Don't get too attached to Cafe de Paris, at least in its present location. It's probably going to have to move elsewhere in Laurel Lakes Centre this spring to make room for a home improvement center. Unfortunately, this neighborhood bistro has a relocation clause in its lease; otherwise, it might find someplace more appropriate than a mall -- like a neighborhood.
The news about the move isn't all bad. You could hardly pick a worse spot for a French cafe than its present location, in the dark back of the mall just past the loading docks of the stores. And you could hardly call the long, narrow dining room regimented into two levels cozy, in spite of the lace cafe curtains, candlelight and fresh flowers.
But Cafe de Paris has two things going for it that should help it survive, move or no move: First, good, traditional French food, and second, a personable and efficient staff. And as a good French bistro must, Cafe de Paris has a well-thought-out wine list and great bread, crisp-crusted and chewy (from Bonaparte bakery).
This is French comfort food, from an era that had never heard of nouvelle cuisine: cassoulets and confits, escargots and sweetbreads in puff pastry. Creme brulee and chocolate mousse for dessert.
It isn't inexpensive, but the prix fixe is a comparative bargain. For $28.95 you can get a choice of any appetizer, main course and dessert on the menu. (The beef fillet with bearnaise is an extra $5.)
About as Now and Wow as the kitchen gets is to grill a marinated portobello mushroom, slice it, arrange it like petals of a flower and decorate it with a swirl of goat cheese. It's a pretty first course, with a marvelous contrast of textures and a pleasing sweet-sour undertone from the marinade.
Most of the other first courses are quite traditional, like the tender sweetbreads and fat little mushrooms in a winey reduction, spilling out of their fragile golden puff pastry shell.
My personal favorite of our first courses was a beautifully balanced combination of duck confit and lentil salad. The tender-chewy lentils in a fine vinaigrette were a splendid contrast to the rich, salty flavors of the preserved duck.
This time of year, at least, the menu emphasizes meats rather than seafood, with beef, veal, pork, lamb and venison to choose from. Your best bet if you crave fish is the daily special. This evening it was a fresh and meaty swordfish fillet -- not overcooked but not as undercooked as you sometimes get these days. You may find that a plus or a minus. The fish came bathed in a suave red wine and butter reduction, accompanied by a swirl of mashed potatoes and fresh spinach.
Equally good were tender chunks of venison, cooked rosy rare, with a dark, intense, bittersweet sauce of juniper berries. Potatoes sliced and baked with heavy cream and cheese were fabulous; and slender, just-tender green beans added a fresh note to the plate.
Only my roast lamb disappointed. The thin slices were overcooked to the point of dryness -- even the lamb's winey, full-bodied sauce couldn't save it. Luckily I also got those wonderful potatoes gratin and a well-seasoned ratatouille. Bravo for the variety of vegetables available here.
Desserts are classics. The chocolate elysee could have been from the freezer of a restaurant supply house, but if so no one was admitting it. Homemade isn't always best -- no one could fault the layer of almond dacquoise covered with chocolate mousse and a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate.
The other desserts we tried were clearly made in house: a smooth creme brulee with a crackly sugar crust and the French version of floating island, with poached meringues floating in the Cafe de Paris' excellent creme anglaise.
No surprises here, as with the rest of the meal. But sometimes that's just what you want in a restaurant.
CAFE DE PARIS
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: Laurel Lakes Centre
Hours: Open Tuesdays through Sundays for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$7.25; main courses, $19.95-$24.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *