Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Gamine
Reviewed Gamine: Friday, February 17, 2012
Burger, burger, burger. Gamine’s burger is what keeps me going back time after time. The restaurant’s cozy, charming interior, and authentic French service staff only add to the delightful experience. While I’ve been there numerous times, each time I walk through Gamine’s doors I still feel like I step outside the city and into a Parisian cafe. The low lighting and small dining room creates a cozy ambiance; an environment where one wants to linger for hours as the French are famous for doing.
My companion and I arrived reservation-less, but were seated immediately at a corner table next to the window overlooking Union Street. Our server – French accent and all – greeted us promptly and took our appetizer order (Baked Cambozola). The Cambozola is a warm, oozy cheese mixture that comes with Crostini and a roasted head of garlic. While the Cambozola is a blend of several cheeses, the pieces of Gorgonzola really stood out. The dish is decadent and comforting; if I weren’t in a public place, I would have tried to lick the sides of the bowl it comes with.
We each had the French Onion soup next. As a good French Onion soup should be, the layers of cheese and bread were piping hot and perfectly flavored. The cheese was oozy on the inside and crispy around the bowl’s edges.
The main star of the show came out next: the burger. I believe my life’s calling is to find the world’s best burger, and I do believe Gamine’s competes for that title. Traditional, it is not. The burger patty comes in a chewy Ciabatta roll. I am often skeptical of non-standard burger buns, but this roll is lovely on its own while still giving the meat an opportunity to shine. As passionate as I am about the roll, the meat is also unforgettable. It’s juicy and tender; it’s flavored in a way that almost reminds me of sausage. The thick slice of brie completes the experience. The warmth of the burger melts the cheese, so that it covers every inch of the beef patty. There are so many components to the perfect burger, and Gamine nails every single one.
Our server paced each of our courses perfectly so that we felt taken care of but never rushed. He also made great wine recommendations (we each had a white wine followed by a Pinot Noir he recommended to us). Gamine should be an option for every scenario: first date, old friends, brunch, children friendly. Gamine is one of those rare finds that impresses on all fronts – service, ambiance, and, of course, FOOD!
Occupation: Cooking Teacher and Author
Favorite Restaurant: Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar
Reviewed Gamine: Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Hospitality is the long suit at Gamine. We were greeted warmly as we arrived (shortly after the bistro opened) and our waiter met us at the door and shook our hands as we departed. In the hour or so in between, I feel as if we hit Gamine on an off night. And as we drove home over the Bay Bridge, the more we discussed our dinner there, the more disappointed I felt.
Dinner started well with exemplary Onion Soup ($7.50) and Smoked Duck, Poached Egg and Frisée Salad ($12). Delighted to see five bottles of rosé on the wines list (especially in February), I ordered the one that was available by the glass, Angel Rosé ($10). It was the perfect foil for both my Onion Soup and Mussels Marinière ($15). My husband’s Arnold Palmer ($3.50) was fine.
With more than a couple of other French bistros on the street, I figured this one must be special since someone recommended it to be featured on Check, Please! Bay Area. I suppose my high expectations carried over to the baguette. When bread and butter came to the table soon after we ordered, I had a sinking feeling that the quality of the bread foreshadowed what was to come. Hoping for the characteristic crackle-y crust and flavorful crumb of the artisan baguettes across the City, I found this one lacking in both.
Our appetizers came out quickly. I was particularly happy that the Onion Soup portion wasn’t huge and that while the cheese on top was copious and perfectly melted, it wasn’t so hot as to burn the roof of my mouth. The soup was terrific, and I’d recommend it. My husband enjoyed the Frisée Salad and I was impressed with the level of acid in the vinaigrette, which is of pivotal importance given the rich ingredients in this bistro classic.
It was a bit off-putting that when our otherwise terrific waiter told us about the scallops special that night, he didn’t mention the price. We forgot to ask. My husband ordered it anyway. No matter the price, we were both surprised when this special entree arrived with just three scallops. They were seared and seasoned perfectly and the accompanying mashed potato-carrot puree was arranged in carefully crafted quenelle shapes. The advertised vanilla bean beurre blanc was a mere garnish that decorated the plate.
Hopeful as our waiter approached the table with my Mussels Mariniere in a cast iron crock, mussels heaped generously, I was immediately struck by the smell of sharp, raw garlic, and was put off to see that the cook had tossed about a tablespoon of it as a garnish on top of my mussels. A generous portion of French fries ($5) that I ordered as a side dish came to the table in a gratin dish with a side of mayonnaise. The fries were very pale in color, although they were hot. Many of them were al dente (some were even a bit raw-hard) in the center and I began to wonder if these had been taken by mistake from a pile of blanched fries before they’d been re-fried. They were tasty and we ate every single one, but they were all flaccid, bearing none of the characteristic browning or crunch you expect from French fries. To add insult to injury, the mayonnaise tasted flabby—all fat and no acid. It needed a shot of lemon or mustard to liven it up. The mussels were cooked perfectly, although there were two or three that never opened and one whose shell was so mangled I didn’t bother to struggle with it. The broth was tasty, and there was enough to share with my husband who finished the small portion of scallops long before I finished the mussels. He made a satisfying soup of that broth and the remaining baguette.
