A Worthy Successor
Until early this year, Café One Ninety was a blissful little bohemian eatery on the northern fringe of the Design District. Owners Alan and Donna Lee Hughes offered appealing food at affordable prices in an amiable ambiance. Add to the mix an expired lease and a greedy landlord, and it's not difficult to guess the rest.
Fast-forward to early July: In the former One Ninety spot, owner Alex Duff opens GiGi, a modern American-French bistro boasting reasonable prices and an agreeable atmosphere. The room has changed, including the removal of a stage where local artists used to perform, the addition of a few more tables, and the creation of a palm tree mural on the back wall. The others -- painted off-white -- are adorned with old gilded mirrors, and accented by low-level lighting provided by tabletop votives and spindly black candelabras hanging from a black ceiling. The stylish bar looks downright swank in comparison to its humble surroundings, but like its predecessor, GiGi is funky, functional, and unpretentious.
The food doesn't put on any airs either. In retrospect, I wish it had been more full of itself. A cursory menu of freshly prepared, quickly cooked meals barely contains a single item that couldn't be included in a daily newspaper's dinner-in-minutes column. The kitchen crew, however, apparently favors the dinner-in-hours approach. On one occasion we waited 30 minutes for a tuna niçoise salad and almost as long for the following course. A return visit brought the same lengthy delay for appetizers, but this time the kitchen overcompensated by sending out entrées while we were still working on starters. A few service glitches, from unfilled water glasses to leaving us stranded without flatware, was owed less to incompetence and more to understaffing.
The niçoise salad was worth the wait, a small thatch of field greens wetted with Dijon vinaigrette and topped with a clean alignment of traditional components -- tomato wedges, black olives, haricots verts, a neatly fanned new potato, and a sliced rectangle of freshly grilled tuna. The lack of anchovies and hard-boiled eggs will disappoint niçoise aficionados.
Mussels are steamed, cane-skewered chicken is grilled, but the rest of the starters require little stove space. Tuna tartare, smoked salmon, and a Middle Eastern hummus plate are served cold, as are two textured triangles of slightly grainy country pâté (not housemade). A Med medley casserole comprising "baked" feta, tomatoes, and black olives was barely warm, thus denying the flavors a chance to meld. A promised infusion of capers and thyme never materialized, yet the medley managed to please when plumped into a lightly grilled triangle of pita.
Main courses are likewise elementary and amenable. Two calf's liver cutlets sumptuously sautéed to a pinkish brown were garnished with meaty nuggets of bacon and onion in red wine and demi-glace. A bundle of crunchy, bright green haricots verts came stacked on the side. Not many places in town offer a more toothsome plate for $12. Steak frites, at only $14, brought a generous hangar cut and a tall tangle of thin, golden brown, crisp fries. This was one of those dishes for which we'd waited 30 minutes and when the meat finally arrived well-done instead of medium-rare, it was whisked straight back to the kitchen. About ten minutes later a steak returned too rare, but fetchingly juicy. The owner, who's always on the premises, came by to apologize for the mistake and offered wine or desserts on the house. Well handled.
Four-cheese vegetable lasagna with fire-roasted tomatoes would have been noteworthy simply because it's the only oven-cooked entrée. Unfortunately it's no longer served. Our waiter regretted telling me this after I'd already ordered it. The staff is polite, earnest, and likable.
A flawlessly grilled fillet of mahi-mahi proved a succulent substitute, but "mango rum sauce" was bereft of the spirit and anything else save a thin mango purée; to call this sauce simple is to suggest Jessica Simpson isn't overly complex. Three sautéed cutlets of pounded pork -- crowned by strands of fennel sweetly braised with fig jam, red wine, and demi-glace -- possessed a vaguely tender consistency. Curiously, the fish dish was sided by green beans and roasted new potatoes, while the pork was perked with only beans. Evidently potato placement isn't their forte; during a brunch visit, my beautiful brioche French toast, lusciously layered with a foamy strawberry purée, was inappropriately accompanied by home fries. However, the weekend brunch is well worth the $15 ticket: a cup of coffee; a glass of Prosecco, sangria, or a mimosa; and one of ten alluring dishes, including eggs Benedict, huevos rancheros, steak and eggs, and a lobster roll.
Grilled salmon with whole-grain mustard, grilled curried shrimp with lemon grass, chicken paillard, and sirloin steak au poivre complete the main courses. As one who once roomed with a rabbit, I'm no booster of braised bunnies, but it seems Bistro Bisou (reviewed in this issue) boasts a ballsier menu.
The wine selection isn't very ambitious either. Only four reds are listed, though the waiter verbally recited another half-dozen choices, including a Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet blend called "Menage-A-Trois." The beer list is also restricted to just Heineken, Miller Lite, and Stella Artois. A cheese plate features a blue and three Italian cheeses -- in an American-French bistro? GiGi can do better than this.
The range of desserts is no wider: bakery-bought apple tart with vanilla ice cream, or housemade chocolate mousse and crme brùlée. The waitstaff's preferred pick of mousse was anything but -- a thick, pasty dark chocolate pudding laced with enough brandy to knock Nick Nolte off the wagon. Crme brùlée, on the other hand, was an impeccably executed, delicately brittle sugar crust capping silky custard.
The brùlée's ethereal quality is impressive, but little else about GiGi's cuisine is remarkable. Conversely, you can't discount the appeal of fresh, well-portioned, economically priced food. Factor in a friendly neighborhood vibe, and GiGi can be considered a worthy successor to the beloved One Ninety. Let's hope Mr. Duff signed a long-term lease.
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