One of Le Gaigne’s more colorful dishes.
Pros: Good ingredients, central location.
Cons: A certain drabness about the whole experience; overpriced.
I was quite excited about going to Le Gaigne: it’s been written up often, and many nice things are said about it. And the first time I rang to book a table, a whole two days before I wanted to go, I was told that they were fully booked, which is generally a good sign.
Second time lucky, I thought. In fact, the lucky ones were the owners, who got an extra two customers on an evening when the 20-seat restaurant was only a quarter full.
The experience was underwhelming. Why was that, when the food was admirably turned out: a tasty little amuse-bouche of bean soup, nice-sized portions of oxtail terrine and warmed oysters, followed by a suprême of guinea fowl and venison served three ways, and a generous tasting plate of desserts?
Perhaps it has to do with the shop-front location. To avoid paying high rents, young chefs starting up on their own take over former cafés, which means that you often get a stark café atmosphere (a late convert to British pubs, I’m no great fan of the generality of French cafés, which are noisy and uncomfortable). Hard surfaces, poor lighting, and views of the cars and multiple bollards on the impossibly narrow Paris sidewalks are another indirect cost to the customer of such venues.
To get around this – and it can be done – the atmosphere has to be made cozy so that you forget about the external ugliness, but Le Gaigne hasn’t managed that. And although we had no complaints about the pace and quality of the service, the welcome was no more than “distant polite.”
Perhaps it has to do with the presentation of the food. There was a certain drabness about the dishes, not in the way they were set on the plate, but in the color: it was very hard to sneak photos of the dishes because they were overwhelmingly monochrome brown. My oxtail terrine also lacked the deep meaty richness of this cheap cut and was light years from the braised oxtail in red wine that my girlfriend, Katherine, produced recently. The accompanying ox-tongue salad was also drab in both color and flavor.
Much the same could be said of the guinea fowl and the venison. While I have absolutely no quibbles as to the quality of the tender, tasty meat and the way it was cooked, it did not particularly appeal in the plate.
Perhaps it has to do with the prices: Le Gaigne is not cheap eats, by any means. With an inexpensive bottle of Côtes du Rhone and a shared dessert, we dropped just under €140 for two.
The causes of most of these quibbles could easily be corrected, of course. Chef Mikaël Gaignon and his wife are just starting out on their own, and at some point, they will get the necessary ancillaries of restaurant eating – such as personal comfort and pleasant decor – right, at which point his culinary skills will be able to come into their own.
Le Gaigne: 12, rue Pecquay, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 59 86 72. Métro: Rambuteau. Nearest Vélib stations: 49, rue Rambuteau; 29, rue des Blancs Manteaux. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. A la carte: around €40.
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Reader Susan Luraschi writes: Couldn’t agree with you more. Re: ‘polite’ welcome, I brought a young couple and we were the first to arrive. We were showed the menu and after taking a long look and translating for my two first-time-in-Paris Americans, I asked Madame/Mademoiselle if she could explain it a bit more. I think I said, “Pouvez-vous nous expliquer le menu un peu plus.” I actually wanted a bit of warmth to contrast with the coldness of the place and a bit of French humanness for my friends. Madame/Mademoiselle replied, “Tout est là.” And there you have it.
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