Jeanne & Gaston: New York, NY

New York, NY

The French have a word it for — ambiance. And that special sense of a relaxed atmosphere, one where you know you’ll be in the loving hands of a caring restaurateur, is just one of the many assets at Jeanne & Gaston, where chef/owner Claude Godard works his nightly magic to ensure a memorable dining experience.

The interior décor is pleasingly sophisticated, yet casual enough for a "I just got off the subway" dinner, with its mix of comfy banquettes and steel tables. Not to mention a beautiful mahogany bar, the ideal place for sipping one of the numerous wines by the glass or specialty cocktails such as a French martini, made with vanilla vodka and pineapple juice. Better still, while the weather remains temperate, is eating in the restaurant’s backyard garden, an oasis of tranquility where 14th Street seems miles, rather than feet, away.

No matter where you sit, easing into dinner with a libation and nibbling on the house’s charcuterie — a well-chosen platter of prosciutto, rosette de Lyon, garlic sausage, and homemade duck liver mousse — will help put the troubles of the day behind you and whet your appetite for Godard’s more complex creations.

While Godard’s recipes all have their basis in the basics of Gallic cuisine, some are more traditional, such as escargots with garlic and parsley butter or a true French onion soup, while others allow the chef to exhibit more contemporary flair. Take for example, his feather-light but intensely flavorful "crabmeat napoleon," in which a luscious mixture of fresh lump crabmeat and a silky avocado mousse is sandwiched between three sheets of wafer-like "brick pastry," with the entire creation getting a flavor boost from a surprisingly gentle lemongrass dressing.

Similarly, entrées run the proverbial gamut from oh-so-classic steak frites and mussels mariniere to main courses blessed with a touch of inventiveness. Beautifully cooked slices of just-fatty-enough duck magret gain a little extra punch not from the expected sauce a l’orange but a well-considered mango emulsion complete with a dice of the tropical fruit. (I do think the accompanying broccoli tempura adds little to the meal, both visually and taste-wise, however. Wild rice, anyone?)

And Godard shows an equally impressive steady hand with perfectly seared, melt-in-your mouth diver scallops, here set atop a Provençale-inspired mélange of vegetables and cherry tomatoes, all of which sit on a mouth-filling slice of basil-tinged focaccia.

Saving room for dessert is perhaps the biggest challenge when faced with such wondrous fare, but you would be remiss in not partaking in this last course. Some may opt for Godard’s take on the beloved "Floating Island," made special by a house-made pink praline ice cream, but I think you’d be remiss to not sample one of the house’s specialty soufflés, which can be ordered in a variety of flavors such as chocolate, coffee, or Grand Marnier. Neither too dense nor too feathery, they do full justice to this singular (and increasingly hard to find) culinary masterpiece.

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