Open Monday through Friday, noon to 2 p.m.; Monday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations. Free parking in garage next door for dinner only. Prices: Full meal with modest wine, tax and tip about $20 to $30 at lunch, $45 to $55 at dinner; main courses at dinner are $13.50 to $16, with tasting menu at $40.
Jean-Michel Farret went to France. Every year he went to France. And every year he saw new things happening in restaurants in France that made Jean-Pierre restaurant, where he is owner and maitre d'hotel, seem out of date.
So the last time Jean-Michel Farret went to France, he brought back a chef.
Already he had redecorated his 10-year-old restaurant so that it no longer had to face being compared to the cafeteria that the space had once been. A low ceiling the color of well-browned pastry and walls the texture of suede gloves softened the room and reflected a golden glow. Smoked glass mirrors were wrapped around columns and Lucite covered the wall sconces. And if the noise continues to reverberate against all those hard surfaces, the improvement is still substantial.
There never was any doubt about the dining room staff passing muster. True, they might get rushed and occasionally give short shrift to your table, but the expertise and experience of this crew can match any in town, and usually they perform in an impeccable show.
Now, however, everyone is coming to see the food. Not just to taste, but to see. The full dress performance is only at dinner, when the newly abbreviated menu lists only eight main courses plus a few specials (with a larger choice of appetizers), each of them a showpiece.
But even the old standard dishes at lunch are likely to have a new look. Rabbit in mustard sauce is usually no more to see than a boney beige stew, but here it is a fan of off-white slices centered on one bone-in piece, so pretty that you pause to appreciate it, and in doing so inhale a wonderful aroma of Dijon mustard and mushrooms. In general, lunch dishes are familiar, but with a subtly new touch: kidneys cooked rare and scented with fresh basil, grouper with chopped fresh tomatoes, nice without being important news.
At dinner, however, salmon scallops are rolled around shrimp mousse and arranged as spokes with a hub of chopped tomato and mussels, interspersed with buttery vegetable shreds and bathed with a white wine sauce and a touch of mint. As "panache de poissons," five small filets of fish, each a different color and shape, are arranged on a pool of two sauces, one a nantua and one a cream. This time the vegetable garnishes are carved into tiny batons. Lobster one day was sliced into medallions and alternated with slices of zucchini and mushroom, then returned to a bed of mushrooms in its shell.
Meat courses are no less gorgeous, whether rare lamb slices in pungent garlic sauce or pale sliced pork loin. With meat courses come vegetable garnishes that are stunners: mushroom bottoms filled with liver pate, eggplant and sweet red peppers; tiny turnip cups brimming with carrot puree; artichoke bottoms with cooked celery and tomato; a mold of spinach with a heart of pimiento.
There are some faults: a starchy undertone in the cream sauce; dust-dry overcooked pork; oversalting, particularly in the brown sauces (a common error among fresh-from-France chefs). But the vast majority of the dishes I have tasted have been both intriguing and exceptionally good; in fact, most of the flaws turned up one evening's visit. This seemed a better sign than having them spread consistently through my several visits.
One look at the menu tells you where the chef's heart must lie -- among the appetizers. They rightly dominate the menu. Mousseline de crevettes, a glossy slice of cloud made from shrimp, outshines its nantua sauce, but also outshines any seafood pate, terrine or mousse you are likely to have tasted unless you have led a very lucky life. Rabbit pate is light and suave, with herbs that hint of a nearby garden. Sweetbreads are also molded into a pate, but wrapped in a crust, and they are lavishly larded with chunks of fresh foie gras and bits of truffle, garnished with a salad of sliced raw mushrooms and walnuts. Pain de homard, a lobster pate, is beautifully rosy and subtly scented with lobster, a lovely first course even if slightly too starchy and heavy. These first courses are presented as whole still lifes, ringed with shreds of well-dressed raw spinach and balanced with some raw vegetable salad, perhaps cauliflower if not mushroom. The ingredients for the pates and mousses are luxuriant -- truffles and goose liver -- or surprising -- oyster pate, for instance. And except for too heavy a panade or an occasional bitter undertone, they are exceptional endeavors.
Desserts are also ambitious -- a trolley of high and handsome whipped cream and chocolate cakes, fruity and buttery tarts and highly perfumed fruit sherbets. They lack the finesse of the preceding courses, but they are nevertheless good; the one that best suits the style is a platter of sherbets and fruits arranged on a ruby red sauce.
Perfection? No Excitement? Yes. And the way to enjoy it fully is with a $40 menu degustation, a tasting of six courses (the fourth a delightful grapefruit sherbet to refresh the palate) displaying a full parade of the chef's prides. Be warned, though, that if some rather than all the people at a table order this six-course menu, the others will have to wait through the extra courses. The waiter will happily bring forks if your neighbor is willing to share the extra dishes, but this food brings out the protective instincts in a diner. So don't count on it.