Open Monday through Saturday for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 6 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.. Closed Sunday. V, AE, MC, DC. Reservations recommended. Prices: For lunch, appetizers $3 to $7.25, entrees $4.85 to $10.50, desserts $$2.50 to $3.50. For dinner, appetizers $3.25 to $7.50, entrees $7.95 to $13.75, desserts $2.95 to $4.
It was a restaurant critic's nightmare: How do you evaluate a restaurant in flux? On one visit the upstairs dining room was closed for a private party; another time it was just closed. The raw bar downstairs was never open, a staff
member said. And worst of all, the kitchen made it very plain that what it could do and what it did do were not always in the same league.
The staff made it clear they knew I was a restaurant critic. But I grow used to that, and make extra efforts to observe the rest of the dining room closely and to order some things that can't be changed at the last minute. I know by now to expect a waiter to return from the kitchen claiming that a few items are sold out once the chef knows a critic is ordering. But Le Parisienne set new levels of blatancy.
Our main dishes arrived cold and not particularly attractive. The sole in chive sauce was fine, a large fillet covered with chive-flecked cream, the plate filled out with cooked sliced carrots and ratatouille. Surely it would have been better hotter than lukewarm, and the fish was slightly bitter. But the vegetables were good, the sauce pleasant, and the fish cooked lightly enough. I decided not to send it back for reheating because I was afraid it might be wrecked in the process, and I figured we could share the fish while our other main dish, the scallops, were returned. The scallops with pasta looked a bit dismal, a glass bowl filled with an enormous monochromati portion of tiny scallops tossed with translucent wine sauce and bedded on plain pasta. Tepid. The waiter took it back, apologetic. A few minutes later he returned with more apologies and removed the sole as well. He had brought the wrong dishes; they were for another table that had ordered the same items, he said.
Next he brought replacement versions of both the scallops and the sole, and these were clearly the work of a chef eager to impress a critic. The second version of sole was braided -- the newly fashionable shape for fish -- and set on sauce rather than covered with it. The accompanying sliced carrots were fanned in a careful semicircle, and the ratatouille had turned into spinach. The second version of the scallops had been transformed from bay to sea scallops, set in a ring around thin noodles in two colors. How had bay scallops turned to sea scallops? How had plain noodles turned multicolor? Why didn't every table have its food arranged so prettily?
And why didn't the chef adjust the seasoning in what he had sent out to show off? The braided fish was sweeter and fresher than the plain fillet had been, but it had dried a bit without sauce to protect its surface, and the sauce was overseasoned but not nearly so much as the pasta sauce. The spinach was overcooked and bitter; the scallops, however, were certainly better the second time around, but only they and the carrots equaled the first attempt.
Le Parisienne has possibilities. On the main floor is a small cafe, the walls decorated with drawings of nudes. Most of the restaurant's space is occupied by a large bar, which seems to draw more customers than the dining rooms. And in keeping with that, there is a long list of wines by the glass (the bottle prices on the wine list are mostly outrageously high, particularly for such pedestrian choices).
The strength of Le Parisienne is the flexibility of its menu. In addition to the main dishes (salmon with basil, skewered seafood, steak au poivre, lamb chops, specials ranging from duck to rabbit) there are les assiettes and les salades -- interesting cold plates that could fill a void for late-night diners or light eaters. You could order, for instance, poached eggs wrapped in smoked salmon on a bed of salad for $6.50, or warm goat cheese on a crouton, also on a bed of salad, for $6.95. There are cheese platters with nuts and apples ($7.95), platters of p.at,es with ham and cold sausages ($8.50), and platters of smoked fish ($9.50) or shellfish ($11.50). The best of the salads has been the goat cheese, particularly since it was bedded on an interesting variety of greens and chopped vegetables. The poached eggs with salmon could have been excellent if it had not been prepared so long ahead that the eggs were refrigerator-cold and the salmon had taken on a fishiness. Smoked salmon itself as an appetizer was reasonably good quality. One very French dish at Le Parisienne is fromage blanc aux herbes, a bowl of fresh white cheese, sharp and tangy, with herbs and shallots stirred in and radish slices surrounding it.
There are also some good soups, particularly the cream of mussels with saffron -- a tureen of delicious rich cream, too salty when I had it, but of excellent sea-tinged flavor. Onion soup had good elements -- plenty of freshly sauteed onions, cheese and croutons -- but its broth was watery. Each of these, with a salad, could be a meal in itself.
Le Parisienne's kitchen has some serious lapses, such as a seafood terrine that tasted like fishy whipped Jell-O, and a too-tart lemon cream sauce for scallops and pasta. But other elements indicate the restaurant is worth a chance: The bread is a wonderfully chewy, crusty peasant loaf, a giant step ahead of most in town. And the chef has done some delicious specials such as duck breast cooked rare but with the skin crisped, sliced and fanned out on a delightfully mellow garlic-cream sauce, and a perfectly grilled tuna, though its yellow pepper topping was so sharply pickled it overpowered the fish. Vegetable accompaniments have sometimes been outstanding, among them a garlicky spinach timbale and creamy potatoes au gratin. And for dessert, tart lemon sherbet has been ribboned with raspberry sauce, to its credit (though the fruit tarts have been among the most dreadfully artificial tasting I have found).
Service, if you are not a restaurant critic, is willing but sometimes uncomprehending. One waiter seemed to speak English but not understand it, and so we would ask one question and he would answer another, or we'd order one cup of coffee and he'd bring two. It was better when the staff was not distracted by a private party upstairs.
Le Parisienne is full of good ideas. It can offer a badly needed range of light suppers to full meals that gives diners flexibility few serious restaurants allow. But the flexibility should stay in the diner's hands, not in the quality of what issues from the kitchen.