{sstar}{sstar}{sstar} (3 stars) Le Paradou

678 Indiana Ave. NW (near Seventh Street). 202-347-6780. www.leparadou.net

Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Not wheelchair accessible. Metro: Archives. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: two-course lunch $28; three-course dinner $75. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $95 to $200 per person.

Little exclamation points go off in my head as I taste the lobster "purse" fashioned by Yannick Cam at Le Paradou. It looks like dim sum as imagined by a contemporary French artist: Its folds of pasta are sheer and delicate, and they hide generous bites of seafood that are so pure and rich, they taste like lobster just minutes out of the water in Maine. A drizzle of dark orange sauce -- sweet carrot and zesty ginger -- brightens the subtle canvas and flatters the savory elements. The first course would be right at home in a temple of haute cuisine in Paris.

Another dish, another gold strike: My veal chop is as big as a fist and cuts like butter. The meat, with just enough fat to give it some richness, proves perfectly pink and utterly succulent. Little chanterelles and precisely carved baby turnips make for a luscious garden on the plate. The velvety mushrooms, the sweet turnips, the bronzed meat -- everything is textbook-perfect.

Like much of the food at Le Paradou, those two dishes reveal the hand of a great chef, which is what Cam -- who memorably entertained Washington audiences at Le Pavillon in the 1980s -- clearly can be. Unlike so many other cooks, this 55-year-old chef doesn't feel obliged to show off on the plate with in-your-face flavors or excessive flourishes. Instead, his arrangements are focused on just a few taste notes, and are admirably restrained in their presentation. Cam's style of French cooking flows from discerning shopping, rigorous technique and, quite honestly, delicious memories. If you had the good fortune to dine at Cam's first and best effort -- he has had a hand in a parade of restaurants since Le Pavillon closed in 1990, most recently at the up-and-down Le Relais in Great Falls -- some of this food will be familiar.

Though it crept onto the scene with very little fanfare in April, and remained something of a secret except among fervent restaurant followers and loyal fans of Cam, Le Paradou was created to compete with the region's most sought-after tables: Maestro, Michel Richard Citronelle, the Inn at Little Washington and the Laboratorio del Galileo. This means meals that begin with multiple extravagant treats delivered before the first course, luxurious linens gracing the table and a waiter who explains the menu this way: "You can have two courses, three courses, six courses or a chef's surprise, where Yannick takes you on a gastronomic tour and surprises your tongue." Curiously, my friends and I are never told who "Yannick" is, though his name is evoked with great solemnity.

Several dishes are nothing short of exquisite. An appetizer of wild salmon tartare is served as two tiny towers of rich, glistening fish, set on buttons of fine pastry and crowned with caviar. After tasting this, you'll never want to return to farmed salmon. Cam's creamy risotto, redolent of tomatoes and summer truffles when I tried it, is as grand as you might ever encounter (lobster in the mix helps). Juicy roasted pigeon breast gets dressed up with red cabbage flavored with cumin and dates. It's a bird like few others.

And yet, dining here can be an oddly joyless event. Take the distracted "welcome" from your waiter, who multi-tasks as he reels off the specials, shuffling menus and not looking you in the eye. "Wouldyoulikesomechampagne?" he says, beginning the hard sell. It's a little creepy to look up from your food to see the staff staring at you, or pacing the floor when there's a lull in the action. And it's slightly annoying to be seated in a banquette strewn with crumbs from previous diners.

As you might anticipate, the room is beautiful -- stylishly understated with hardwood floors and a muted color scheme. No matter the weather outside, "stars" twinkle above your head in the dining room, thanks to some fiber optics. The tree-size floral arrangements are so lavish you can smell them from yards away.

Named after a village in southern France, Le Paradou doles out caviar and foie gras the way other kitchens use parsley sprigs and butter. This practice makes for some sumptuous dining and, when you factor in wine, some breathtaking tabs. The wine list plays it safe with an admittedly impressive roster of white burgundy and red bordeaux. "If you have $100," a friend and wine aficionado says to me after perusing the list, "you can get a very nice bottle of wine." And the sommelier will be more than happy to steer you to choices even deeper into the triple digits.

So any dish that is less than exceptional can be hard to swallow. "The lamb is the best you have ever tasted," a server promises, but the meat, though tender, doesn't quite deliver. At another dinner, a first course featuring sea urchin roe contains an unexpected ingredient: grit.

Diners are left with some very nice endings. One is a sort of chocolate mousse, a small raised round treated to a tiny, dreamy scoop of hazelnut ice cream. The thrill for food sleuths is in the foamy yellow sauce that colors the plate: it hints of fresh thyme, an herb that cuts through the decadence like a gentle breeze. A fig tart honors the fruit, framing the sweet bounty on pastry that is so light and buttery it melts on contact with the tongue. Apricot vacherin, in contrast, is more pretty than luscious.

Is Cam happy to be back in the city? Will he stick around for people to enjoy his gifts? Will the service improve? Right now, all I can forecast is some wonderful food in a glamorous room and a bill that will remind you that you are paying, quite dearly, for both. Unlike the restaurants it aims to compete with, however, Le Paradou is missing a vital ingredient: heart.

Ask Tom

After Marcia Buscher recently complained in this space about servers saying "you guys" in mixed company, a lot of readers were quick to jump on her bandwagon. "I've often felt the same way as Marcia does," weighed in Mary Cyr of Manassas. "And after a week in Wyoming, and never being addressed as 'you guys,' it was a real shocker when my daughter and I returned to the (sophisticated?) Washington area," where they were referred to as such. "Just a simple, 'May I help you' or, 'Welcome, ladies' " would have been fine, Cyr wrote. John Anderson of Rockville calls the reference "irritating and disrespectful. Don't these people have any training at all?" Then there's the missive from Ron Goad of Centreville, who also finds "you guys" irritating when there are customers of both genders, "although the dictionaries say that it is not for males exclusively." He wrote in an e-mail that he sometimes tells offending servers, "She's a lady; I am a guy." He adds, "My friends say I am a stickler about the literal sense of the phrase because I am a retired English teacher, a lingual purist (which is nicer than saying I'm anal retentive)." On to the next gripe!

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.