefs, wine professionals, their pals – they eat out together once a month. The chef comes out, trim, bald, grinning to see the late arrivals.  He explains he is not Gaston. That is his grandfather; Jeanne, his grandmother. He is Claude. He hopes we are happy. I would be happier if the prix fixe allowed for a glass of wine and a total of $100 for two with tax and tip. But then, I suppose, it could not include truffled macaroni, foie gras or $16 souffles.


Chef Claude Godard is excited to see his pals arrive, forgive the blur. Photo: Steven Richter


          Next day online I discover there is a Madison Bistro, Godard’s first New York venture after stints with Parisian stars like Alain Dutournier and Jean Pierre Vigato and even at Lasserre, once a Michelin three star.


          Third generation of a Burgundy restaurant family, he came to NY in 1998 “with a mission of introducing high quality traditional French cuisine accessible to New Yorkers.” Very lofty. I grin reading that. In 2003 he was recognized as a Maîtres Cuisinières. In 2008, he entered France’s revered Académie Culinaire. Unimpressed by such honors, Zagat quotes neighboring locals lauding Madison Bistro “as a delightfully average neighborhood joint with dependable chow.”  Jeanne and Gaston opened in December with the same menu. Godard is torn. He wants to pay homage to his grandfather, but thinks he should also reflect how modern he’s become along the way. A crisis of confidence, I think.


Mayo’d crab mash and guacamole between two circles of phyllo. Photo: Gael Greene

          I decide to come back the next evening to taste more. Now Godard sends out a welcome: his seductive foie gras terrine with macerated pear and a slick of Rioja reduction and two amazing oysters: one with chive cream in a seawater gel, the second on lemon dressing with shredded cucumber on top. “I was thinking of sushi,” he explains. I like each better than the crab and avocado napoleon with crisps of “brick” layered with mayo’d crab and classic guacamole on a lemongrass sauce. Too many micro greens catch in my teeth.


The evening’s special peppered skirt steak with roasted potatoes. Photo: Gael Greene


          After the rich extras I can only eat a bite or two of  my order, the evening’s special skirt steak with roasted potatoes, extra crispy, as asked. It’s very salty. I want to take it home anyway – he knows who I am and French chefs have committed suicide for lesser insults.  That leaves room for pear sliced thrillingly atop a melting chocolate cake with a crumbled chocolate bottom. But I have to peel away the very hard cracked sugar glaze.


Poached pear on melting chocolate in a crumbly crust. Photo: Gael Greene


          Yes, you should go. The garden out back will open as soon as weather allows. Even if Godard never makes a hard decision for tradition vs. fashion, it’s still a spot for foie gras and winey short ribs where you can hear yourself talk.  Remember I said garnet, not ruby.


212 West 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. 212 675 3773. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 till 4 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 to 3:30 pm.