We'll Always Have Paris
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 15, 2006
Let's count the ways Cafe de Paris woos us: Once a month, owner Erik Rochard hosts a martini happy hour fueled with live jazz (he's the guy on the flute), and chef Damien O'Donnell offers cooking instruction in classes designed for both kids and adults. The convivial French restaurant also features frequent wine dinners and hors d'oeuvres-and-alcohol tastings and, for bargain hunters, a set menu of three courses for $36.95. "Are you kid-friendly?" strangers sometimes call to ask Rochard. "Yes, I have four of my own!" the restaurateur might respond. A stash of Legos, dominoes and other games at Cafe de Paris underscores his commitment to everyone having a good time there. The assorted activities, suggests Rochard, help "people remember you."
All I know is, I don't need music or Monopoly to help me appreciate the tender and herby snails I'm devouring, or the crisp duck leg confit that follows the appetizer. The entree is flanked by perfect companions: garlicky slices of sauteed potato and winy mush-rooms. Recently promoted from sous-chef to top gun in the kitchen, O'Donnell does well by French bistro standards. Yet knowing that he once cooked at Roy's, the chain of fusion restaurants launched by Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi, explains the presence of a few less-obvious choices on the menu, including a first course of barbecued ribs. A tepee of meaty glazed ribs rises above a bright Asian slaw whose bite counters the ribs' sweet glaze. Who knew ribs could be so elegant?
Not every dish delivers. A special of mahi-mahi highlighted overcooked fish and a "pesto" couscous that translated into a gluey thimble of green starch. And the chocolate mousse, though of fine flavor, was as dense as cement when I tried it. But there's much more to praise than to pick apart at Cafe de Paris, where the snug seating and muted lighting foster an air of easy romance, and the beef bourguignon over pasta makes the drive from the big city worth the haul. Tilapia in a crust of pistachios, gilded with lobster cream and served with melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi, is an easy dish to fall for, as is warm banana bread, sliced and offered with spicy pumpkin ice cream.
Did I mention the house-made pate, deliciously dense with dried fruit and nuts? Or the endearing service? I did not, but only because I want to be able to get a seat here again.