The borders are lined with begonias, bleeding hearts fling their oddly shaped leaves up from the beds, and elm and ailanthus—the tree that grows in Brooklyn—spiral upward toward the darkening sky. It’s Saturday evening and every table is filled in the candlelit backyard at Gavroche. The food, too, has a verdant quality about it. My half-roast chicken ($17) arrives festooned with sprigs of chervil, rosemary, and thyme, which form a small forest that not only adds impromptu savor to the pink sauce, but also delights the nose. The crisp-skinned breast has been sliced and neatly arranged on a bed of mashed potatoes and, aping the trees, the drumstick and crooked wing point skyward. Planks of zucchini and carrot lie in the copious lake of sauce, rendering any vegetable sides superfluous—though it’s hard to resist ordering the gratin dauphinois ($4.50) that comes in a bubbling ramekin, flinging off odors of sharp cheese and roasted potatoes.
Gavroche is a very fine French bistro that recently appeared on the south side of 14th Street just west of Seventh Avenue. It redresses the long-ago loss of the bistro Quatorze, located on the same block, and provides a ready antidote to the meatpacking district not two blocks distant, where, at places like Vento, the outdoor tables are pressed so close together that you’ll find yourself inspecting every tattoo and exposed undergarment of the dozen or so people within arm’s reach by meal’s end, whether you want to or not. Meanwhile, in the gloaming at Gavroche, the diners seem to melt into the dusk, each table isolated in its own soft and remote universe, the quiet disturbed only by the occasional pop of a cork, snatch of quiet conversation, or muted laugh.
Though the entrées are divided into the conventional and the unconventional (“Tradition” and “À Ma Façon,” as the menu puts it), the chef’s wilder moments are of the mildest sort. Among those wild moments are a good half-chicken fricasseed in fennel-laced cream (no longer on the menu), and homemade mushroom ravioli in a woodsy sauce goosed with truffle oil ($20). Only his black sea bass misfires. The fillet has been wrapped in thinly sliced potatoes and fried, a fad that fizzled a few years back. You’ll find it impossible to cut through the crust without making a mess of the fillet.
I was especially happy when the lack of a liquor license allowed me to bring my own wine, but luckily, Gavroche’s new carte de vin is littered with decent bottles from Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, and Burgundy—some of which range from $20 to $30. The cheese, pickled fish, and charcuterie assiettes ($14 to $20) are particularly useful in helping you get better acquainted with your chosen bottle. Other exemplary starters include the same soupe de poisson with croutons found in any Parisian bistro, a salmon carpaccio in olive oil that sets your mouth on fire with red peppercorns, and a basic salad of arugula and roasted goat cheese whose dressing is so simple and good that it will cause the bread to disappear from the basket.
So what if the desserts are mainly forgettable? They serve as further pretext to linger in the garden and realize that being seen on a crowded meatpacking district sidewalk is not nearly as desirable as not being seen in a dark and remote Village backyard.