A Lot of Gaul
Watch out, corner grill—your days are numbered. The brasserie craze est arrivé.
The occupation took shape in meandering fashion—a typical French maneuver. First, Brasserie Jo set up camp at the Colonnade. Then Eastern Standard commandeered Kenmore. The latest move, a comparative blitzkrieg, had Bouchée flanking Newbury, Miel manning the waterfront, and just this month Gaslight heading off the South End pass. Here we are, five brasseries into a fullâ€‘on siege, and we never even saw it coming.
For years, French food in Boston meant special-occasion food, as the likes of L’Espalier dazzled us with sophisticated, pricy cuisine. With the brasserie (“brewery”), though, French foodmongers have mounted a serious challenge to the neighborhood joint. Instead of Cobb salad and steak tips, the standards are onion soup and steak frites, but the idea’s the same: familiar fare, not culinary adventurism. And prices that are easy on the wallet.
The downside is that with brasseries opening on every corner, choosing gets tricky. Do you want painstaking authenticity? Or a carefully curated romp through Epcot-style Paris? To make sense of it all, we test-drove the city’s five reigning brasseries. Voilà…your steak frites cheat sheet.
Chef Christopher Robins
Arrondissement: 560 Harrison Ave.
Le Gimmick: So relentlessly French you have to ask for “le” check
Décor: Subterranean Chic
Service with a. . .: Chatty yarn
Dress Code: Hermès scarf, midcalf culottes, ironic disdain
The Steak (Score 1-10): Thick, juicy, and beefy bavette (French steak tips), boasting pleasant chewiness and a sinfully tasty herb butter ($19.50) 9
The Frites (Score 1-10): The same fries that McDonald’s uses. Seriously. 9
Food for Francophiles: Choucroute garni; lamb with garlic, herbs, and pommes Morbier
Food for the Francophobes Who Love Them: Did we mention these are the same fries McDonald’s uses?
Chef Tim Partridge
Arrondissement: 159 Newbury St.
Le Gimmick: Joe’s American meets Franco-American
Décor: Part Hello, Dolly!, part La Cage aux Folles
Service with a. . .: Billerica brogue
Dress Code: I (heart) BOSTON anything
The Steak (Score 1-10): Preternaturally tender sirloin strip, first underseasoned, then served with an eggy garlic aioli ($26) 5
The Frites (Score 1-10): Crispy, thin, fresh-cut; a tad unrestrained with the rosemary 9
Food for Francophiles: Monkfish with French lentils and brown-butter cauliflower
Food for the Francophobes Who Love Them: Flatbread pizza, mac ’n’ cheese, spaghetti carbonara
Chefs Russell Ferguson and Dante Cantalupo
Arrondissement: Hotel Commonwealth
Le Gimmick: An “American” spin on the brasserie (but they still call them frites)
Décor: An “American” spin on interior design (but they still call it décor)
Service with a. . .: Round of hide-and-seek
Dress Code: Sox hat, Sox jersey, Sox socks
The Steak (Score 1-10): Gorgeously charred hanger steak with a rosy pink interior,
sliced and topped with a big knob of marrow butter ($19) 8
The Frites (Score 1-10): Skinny, skin-on frozen fries—er, frites—cooked until fairly crispy 7
Food for Francophiles: Roasted bone marrow with parsley salad; “Today’s Offal”
Food for the Francophobes Who Love Them: Ceviche, baked rigatoni, meatloaf with mashed potatoes
Chef Didier Montarou
Arrondissement: InterContinental Boston
Le Gimmick: Michelin Chef Develops Menu! Promptly Jets Back to France!
Décor: The “Barrage de Provence” collection, only at Crate & Barrel
Service with a. . .: Bewildered stare
Dress Code: Polo shirt, wrinkle-free trousers, out-of-state ID
The Steak (Score 1-10): A dark-crusted, utterly succulent (and enormous) rib-eye that just edges out Gaslight’s bavette. (At $34 a pop, it should.) 10
The Frites (Score 1-10): Also thin-cut and frozen; in this case, grease-free and thyme-flecked 8
Food for Francophiles: Duck magret with lavender miel, zucchini tian, and celeriac purée
Food for the Francophobes Who Love Them: Chicken caesar, Cobb salad, spare ribs, clam chowder
Chef Olivier Rigaud
Arrondissement: Colonnade Hotel
Le Gimmick: Authentically bored waiters
Décor: Potted ferns, Eiffel Tower replicas. Just like in France. In the ’60s.
Service with a. . .: Scowl
Dress Code: Floral separates, “ruby” brooch, clip-on lunettes
The Steak (Score 1-10): Ultrathin oviform disk of beef exuding a certain je ne sais quoi (literally); gray but for nicely art-directed grill marks ($21.95) 2
The Frites (Score 1-10): Supercrispy fresh-cut, served dangerously hot—in a good way 8
Food for Francophiles: Tarte flambée (translation: bacon-onion pizza)
Food for the Francophobes Who Love Them: Belgian waffle with Vermont maple syrup; Maine lobster