Have you noticed how weird this column’s star rating system is? This week I give four stars to Gaslight, where nothing costs more than $20. But what Gaslight does, it does almost without flaw. Another week I might give only one star to a high-end palace because there are so many better places to waste your top dollar. Or I might give a clam stand one star because it isn’t a four-star clam stand — there’s no bell curve here. That said, Gaslight isn’t the sort of four-star restaurant to which you’d want to take your rich uncle on his big night out, but it will superbly reward the moderate diner who doesn’t mind a little more salt and noise than you get elsewhere for twice the price.
MUST-EAT MEAT: The steak frites at Gaslight shouldn’t be missed.
The theme at this self-described “corner” restaurant is that of a brasserie, which, in France, once meant brewpub. But some brasseries from the Art Nouveau era are now major tourist attractions. They run to tiled walls and floors, and can be noisy. Gaslight is on the high end of that sonic scale.
We begin our meal with a baguette in a bag and balls of salted butter. Escargots de Bourgogne ($8.50) are out of the shell, served in the dimpled plate that once held the individual shells but now holds a mix of chopped greens and cheese that evokes oysters Rockefeller. Asparagus vinaigrette ($7.50) is impeccably roasted, dressed with lemony vinaigrette, and decorated with frisé, shredded parsley stems, and two white anchovies. Onion soup gratinée ($6.50) is just that, in a crock. I have given up the war for chewier croutons after tasting onion soup this past spring in Paris restaurants famous for it, only to find that they, too, had given up the fight. The strength of this soup is its hearty onion flavor and good gooey cheese. Don’t look too hard for the beef short ribs and truffles mentioned on the menu — they’re in the soup someplace. Garlic soup ($7.75) was the real treat of the course: a mussel soup with a rich, garlicky base, and added spiciness from Basque Espelette chilies. It was good enough to sop up with the rest of our bread.
Among the entrées, you must have the steak frites ($19.75). Remember, this restaurant is owned by the Aquitaine Group, which really started the steak-frites fad in Boston and still knows how to get the most flavorful hanger steaks in the market. The steak here is small, whole, and exquisite, served aside a heap of shoestring-fried potatoes of considerable flavor and a little cress. You have a choice of butters, and I say go for the béarnaise. Everyone will be grateful that you did.
If you’re really hungry, the larger portion of red meat is the rotisserie leg of lamb ($18.75), sliced and a little dried out (just borrow some béarnaise from a companion). This also has a more filling side dish: scalloped potatoes with Morbier cheese. If you’re dieting, there’s the roasted salmon filet ($19.25), a dandy piece of fish served crisped outside and slightly underdone at the center, as it should be, with a foundation of braised escarole. Having second thoughts about the diet? That gravy boat of béarnaise is probably looking pretty good.
Even a complicated dish like the Poêlée Espagnol ($19.50), a codfish-and-mussel stew with chorizo and a Provençal tomato sauce, is nicely made, with nothing overcooked and a sauce of some complexity.
The wine list is mostly French. It’s good and short but made incredibly complex by the new trend of four-size pricing. We had a bottle of 2006 Petit Chablis “La Chablisienne” ($10/glass; $15/half carafe; $30/carafe; $49/bottle), and it was close enough to real Chablis: a tart, food-friendly chardonnay without much oak, but with some of the tropical-fruit aromas captured by modern winemaking. Cappuccino ($3.50) is very good, though hot chocolate ($3) and Canarino ($3.25) — think lemon-peel tea — were both delightful alternatives.
There are lots of desserts (all $6.75) from which to choose, and none are huge, so have fun. Apple Tarte Tatin is in season. Here the upside-down cake is done almost like a crêpe, with baked apples and caramel sauce instead of browning: same flavors, new route to get there. Baba au rhum was the largest of our desserts: two thick slices of cake with a rum sauce underneath and a boat of melted chocolate sauce to keep it from tasting like pancakes and syrup. The smallest dessert was probably crêpes flambé, which was flavored with orange and Grand Marnier. Any flames, however, were kept in the kitchen. The sleeper was “Far Breton,” a kind of custard tart with Armagnac-soaked prunes. It’s one of those flat pieces of pie to which you just keep coming back.