There is another Canton, a quieter residential neighborhood away from the commerce of Boston Street and the bustle of O'Donnell Square. "Old-man bars" still operate on the lonesome corners of this Canton, and when one of them closes, you can bet a cute cafe or trendy tavern isn't far behind.
That's what happened at Fait and Kenwood avenues, where a watering spot named Chazz and Rene's (pronounced "ree-neez") closed last year. The new resident at 800 S. Kenwood Ave. is Gitan Bistro Cru, and it's the kind of place that understands how a warm glow coming from a front window can make an indelible first impression.
Gitan is from first-time restaurateur Pauline Guiragoss, a native of Lebanon and longtime resident of Paris. Gitan wants to be charmingly hip, and it is. After just a few months, the front bar has established itself as gem, and a hardworking, friendly staff is proudly tending the white-tablecloth dining room. If the food is still settling in, the potential is obvious. In concept, Gitan's menu is ideal; in execution, it will require some patience.
Guiragoss wants Gitan to be a neighborhood gathering spot, a joint where folks can stop in for a glass of wine, an espresso or a light dinner. So on the dinner menu, along with a handful of principal plates are omelets, sandwiches like croque-monsieur and croque-madame, and substantial soups.
The menu also includes aselection of Lebanese-style small plates, or mezze, which seems incongruous for about two seconds. Lebanese food is everywhere in France — granted, perhaps not in traditional French cafes, except for the occasional hummus appetizer.
Guiragoss is the author of the menu, but the responsibility for its execution rests with others. Hersister, Maria Marek, is primarily responsible for Gitan's small plates, while Brian Bruso, who is running the kitchen at Gitan, is tending the soups, omelets and entrees. There is occasional overlap. Mixed in with the mezze, for instance, is a straight-up country pate served with cornichons, croutons and onion compote.
Among the mezze, the highlight is the pan-seared halloumi, a cheese of Cyprus famed for howspringy and warmly nutty it gets when it's grilled in a pan. It's a welcome addition to any menu, and the accompanying tomato chutney makes it more so here.
Traditional items like hummus and roasted eggplant dip are presented with warm pita and raw vegetables like carrots, radishes and spring onions. If the hummus at Gitan is coarser and less robustly seasoned than other versions, it could simply be a matter of regional variation. The eggplant, creamy with a pleasant roasted taste, offers more satisfying flavor. The two dips are plated almost identically, though — they'd work better together, as part of a sampler.
The French part of the menu has its moments, but it needs work. Bruso was the owner and executive chef at Birches, the Canton comfort-food destination that closed in August after an 11-year run. Essentially, it doesn't matter who's cooking whose ideas, but there is some tension at Gitan between design and execution. The French-bistro fare at Gitan is not a radical departure from the comfort-food creations at Birches, but the food we tried seldom had the impact that the best of Birchesdid.
In a seafood bisque, the scallops, shrimp and crab are all particularly well prepared and fresh-tasting, but the soup itself is bland, without any strong seafood flavor. That's too bad, because this very traditional preparation, which relies less on cream than on a reduction of shellfish, depends on it. The cassoulet at Gitan — listed on the menu simply as "cassoulet" — may also be a traditional preparation. If so, I prefer a cassoulet brimming with tender pork and duck, which tastes like it's been cooking all day. Here, it comes off as a bean stew with some occasional meat.
There are other menu items, omelets and a steak au poivre, that Gitan may want to revisit when its kitchen is fully up to speed. Gitan's version of steak au poivre is a modern adaptation, a cut of steak served with a peppery cream sauce. But the classic version, encrusted with black pepper and seared at high heat, is what diners will be expecting. A simple omelet, prepared only with salt, pepper and herbes de Provence, is decent when here it needs to be exceptional.
The setting and service at Gitan raise expectations. With its white tablecloths, polished wood floors, mustard-colored walls and black pressed-tin ceiling, the main dining room is cozily chic. The staff is enthusiastic without being obtrusive, informative without being pedantic.
The reason to visit Gitan right away is the bar, which is under the management of Bayne Jones. Recently of 13.5% Wine Bar, Jones appears to have had a setup like Gitan in his head, ready to spring on the world. The cocktail list combines classics like the Sazerac and Negroni with his own creations, to which he has given riddling names that customers are invited to figure out. A cocktail combining cachaca Brazilian rum and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur with muddled lime and fresh sage is called "the Wiper." I still don't know why.
Gitan Bistro Cru takes its wine seriously, too. The list is both broad and refreshingly compact, with only a handful of selections in each category. A series of Sunday afternoon wine classes is now under way.
I took to Gitan in spite of its frustrations, which have to do with the gap between vision and reality. Narrowing that gap will be Gitan's challenge in the months ahead.