Four-Star French

Gwenael and Annie Goulet are back at their French bistro—and it’s better than ever.



Photo by Cathy Pinky

Chef Gwenael Goulet has returned to the kitchen at Buffet de al Gare.

Afriend of ours who had just returned from Paris was breathlessly extolling the virtues of our favorite little bistro. “The food was so…” she paused and sighed dramatically. “And ooooh,” she gushed, “the ambiénce!” (Though she hails from the hills of West Virginia, she was so swept away by the experience, she acquired a “French” accent). We were happy she enjoyed our recommendation, happy she had a great time. But damn—it should have been us!

We deserve to go. We need to go. We want to go. Only our flaccid 529 (for those of you without children, that’s a college-savings plan) holds us back. So instead, we force the proposed recipient of said 529 to don a tie (or “noose,” to an 18-year-old) and make our way to Buffet de la Gare in Hastings-on-Hudson.

When we were last there, original chef-owners Gwenael and Annie Goulet had just turned over the reigns to a lovely and talented young couple, Luc and Nicole Dimnet. Under the Dimnets’ direction, the restaurant retained much of its charm but apparently lost its profit margins. Last summer, we saw the fateful signs in the window “Closed for Renovation”—a statement as reliable as “The check is in the mail.”

It turned out the restaurant really was closed for renovation. The Goulets had taken back ownership and reduced the square footage of the space. What is left is a more intimate version of the former restaurant. The front room, with its inviting bar, tin walls and ceiling, and tile entry not only retains every bit of its original charm, the new cozier ambience adds to its warmth and personal character.

Annie Goulet greets us, empathizing that we’d gotten stuck in traffic. She takes special effort to include our young Mr. 529 in the conversation, and his eyeballs find their way out of his forehead. He succumbs to her charms—even before he tries the soup.

The soup duo of rich, silken butternut squash with smoky undertones of bacon and silken nectar with sweet earth tones from celeriac and leeks soothed the savage beast. Leeks, the mild onions at their best “when nipped by the first frost,” were braised and paired with sliced artichokes before donning a flattering, lightly acidic whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. Our favorite salad here (and at Allard, the Parisian bistro our West Virginian friend so adored) was made with feathery, crisp frisée and warm, smoky lardons. Two simple ingredients, lightly cloaked in dressing, prove the axiom that opposites attract.

Rillettes of duck, on the other hand, was about one pure, rich, heady experience. The spread, made from small bits of duck slowly cooked in heavily salted fat, is not about subtly, balance, or refinement. These rillettes, classically executed and presented, cloak one’s olfactory senses in velvet—while acting as an opiate that erases any distracting thoughts of arteries and waistbands. Brandade, the spread made from salt cod, is nowhere near as rich as rillettes, but at Buffet de la Gare, the intense cod flavor and creamy texture made it every bit as pleasurable.

While the cooking is all classic French, not all the dishes are readily recognizable standards. Yes, there is the cassoulet, served in a copper pot and spooned tableside onto the plate. Bite-size pieces of flavorful lamb, confit duck leg, garlic saucison, brawny chunks of bacon that are more about fat than the smoke, and creamy white beans comprised a generous serving of this renowned favorite.

We also had the half-duck served with fresh plum sauce. In this preparation, it was not the fat of the duck that was emphasized, but the mild inherent gamey flavor of the meat. Slices of warm fresh plum with its restrained sweetness heightened the meaty flavor of the bird, as did the musky black rice and sweet-potato purée with which it was served.

The two fish dishes we tried, while not recognizable as standard French classics, surprised us by being everyone’s favorite. Is it cruel to describe a special of pan-seared halibut, knowing it may or may not be offered when you visit? No matter; you simply will have to go back again and again, ordering every other dish until it reappears. The uncommonly moist fish, served crowned with the crisped skin, sat atop minions of sautéed diced tomato rising from a shallow pool of citrus beurre blanc. If halibut is queen, then the grilled wild striped bass would be her king. Beneath the pleasurably meaty, grilled flavor and texture lay its gentler buttery nature; both characteristics were enlivened by the slightly sweet depth of the red-wine reduction.
Mystery lurked in the depths of the nage de fruits de mer. Plump scallops, tender lobster, and snappish shrimp waded in a broth with unexpected layers of flavor: thoughts of cinnamon and vanilla float by just when you are focused on the sea.

Sweetbreads, on the other hand, are firmly grounded on land. The animal flavor of these tender crusted sweetbreads is brought to the fore with a sweet, earthy morel-cream sauce. Hangar steak was even more robust: its inherent mild liver flavor was a perfect match for the full-bodied shallot and red-wine reduction.

What better to follow a deep, rich steak than floating islands, that oft-forgotten dessert of meringue clouds adrift in crème anglaise? Well, perhaps if you are Young Mr. 529, you still have room for the thick tarte Tatin topped with a quenelle of barely sweetened whipped cream. The dessert was lovely, though it did lack the prerequisite bitter flavor that is the trademark of tarte Tatin. And how did we love thee, o trio of chocolate desserts? Let me count the ways: (1) the moist, gently dark flourless chocolate cake balanced by (2) the ethereal chocolate mousse somehow laden with chocolate flavor and (3) the palate-cleansing chocolate sorbet that was neither too bitter nor overly sweet.

We owe thanks to the Goulets for helping us make it through these rough economic times. While their restaurant is far from inexpensive, we have been able to postpone, just a little bit longer, our burning (and costly) need to return to France.

Buffet de la Gare

★★★★

155 Southside Ave
Hastings-on-Hudson
(914) 478-1671

Hours: Lunch Thurs and Fr 12–2 pm; dinner Tues to Fri 6–9:30 pm, Sat 6-10 pm, Sun 4–8:30 pm; Appetizers: $9-$14; entrées: $25-$32; desserts: $8.50

  ★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good
★★—Good ★—Fair