You can't keep a good bistro down

Cafe de Paris opens again in Columbia, with a flair for appetizers, desserts

Restaurant Review

May 26, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I've never understood why Columbia doesn't seem to be able to support good independent restaurants. The people who live there, I presume, are knowledgeable about food and have more than their share of discretionary income. Yet it's the chains that flourish. Don't you parents ever want a night out on your own?

But now the Cafe de Paris has opened and is proving that an adult restaurant can do very well here. (Not that kids aren't welcome, but they had better have a sophisticated palate.) At least I'm guessing the new country French restaurant is proving that -- maybe all those people having a good time the night we were there have followed owner Erik Rochard from Laurel, where the Cafe de Paris used to be located, before it was kicked out of its Laurel Lakes Centre location to make room for a home improvement store.

The bistro closed last May. Rochard found the new space in Columbia and was planning to open last August after some minor renovation. Then we heard nothing more about the project. Devoted fans called me to ask what was happening. The space (where the Tavern at Centre Park had been) remained closed. The "Opening Soon" sign disappeared.

The story has a happy ending, especially if you're fond of snails in garlic butter and creme brulee. It turns out that Rochard's visa had expired, and he returned to France with his family to have it renewed. Now he's back, the new Cafe de Paris is open, and it's flourishing.

This is a French bistro Columbia-style, which means that the decor is contemporary, with a few chic country French touches -- white paper over the white tablecloths, a bit of wrought iron here, an antique hutch there, some Moulin Rouge posters. An expanse of windows overlooks pleasant green spaces. The hardwood floors are bare, but for some reason the restaurant isn't noisy -- maybe because all those adults are talking in normal voices.

The old Cafe de Paris was best known for its fixed-price dinners, which included any dish from the whole menu. Rochard has brought the concept to Columbia, and it's the way to go. For $32.95, you get appetizer, main course and dessert. Everything can be had a la carte, but in that case the food seems a bit pricey, with most entrees costing $22. Portions aren't overwhelmingly large, so three courses is very doable if you don't indulge too heavily in the good bread and sweet butter.

Besides, if you skip the appetizers, you miss the best part of the meal. Duck confit (preserved duck) with lentil salad and mixed greens is a gutsy combination that works on just about every level. Saffron-sparked lobster soup is rich beyond words without the addition of cream -- just full-bodied flavor, a crunch of small croutons and a drizzle of aioli. A gentle cream sauce and lemon vinaigrette enhance gravad lox, while an appealing bit of chopped salad flanks the delicate house-cured salmon.

These are a hard act to follow. Wild boar a la bourguignon comes closest, with chunks of meat that drift apart at the touch of a fork and a wine sauce that can stand up to the gamey flavor. Noodles soften its intensity. Chicken fricassee -- more coq au vin than chicken in a cream sauce -- is almost superb, with a sturdy sauce and little roast potatoes browned at the edges, but the chicken itself was a bit skimpy. (And I like small portions.)

Other choices run along the same lines: classic dishes like lamb shank with white beans and a bistro steak with pommes frites. The special of the day will probably be seafood (this evening it was scallops) to take advantage of what's fresh in the market. Otherwise, if you want fish it will have to be salmon, draped quite simply over a fine ratatouille, which eclipsed the sauteed fish itself.

The fixed-price menu should be chosen if only so you won't be tempted to skip desserts, which are a high point. Creme brulee is a blushing bride, delicate and tender. Profiteroles have lots of sex appeal, with superb cream-puff casings, rich vanilla ice cream and a luxurious chocolate sauce. But I was more intrigued with the nougat glace, a cross between ice cream and mousse studded with pistachios, draped in raspberry sauce and flanked with drunken prunes.

Coffee, both regular and decaffeinated, arrived barely lukewarm but was whisked away when we complained and replaced by coffee that was freshly brewed and very good.

Cafe de Paris' wine list is a limited but pleasing collection of mostly French (with some domestic) choices priced to encourage diners to indulge in a bottle with dinner. That's good, because wine with this food is almost de rigueur.

Cafe de Paris

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 8808 Centre Park Drive

Hours: Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner

Price: Appetizers, $6.50-$7.95; main courses, $21.95-$23.95

Call: 410-997-3560

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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