Classic French Food In Classic Apartment House

DINING OUT

May 15, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Jeannier's, 105 W. 39th St., (410) 889-3303. Open Mondays t Fridays for lunch, Mondays to Saturdays for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.25-$7.50; entrees, $12.75-$24.50. ***

Once upon a time apartment-house dining rooms were the last bastion of the genteel life outside of private clubs. Places like the Ambassador and the 3900 and the Broadview offered long, slow Sunday dinners with crab imperial and iced tea and Jell-O salads. Some of the food might put you to sleep, but some of it was very good. (Remember those homemade rolls at the Ambassador?)

The restaurant at the 3900 is long gone. The Ambassador dining room has reached a compromise with changing times by retaining some of the old-fashioned favorites but specializing in Continental and new American cuisine.

But the Broadview turned into a French restaurant a decade ago and never looked back.

Oh, there are a few concessions to the fact that this is an apartment-house dining room and that some tenants might want a not-too-expensive meal. So there is a bistro menu in the bar area and an early-bird menu. Some people might not want quail perigourdine at their apartment house dining room, so there are crab cakes on the menu. But otherwise, the cuisine is classically French.

The owner and chef is Roland Jeannier, who made his reputation in Baltimore at the well-respected Country Fare Inn. He took over the Broadview dining room in 1985.

You wouldn't think this was a French restaurant to look at it, except for the paintings of Paris street scenes on the walls. These are comfortable, conservative rooms -- rather formal and, at night, quite dimly lit. My only complaint about the setting is that the tables seem a bit too close together. But that may be because the maitre d', like maitre d's at so many restaurants, insists on grouping customers together instead of spreading them out throughout the half-empty dining room.

There was only one waitress this early-in-the-week night, but she did have help from an efficient busboy. In spite of the fact that she couldn't give us the attention we deserved at a restaurant where entrees average $18, I thought she was unusually good. She was knowledgeable about the food, and she managed to suggest that it was actually her pleasure to serve us.

Jeannier's is an excellent restaurant, but the times I've eaten there I've felt it could be even better with a little more attention to detail. Case in point: the asparagus hollandaise, ordered a la carte on an early spring evening. What we got for our $3.95 was what looked like a pound of the largest asparagus spears I've ever seen. Now I happen to think large asparagus can be very good, but they have to be peeled. These weren't, so they were unpleasantly woody. The kitchen might as well have put its superb hollandaise on a tree branch.

Still, the hollandaise was so delicate and lemon-buttery that even a tree branch would have tasted good. Come to think of it, I've never been disappointed with a sauce at Jeannier's. While you could get grilled chicken or the crab cakes here, I'd order something a little more gussied up. Jeannier's sauces are light but wonderfully rich -- essences and reductions rather than gravies.

Have the flavorful boneless sirloin with a swirl of dark, winey sauce. Or shad roe in season with a more delicate but equally seductive reduction. (Too bad the dish had such a large pile of sauteed onions as well. With the good, crisp bacon and the sauce, that much onion just wasn't necessary.)

Salmon was bathed in a silky dill sauce that almost made us forget it wasn't the most wonderful salmon we'd ever had. Not that it wasn't perfectly fresh. But perhaps Jeannier's clientele is basically conservative, and the kitchen knows it can't get away with undercooking its seafood. Still, if you've had tuna or salmon slightly rare at the middle, you may find Jeannier's somewhat dry. The shad roe was a bit overcooked for my taste as well.

Dinners come with a starch -- with all our meals, crisp-skinned, herb-scented, buttery roast potatoes -- and a simple green salad. Seasonal vegetables are extra; this evening they included (fungi lovers take note) a choice of mushrooms du jour or shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

You can trade up, as our waitress phrased it, for a more elaborate European salad, which one of my guests did. It was worth the extra cost for the pretty arrangement of baby lettuces, Belgian endive and red oak leaf, pinenuts and crumbled blue cheese in vinaigrette.

As for dessert, you can't do better than Jeannier's wonderful floating island. You may remember it as a nursery dessert, but this wonderfully grown-up version has a delicate, vanilla-scented creme anglaise. In it floats a cloud of poached meringue surrounded by a halo of caramelized spun sugar. Of course, there are the usual pastry tray offerings as well, and some of them are very good. The kitchen makes, for instance, a trompe l'oeil "tulip" of white and dark chocolate and fills it with chocolate mousse for those who insist on decadence in their desserts. But as for me, I'll stick with the floating island.

Next: Garry's Grill

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