FEATURE: Affordable French food

KUALA LUMPUR (The Star/ANN) - Chez Gaston offers good quality, reasonably-priced French fare.

Some distance away from the heavy foot traffic and constant stream of cars whizzing along Jalan Bangsar Utama 1 is Chez Gaston. The French restaurant sits in a quiet-ish, recessed corner and is a strikingly incongruous addition to a stretch of shoplots that has its fair share of cheap eats and convenience stores. But in many ways, this is the perfect place for Frenchman Florian Nigen to start all over again. 
Because Nigen’s F&B adventure also began in Bangsar, with French restaurant Rendez-Vous. When his business partner decided to go back to France, Nigen decided to close shop because the space was more than he could handle on his own. After taking a break in France, he regrouped and emerged energised with the idea of opening another restaurant.
“My father has had a restaurant in Bretagne for 35 years now and he’s still running it. He asks me all the time, ‘Why do you want to stay in Malaysia? Come back here.’ Especially when I closed Rendez-Vous, he said, ‘Come back and look after the restaurant, and I can relax a little bit.’ But I said, ‘Sorry, I’ve been living in Asia for 10 years, I can’t just go back to France,’” says Nigen, laughing.
Instead, he came back to Bangsar, found the space he wanted (“a small restaurant in a corner somewhere”) and quickly went to work putting together Chez Gaston.
The restaurant is charming, with widely-spaced tables, and quirky additions like a bicycle and old sewing machine interspersed between functional furniture. Outside, potted plants and planter boxes lend a dash of green to the surrounds, and you can easily imagine lazing outside on sunny afternoons or starry nights, gazing up at the sky above.
The restaurant’s food imbibes much of what Nigen did at Rendez-Vous, with about 30% new additions. He also made sure to offer the food at reasonable prices, a facet he was determined to incorporate into the eatery’s core ethos.
“The price is more affordable than Rendez-Vous because of the location. My rental is lower, that’s why I can afford to give a better price to customers. It’s about 20% to 30% cheaper,” says Nigen, who heads the kitchen and does the daily marketing.
There are many ways to begin a meal at Chez Gaston, but none of them would be as soul-nurturing as the Mediterranean fish soup (RM17) which is based on Nigen’s father’s recipe. The soup makes use of four different fish – seabass, red mullet, threadfin and white seabream in a tomato base. The resulting broth is delightfully light, with fish flavours undulating delicately alongside the tomato infusion. On the side is a rouille sauce (made with mayonnaise, garlic and saffron), croutons and grated Emmental cheese, all of which serve to add layered nuances to the soup. 
Snails are an integral part of French cuisine, and a frequent recurrence on French menus, so it’s no surprise to see escargots (RM22 for half a dozen) here. What is more than a little surprising is the price of these imported French land snails, which are a steal, considering the kidney-parting prices some other eateries are charging. The snails have a nice squidgy quality and are drenched in a homemade golden garlic and butter sauce, which is so good, you’ll be compelled to go full-blown caveman and try and lick every last drop. 
On a recent trip to France, I discovered just how much the French love their cheese, when cheese platter after cheese platter was proffered with great enthusiasm. In the tropical depths of Kuala Lumpur though, these cheesy pleasures are notable for being incredibly expensive. 
This is something that Chez Gaston hopes to rectify with a cheese platter (RM38) that is lighter on the wallet. Here, you’ll find a selection of French-sourced cheese like brie, goat’s cheese, Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese and raclette. Of these, the lightly pungent blue cheese is likely to make an impression as is the creamy, silken goat’s cheese. 
For a light main meal, indulge in the poulet basquaise (RM29), which is chicken thigh cooked in a white wine and capsicum sauce. It’s the sort of dish that nudges the imagination in the direction of carefree summer days, because the chicken is cooked well and the sauce glides down the palate like warm sun on a sandy beach. 
The grilled tomatoes (RM29) are stuffed with capsicum, caramelised onions and a blanket of melted raclette cheese. While it is competent comfort food, it doesn’t really have that same intuitive spark that dictates much of the output at Chez Gaston.
Thankfully, the dobe de sanglier (RM42) serves up the perfect remedy, in the form of an ingredient not often seen on menus anywhere. Wild boar is slow-cooked in a rich red wine sauce that is also dotted with olives. The dark sauce that coats the meat is intense, robust and bold while the wild boar itself is tender and pliable.
From the desserts on offer, there are options for those who have been saving space in their stomach for a decadent denouement as well as those who want something sweet without feeling the need to reproach their distended bellies afterward. For those hankering after the lighter option, try the floating island (RM11), a whisper-light egg white meringue floating gracefully in a pool of caramel and vanilla custard. It is delightful from start to finish. 
The chocolate mousse (RM12) is a dark, bewitching temptress designed to seduce and sedate diners into a state of submission. The chocolate is silken smooth, with a richness so powerful, it could potentially induce (unexpected) shivers of pleasure.
Although the restaurant is in its infancy, Nigen already has many plans afoot, including ideas of opening earlier to cater for breakfast as well as starting a deli counter to sell his many homemade pates – which include interesting options like rabbit and wild boar pate. But ultimately, all his plans are designed around one main goal: affordable pricing.
“I am convinced if I make good food at a good price, I will have the volume automatically, because as long as people are happy with this, they will come back. So that’s why I would rather do this than charge more and have fewer customers,” he says.
CHEZ GASTON
12, Jalan Bangsar Utama 9
59000 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 011-3993 0036
Open daily: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5pm to 11pm

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