C'est la Vie is a number of restaurant trends rolled into one. It has an open kitchen, so that at least one side of the dining room can observe the cooking process. The bar, a small U-shaped setting trimmed with brass and mahogany, offers racks of newspapers, books and magazines -- the ideal solution to the lone diner's problem of not having anything to do while supping. Wine is dispensed from a Cruvinet, the trademark for a system that preserves opened bottles of wine, so there are always half a dozen varieties served by the glass. And the menu takes a decidedly light and rustic approach to dining, emphasizing salads, sandwiches and soups.
Perhaps more significantly, C'est la Vie joins the ranks of a growing number of moderately priced French restaurants in the city, such as Christian's Cafe Francais and Le Caprice.
The dining room is pretty in a simple sort of way, with comfortable upholstered banquettes ringing the walls, a tony color scheme, and a glass wall that not only adds light but also opens onto a courtyard for al fresco dining. There, at night, the trees sparkle with tiny white lights, lending a romantic backdrop to an otherwise conservative facade.
The comfortable setting is predictable, the menu less so. Too often C'est la Vie lives up to its French name, with its suggestion of nonchalance.
Take, for example, this restaurant's mixed bag of appetizers. How can you take seriously a restaurant with such a dismal and watery mushroom soup and a selection of fried vegetables so greasy that the neighborhood pub might disown them?
On the other hand, the deep-fried brie called "Parisienne Gold" was delectable, a slab of warm cheese infused with bits of ham and herbs. And a daily special of seafood chowder was commendably homey and gentle. The bread that arrived with lunch one day looked like poppy seed but was actually a pepper-infused offering, a terrific foil to the house salad. Pizza -- another fashionable food item these days -- appears with fresh mushrooms, squash and tomatoes; its crust tasted fried, something of a surprise but not necessarily a drawback, given its good flavor.
The rest of the menu follows a similar course, but with fewer misses. A refreshing salad of grilled chicken and roasted peppers consisted of a generous portion of moist chicken strips combined with diced tomato, romaine lettuce and a pleasant garlic vinaigrette. C'est la Vie's lightly herbed fish stew, unlike the traditional version, is not pureed, but thickened with chunks of fish, shrimp and an array of vegetables, some apparently grilled, others amusingly carved into fish shapes.
More substantial entrees include grilled fish, scallops with pasta, and tarts of vegetables or mushrooms. The mushroom tart was a medley of flavors: tangy goat cheese, spinach, diced onion, tomatoes and thin slices of mushrooms made for a filling and interesting dish, though the pastry was a big thick crust and a bit floury.
This restaurant wouldn't be your first choice for satiating a Cajun craving. The jambalaya was spicy but failed to hit that teasing note -- that marvelous interplay of seasonings -- that distinguishes authentic versions from the rest of the pack. Yet it was filling and certainly adequate, a mix of rice, celery, shrimp, tomatoes and smoky bits of ham. The menu also offers flank steak bordeaux, thin slices of slightly smoky and crusty-edged beef that are quite good if you ignore the spongy and tasteless shiitake mushrooms that accompany the dish.
Sandwiches run the gamut from hamburgers to country vegetable, seafood salad and lemon pepper tuna. The shaved ham and doux de montagne cheese on raisin pumpernickel was a real winner, though the promised chutney -- sweetly spicy and nutty -- had been left off the plate. Various sandwich-soup or sandwich-salad combinations allow diners a chance to sample a good portion of the menu -- although two of three salads offered were unavailable one recent night.
Service is friendly if not always efficient. I'd have to wonder about the salesmanship potential of the waiter who mentioned a daily special of shrimp in brandy and then added, "I know it doesn't sound very appealing." Still, the food arrives in orderly fashion, and the staff seems eager to please.
C'est la Vie boasts of freshly prepared pastries, cakes and such, yet a table placard recently announced an array of commercial ice creams and only a single baked confection, chocolate velvet cake.
At its best, C'est la Vie is a pleasant downtown diversion, an inviting place to stop for a glass of wine or a light meal. There are certainly better French restaurants, but few that are as accessible and cozy as this one.