Truffle Season

These starters hardly resemble the minimal revisions of Caesar salad and crab cakes to which we've become accustomed. But in the traditional French chef-training system, tuition is paid not in mere money but in sheer misery, and survivors learn how to take educated risks. Roland Passot began his apprenticeship at age 14 in a two-star restaurant in his native Lyons and spent the next 10 years living in various unheated sheds, doing every possible restaurant task, getting yelled at a lot and even having his slightly-overcooked souffle smashed into his face by Chicago's great French chef, Jean Banchet (of Le Francais Restaurant in Wheeling). "If you weren't perfect," Passot recalls with a shudder, "you had to do it over and over again. But Banchet was my greatest influence. He inspired me to try for perfection." I'd guess that few local chefs set their sights quite that high. Eating at a restaurant of this caliber can spoil your palate -- in contrast, all those cookie-cutter menus and half-baked "fusion" fancies can become hard to stomach.

The black truffles came into their own in my main course of roasted lamb loin ($34.50). Thin slices of lamb, rosy-rare as ordered, were arranged in a mandala over a half-dome of couscous emphatically flavored with fresh mint. Surrounding this architecture was a confit of eggplant and tomato, spiked by the earthy sweetness of whole garlic cloves and the zing of dried cranberries. Well-salted slices of black truffle topped the meat. Those truffles are sneaky -- the lamb dish would have been sublime without them, but with their addition the whole produced in me an inexplicable sense of serene well-being.

My companion's entree ($38.50) was a plate half-painted with a veridian parsley coulis, cloud-puffs of potato puree contrasting with the green. These surrounded an erect cylinder wrought from a thin sheet of fried potato, stuffed with a "blanquette" of sweetbreads, Maine lobster, and assorted vegetables and wild mushrooms, including several morels. We toppled this topless tower to discover a filling of bite-size pieces of luscious sweetbread, bound in a light, creamy sauce containing lobster chunks the teeniest bit overcooked. Could this be a flaw in the meal? A misstep of a minute's timing? What would Jean Banchet do to Roland with that lobster?

The waiter brought martini glasses half-filled with a strange icy substance colored a glowing green: a scintillating palate-cleanser of lightly sweetened, very minty granita. Then desserts began in earnest. One had poached pear and tart quince slices on páte sablee (a sort of heavy cookie crust) with a gingery red-wine caramel sauce. Alongside was a tangy-sweet scoop of creme fra”che ice cream sculpted as a halved pear. With this interesting, tatinlike combination we'd have preferred a thinner crust -- better yet, a true tarte tatin, which Roland can make so perfectly. We loved the mandarine parfait, a fresh tangerine ice cream with a millimeter of candied crust and a surprise center of cranberry confit.

At the end of each evening, as the last diners are sighing over dessert, Roland emerges from the kitchen, plump and rosy. He wends his way through the tables, stopping to chat with everyone, sharing a fresh bottle of wine or having an extra dessert delivered in his wake. At this restaurant, every patron is a star. The lagniappe he recommended was the best of our desserts -- Roland rightly insisted we abandon all others for the exquisitely light-textured chestnut mousse, wrapped in thin sheets of bittersweet chocolate. It tasted like the sweetest memory of somebody else's happy childhood.

La Folie has maintained its warm, civilized hospitality over the years. Roland's skill has continually developed and deepened, even if his flavor combinations now seem a bit more mainstream than they were when the restaurant first opened. His food is still beyond merely delicious: Grounded in classical French tradition and technique, modernized by the substitution of intense-flavored, deeply reduced sauces for the old butter and cream, it's distinguished by graceful, unexpected flavors that lesser chefs might never imagine.

A great dinner at La Folie -- one that's worth the cost of, say, a low-end cashmere sweater -- offers risk without recklessness, leaving you not merely fed, but exalted. This is cooking as a high -- if transient --art, giving you masterworks to admire, enjoy, destroy, and forever remember.

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