Feeling too guilty to just take off to Paris, a friend and I recently compromised by treating ourselves to a local version - Cafe de Paris. We picked a night when her husband could take their little ones to his karate class and mine could stop for a takeout dinner for our teenager.
Cafe de Paris is not in an exotic setting, but guests feel as if they have left their suburban environs when they arrive. The main dining room is sophisticated more than pretty, but it sets off the excellent food. There is plenty of wood and a perfect balance of lighting: low overall but soft overhead lighting at each table. There is no peering through darkness at one's plate, thank goodness.
Dinner patrons have a choice of a three-course, fixed-price meal, which the cafe calls a formule and has priced very reasonably at $39.95, or an a la carte menu of chef's selections listed without prices.
On the night we went, the cafe was not crowded, so service should have been stellar. But it was not. Ages passed between courses, and our waiter was timid and ill-informed.
Many of the formule selections seem typical of bistro cooking: French onion soup, garlic snails, ribeye with fries, and garlic-crusted duck-leg confit and chicken sausage. But the sauces and flavors were more sophisticated than what you would expect from a bistro.
My friend, who has lived in France and speaks the language fluently, ordered formule and decided to start with the homemade chef's terrine. I ordered a la carte and chose the pan-crisp crab gateau with Champagne mustard sauce.
The terrine was a small slice of good, but not fantastic, country pate, flavorful but a little dry - and oddly presented. It arrived on a large oval plate dwarfed by a huge helping of greens, with cornichons scattered haphazardly. The crab gateau was not what we expected, far more Maryland than France, despite its name. But in fairness, "gateau" means "cake," and it was a Maryland crab cake. And it was delicious, too - plump and lumpy with crabmeat. The creamy, delicate sauce did not resemble what the menu described, though it was scrumptious and complemented the gateau.
In fact, we found all the way through the meal that the descriptions on the menu and from our waiter did not match the dishes. Since the food was better than what had been described, we didn't mind in the least. As long as the chef is this inspired, he should not be leashed to a menu description. But because some patrons don't like surprises, however, it might be helpful to provide a sheet that capture's the chef's innovations.
Our meal was off to a pretty good start, we thought, and then the entrees exceeded all expectations. My friend ordered duck breast with port-poached figs and crispy risotto. From the a la carte special selections, I chose the crab and spinach crusted Maryland rockfish with pesto-parmesan wild rice, topped with micro greens and red caviar.
The waiter asked my friend how she wanted the duck - which impressed her as an authentic French gesture of cuisine - and she asked for it medium rare. I found it a bit chewy for my taste, but it was perfect for her - a fabulous blend of strong, slightly gamey and sweet flavors. The figs weren't overly heavy with port and balanced the flavor of the meat.
Accompanying the duck, the crispy risotto was a revelation. Risotto is yummy, but it is the classic "been there, done that" dish. Most chefs throw ingredients at risotto to make it stand out, to the point that the risotto itself gets lost. But at Cafe de Paris, the chef had the brilliance to cook it, cake it and saute it. As good as the duck was, the risotto cake had us oohing. Lightly crisp on the outside and creamy soft on the inside, it matched the duck in texture and flavor.
I had ordered the rockfish reluctantly. It is heresy in Maryland, I know, but I'm not a huge rockfish fan. I considered trying the pork tenderloin a la Normande or the balsamic beef Provencal, but the waiter made them sound dull. So I ordered the rockfish without much hope. There seemed to be too much going on in that dish from the description. Rockfish, crab, spinach, caviar, pesto and parmesan in wild rice. Yikes.
But once again, the dish as served didn't match what was listed on the menu. And once again, it was far more wonderful than what the menu had described.
The rockfish tasted fresh and was perfectly pan-seared. The toppings complemented it expertly and enhanced the gorgeous fish without getting in the way. Instead of red caviar, there was black, and it looked pretty atop the white and pan-brown color of the fish. The crab was piled on top instead of crusted, a good decision. And there was no sign of the spinach, which the dish didn't need and didn't miss.