The menu is printed on the placemat so I’d seen right away that Gamine features some classic French bistro desserts. I looked forward to—and ordered—Chocolate Mousse ($8.50) and my husband ordered Tarte Tatin ($8). Double disappointment. The mousse came in a tall parfait glass and was garnished with whipped cream and a sweet crumb topping I couldn’t figure out. The topping did a good job of distracting my palate from the texture of the mousse itself. I was longing for rich, dense, dark chocolate mousse. Instead I got a fluffy, light, airy dessert that tasted more of the crumb topping than chocolate. I wouldn’t have objected to a mousse made with milk chocolate, but I did regret that this mousse had so little chocolate flavor.
The Tarte Tatin was cloyingly sweet, as if it had been made with honey. It was so overcooked that the apples disintegrated, yet the puff pastry at the edge was underbaked and gummy in places.
I hasten to add that throughout the meal our waiter was attentive and pleasant. We both loved him. We did finish everything on our plates (those three scallops didn’t take long to eat), but I kept thinking that if I weren’t there incognito for Check, Please! I would have been more forthcoming about my disappointment when the waiter checked in with us. When the bill came and we discovered that the scallops special was $24 (higher than anything else on the menu), the bad taste in our mouth was reinforced. When a weeknight dinner for two at a casual, 22-seat bistro (where the dishwashing station is visible from the dining room) adds up to $120 including tip, it had better satisfy on more levels than just service. Unless I’m dying for a good bowl of onion soup, and the other bistros on Union Street are closed, I’m not sure I’ll go back to Gamine.
P.S. Two days after eating there, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in more than a year who lives in the neighborhood. She told me Gamine is one of her regular hangouts and that she loves the food and wine there. She agreed that she’s been disappointed in the Tarte Tatin, too, but was incredulous when I mentioned the fries, the mayonnaise, the raw garlic garnish on the mussels, and the paltry portion—and price—of the scallops special. I guess my instincts were correct: We must have hit Gamine on an off night.
Occupation: Renewable Energy Forecaster
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Davey Jones Deli
Reviewed Gamine: Sunday, March 4, 2012
Gamine is a wonderful little French Bistro that brings big flavors and an even larger value. My excuse was that I had never heard of this place. What’s yours? Well, if you are reading this then you will need to come up with something new, because this place is highly recommended! Yes, San Francisco offers something like 5,000 restaurants and no, I have not been to all of them but in 10 years I have had a few memorable meals, and Gamine is, deservedly, on the short list.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in was that a party of 16 took up, literally, the entire left side restaurant. Luckily, I spotted a free table and was seated immediately. Even with such a large party to deal with, the waiter immediately brought water and a menu and, better yet, I had a beautiful glass of Sancerre ordered and in hand in under 3 minutes. To be honest, I have no idea what Sancerre is. In fact, the only thing I know is that if you are adding ice cubes to white wine to improve the drinkability, then you might have a problem and/or the wines not that good. Regardless, the waiter chose a glass of French white wine (from Sancerre –turns out it is a region known for Sauvignon Blanc), and it was an excellent choice off of a list that seemed well organized and covered a variety of French and Californian selections.
For the rest of the meal, the waiter was spot-on, funny, and made me feel at home. While I can pour myself a healthy glass of wine (yes, I skip the ice cubes, and no, I don’t judge) and can cook a decent meal, the food was well above my station. I started with the French onion soup. It was excellent, had great flavor, and was topped with a delicious amount of cheese. If you like onions or soup or having a warm belly, then I highly recommend getting an order. It is well worth it. I moved on the Mussels Catalane (in a white wine sauce with a spicy lamb sausage) with a side of French fries, while my friend had the grilled salmon with leak fondue. I totally got burned here. Don’t get me wrong, I love mussels and fries and both were perfectly prepared. And the serving size was incredible. I was starving and could not come close to finishing. Unfortunately, as good as the mussels are, the salmon was absolutely amazing. Thankfully, my date took pity on me and we shared. Salmon is one of those dishes I grew up on and rarely order out. Don’t do that here. The salmon was cooked a perfect medium rare, tasted amazingly fresh, and it was delicate and exceptional. Personally, I find a delicate piece of salmon hard to come by. Far too often it’s overcooked and/or served as a 2” filet; perfect for a rib eye but, in my mind, less so for salmon.
The rest of the menu looked great, but I was stuffed after 3 dishes and couldn’t order dessert. But I am looking forward to finding out soon. My only advice is to share the mussels as an appetizer and then move on to a soup and/or entrée.