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Mathieu Palombino gained recognition for his mastery of seafood at BLT Fish before transitioning to firing Neapolitan pizzas at Motorino, where he gained a cult following. Now, though, he’s opened a restaurant that bares his soul. La Gamelle (241 Bowery, 212-388-0052), Palombino’s new French brasserie, is a labor of love that’s been fifteen years in the making.
“This is the restaurant I came to this country for,” says Palombino, a native of Belgium. “Fifteen years ago, when I left my bag and I said to myself one day I will open a restaurant, [La Gamelle] is the restaurant I had in mind.”
When Palombino arrived in New York, he found himself drawn to French restaurants — they were, after all, where he could find fellow expats speaking his native tongue. He was enamored of the décor and classic menus full of steak frites and escargot.
When he picked up the Bowery address, though, he decided to try his hand at American comfort food, and he opened Bowery Diner. “I got it into my head to open a diner,” he says. “The truth is, I did this because I am not a fan of doing what I should be doing. Nothing about it was me.”
He soon realized he would much rather spend his time providing the Parisian brasserie experience to the Bowery, and he and his partners closed Bowery Diner to open Chez Jef, a pop-up restaurant born of the chef’s annual trips to Paris, where he became reacquainted with the brasserie. “In one week, I’m going to turn this around,” he says of the transition. “It’s going to be a funny pop-up. It’s going to look very wacky. At this point, I didn’t have anything to lose. We did this pop-up, it was fun, we put the food on the plate, and right away we got a good response. People loved the food, people loved the wine…the food being served this way. Right away I loved it.”
The team decided to explore the concept’s potential, and eventually settled on opening La Gamelle (French for “canteen”) in the same space. The chef teamed with Alex Gherab — who has designed many of New York City’s bistros — for the design. The result: a custom-made 18-seat zinc bar (installed by Palombino himself) and a 110-seat dining room filled with antique chairs and wood-trimmed mirrors.
From the kitchen, comfort fare is king; steak frites is served with a side of béarnaise, and you can supplement your order with pâté en croûte and ratatouille. Desserts include crêpe suzette, meringue, and strawberries with almond cream and chantilly. Bar offerings focus on European beers and wines as well as sparkling wine and house cocktails.
“This is a French restaurant you will find in France,” says Palombino. “The food is not Americanized. I worked in a lot of French restaurants that you have to adapt to the New York palate. The soup needs to be thicker, you have to put less sauce, you have to do less fries. New Yorkers are well educated enough to be appreciating what the French cuisine is without having to adapt it for them….It’s a super-simple place where you go; it’s not super-refined, but the environment is somehow refined. The food is always generous, well priced; it’s a place nobody should fear. You find your favorites, you eat with your friends, and it’s not about analyzing this new green purée and talking about it for 45 minutes. It’s about eating two steak frites face to face with a friend you haven’t seen in a while and drinking a little bit too much wine.”