I visit most restaurants once every two or three years, bu because owners, chefs and menus changed and changed again, I've been to Cafe des Artistes five years out of the last six. Gastronomically, the cafe has been consistently interesting, but in every respect, our recent meal there was our best.
I credit chef Claude Chauvin and sous-chef Bernard Dehaene with having introduced an extra finesse, though, of course, restaurants are such intricate and mysterious mechanisms, credit is probably due all around. What was attractive has remained so -- the bold, sensually appealing room, the lighting, the frothy oils and the handsome table settings. In addition, the ,, old abrasiveness and excessive familiarity of the service staff has receded and the kitchen is better than ever. The consequence is a restaurant that is gentler in atmosphere, more hospitable and more rewarding.
Mr. Chauvin is a wonderfully skilled chef. We began with artichoke bottoms stuffed with crab meat and shiitake mushrooms ($6.50); pheasant pate with watercress salad, a special ($5.25), and a lobster and salmon souffle ($7.50). All three were excellent.
Crab is such a sweet and singular delicacy, it begs not to be gussied up. At the cafe, the chef mixed it with mushrooms, bound it lightly with egg and oil, spooned the combination over large, good-quality, scooped-out artichokes, and finished the dish with glazed bearnaise. Delicious, and well worth duplicating in fresh artichoke season.
Sometimes, when pates with unusual ingredients are listed on ++ menus, one wonders why the chef didn't stick with the usual pork. But not in this case. The cafe's pheasant pate tasted vibrantly "pheasant," with an earthiness intelligently reinforced by a coarse texture, by crunchy chunks of pistachio in the meat, and by a piquant salad of watercress, glossy with a dressing strong on vinegar.
The lobster and salmon souffle was the most exceptional and sophisticated of the three first courses. Picture a plump, matte-blond silk bag, in a pool of blush-brown cream -- a phyllo bag, folded to close at the top, with a dab of salmon eggs perched above, over a sprig of dill. Fork down into the phyllo, to discover a delicate, moist, steamed mousse, with subtle seafood flavors enhanced by a surrounding mushroom, shrimp and lobster cream.
Our main courses were wild rockfish grilled with green peppercorn sauce ($18.50), tournedos stuffed with escargots ($20.95) and duck breast with ginger ($17.95). It's odd that natural rockfish is now reasonably called "wild," but fish-farm rock gives the term meaning. Is "wild" rock tastier? Farm fish, in my experience, does tend to be factory-bland. At any rate, this was a delicious fillet, lightly floured, sauteed in butter, and set in a cream sauce sparked by bourbon and green peppercorns.
The tournedos was the only disappointing feature of the meal. While it looked beautiful -- a gorgeously browned monolith rising out of a pool of cream -- it was both mealy and overcooked to a brownness well past medium rare. Therefore, the snails tucked into a side pocket of the meat seemed to be not a dark, delectable secret, but a dry afterthought. Happily, we loved the cream sauce around them, quietly strengthened with Roquefort cheese.
To underline the sweetness of duck, the chef laid a thin-sliced breast across an imaginative sauce flavored with sweet, herbal benedictine liqueur and scattered with blades of fresh ginger poached in sugar syrup. The results? Marvelous. Vegetables were also handled well: a thin triangle of potato cake; sugared, slightly vinegared red cabbage; a small tomato topped with chopped mushroom; buttered broccoli, and a lovely mound of molded custard were carefully done and various in their textures and flavors.
A reasonable number of listed wines cost between $20 and $30. We drank our $29 bottle of Etude 1988 pinot noir slowly, because it deserved to be noticed. Incidentally, when we suggested that the bowls of the wineglasses on the table were too small to handle the wine's bouquet, we were brought a set of larger crystal glasses. Other patrons might like them, too. Some may think them on the silly side of fancy, but the wine needed them.
Choosing among desserts ($4.95 each), we tried two cakes: one, dTC a fanciful orange-and-green Alice in Wonderland-looking affair, and one, mainly chocolate. Both were fresh, light and, in their chocolate edges, intense. A dish of warm strawberries, raspberries, raspberry puree and melon cubes sauced with bubblingly warm zabaglione may sound crazy, but it was glorious.
Soothing rooms, soothing food, soothing service and even good decaffeinated coffee ($1.25). First class. *
Next: Akbar, Randallstown
Cafe des Artistes, 1501 Sulgrave Ave., 664-2200
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Saturdays 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Saturdays 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; light fare Fridays and Saturdays until midnight
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Classic French cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes