A few days before I dined with a friend
in Le Gamin, a new French cafe in Prospect Heights, I stuck my
head in to get a feel for the place. It was around 3 o’clock
in the afternoon and a few people were picking at late lunches
while they read. A couple of mothers, infants sleeping soundly
in carriages nearby, were deep in conversation over huge cafe
au lait cups. Through the back windows I could see tables in
a sun-dappled garden shaded by huge trees.
The night I returned to Le Gamin, the rain was biblical. Great sheets of it whipped under our umbrellas, drenching our heads and soaking our jeans up to the knees. We shook our hair out like wet dogs and settled at a table inside the cafe. Our waiter tsk-tsked, murmuring his sympathy in a heavy French accent.
He whisked away the awful bottle of Chardonnay, chosen from the dismal selection in a liquor store across the street, and poured us each a glass. (Until mid-September, when their liquor license is approved, the restaurant has a BYOB policy without a corkage fee.)
The room - with its handwritten signs informing guests of the special "les moules" and "les crepes" of the evening, the long counter where two cooks prepared salads and filled crepes, and the French singers, mercifully quiet, humming in the background - made the cafe especially inviting on a rainy evening.
Owner Kathy Palm was a regular in Le Gamin’s East Village branch. She loved the hospitality of Le Gamin (French for "naughty boy") and vowed to open her own with a similar easy-going warmth. Her cafe, one of a mini-chain of French cafes with two in New York City and one in Boston, opened in June. Her eatery answers the need for a comfortable place to hang out and drink coffee or dine on a light meal, that the stretch of Vanderbilt Avenue - wedged between Park Slope and Fort Greene - desperately needs.
To read the paper over an excellent cafe au lait, nibble a buttery croissant or linger over a plate of fresh fruit, there’s no better place than Le Gamin; however, anything more complicated than a salad or sandwich gets tricky.
Part of the problem is the kitchen’s setup, or, in this case, counter arrangement. Behind a long half-wall, two cooks do their best to turn out the dishes on a couple of hot plates, electric crepe pans and a microwave oven. The appliances are serviceable for quick preparations; less so for any dish that needs slower, careful cooking.
The cafe’s signature dish is the crepe. The savory versions are made with a buckwheat batter, which is fine if the pancake emerges from the pan thin and crisp-edged with a nutty flavor. But the version we ordered was dreary. This crepe was heavy and the filling of over-salted goat cheese and caramelized leeks didn’t help. A mound of mesclun that pairs with the crepe, dressed in well-made, sharp mustard vinaigrette, deserved a more compelling partner.
The cooks fare better with fresh, neatly-plated salads. The organic greens used in the endive, apple and Roquefort plate were crisp and delicately bitter and the cheese pleasantly sharp. The salad was supposed to be dressed in a vinaigrette enhanced with lavender. It sounded intriguing but never made it to the plate.
Perhaps the mussels, another of the cafe’s specialties, would be more successful if their broth was reduced to concentrate its flavor. The big pot of the shellfish, easily enough for two to share as a dinner entree, were a bit overcooked and a little sandy. Its creamy saffron sauce with white wine and shallots needed 10 minutes over a burner to develop.
The dessert crepes are the best dishes on the menu. They’re made with white flour, so they’re finer and lighter tasting, with a slight chewiness and a rich, eggy flavor. A thick puddle of Valrhona chocolate fills the crepe. The chocolate’s deep, bitter edge compliments the sweetness of ripe banana slices. With a cup of coffee, the crepe makes a first-rate finale.
Le Gamin does a good job combining the ease of a coffee bar with the understated appeal of a casual French eatery. If the kinks in the cooking are worked out, this cafe could become a place with dishes that satisfy the soul on an evening awash with rain.
Le Gamin (556 Vanderbilt Ave. between Dean and Bergen streets in Prospect Heights) accepts cash only. Entrees: $5-$14. BYOB until mid-September; no corkage fee. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; Le Gamin is open from 8 am to 10 pm. For more information, call (718) 789-5171.