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The food at Le P'tit Laurent is like the French: indifferent

Wednesday, Feb 27 2008
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Into each life some rain must fall, and it was already pouring when I walked into Le P'tit Laurent to find a little more gloom. On the other side of the velvet curtain, hung to prevent any chill breeze from the street gaining entry, I learned that my presence that night was also unwelcome. The maitre d' insisted, despite my obvious incredulity, that he had no record of the reservation we'd made a week before. I repeated the name and number of our party in disbelief, and he relented somewhat: "We had you in the book for last night at that time. But when you didn't show up, we gave the table away."

Well, of course he did. I would have, too, but I was interested in what could be done for me right now, before I had to impart the bad news to the couple who would be joining me. The place was clearly packed — we'd chosen a time early enough to try the amazingly priced neighborhood menu, three courses for $19.95, on offer from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday — and I was told there wouldn't be a table available for at least an hour and a half. But we could dine at the bar, and luckily enough there were three seats open at the end closest to the entrance.

I sat down and ordered a kir. A tiny plate bearing two slices of salami and a lone cornichon was placed in front of me, a nice gesture though not a particularly French one, the salami being so obviously not saucisson. But I was grateful for it. My kir, when it came, tasted not at all of the crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) that transforms white wine into the aperitif. When I asked for a touch more, of course I got a touch too much to convince me of its presence.

But no matter. It was warm, cheerful, and almost comfortable at the bar, a place I'm willing to eat at alone with a book or with a friend I know well, but not so much with three because it can be awkward for conversation. Still, it was much better than nothing, and my Francophile heart was warmed by the setting, which could have been transported whole from Paris. The odd, almost boatlike shape of the room was tightly filled with white-linened tables clinging to leather banquettes around the perimeter, with a few freestanding tables in the center, enough to seat perhaps 35 or 40 in total. Behind the compact bar were mirrors and a stacked arrangement of liquor bottles; above was a silvery tin ceiling. Warm and flattering amber light came from a few old-fashioned-looking smoked-glass light fixtures. Classic European signage – Lillet, Cinzano, Ricard, and, just for a change, merguez (though the sausage isn't on the menu) dotted the walls. When my friends arrived, we commiserated for a moment and then turned our attention to the food.

The menu features mostly bistro classics (salade frisée aux lardons, cassoulet, boeuf bourguignon), with a few dishes given a modern tweaking (the suprême de poulet, a roasted chicken breast, is served with couscous and preserved garlic in a citrus-ginger sauce). As traditionalists, we ordered half a dozen escargots for starters. The little beasts were served without shells in the usual dish, each depression topped up with the classic hot butter, garlic, and parsley sauce, ready to be sopped up with rather undistinguished sliced baguette. The crab garnishing the crab-and-asparagus salad was equally undistinguished, but its assorted greens were ample and well dressed. On the neighborhood menu, I had a choice between salad and the soupe du jour, which actually proved to be two soups — tomato and butternut squash — in a pretty presentation in the same dish.

On the whole, I preferred the main courses: a generous portion of rabbit atop mashed potatoes, drenched in a rich cream sauce, whose orderer thought the sauce was tastier than the bland meat (but when was a farm-raised bunny ever highly flavored?); a nice ribeye steak that almost covered its plate, in a red-wine sauce more or less bordelaise (I didn't detect the presence of bone marrow), with ordinary, commercial frites; and a slightly mushy piece of mahimahi with lentils and tarragon sauce. The bargain dinner, whose offerings change weekly, comes with two choices each for hors d'oeuvres (normally $5-$9.50), and plats ($14.75-$20), and the run of the six-item list for dessert, including tarte tatin and pot de crème au chocolat, all at $5.95. So the price is a real draw. The serviceable wine list yielded an assertive Cahors for $37.

We finished with a pleasant crème brûlée; three little profiteroles, ice-cream-stuffed cream puffs covered in thin chocolate sauce; and an assortment of decent sorbet and ice cream.

More than a month later, I returned with my parents. This time our reservation was in place, and we were led to the last empty table by the window overlooking the brightly lit Canyon Market. I'd already pointed out a couple of other gastronomic high points in Glen Park, a neighborhood my parents were unfamiliar with: the excellent Gialina Pizzeria across the street, and the homey, equally enticing Chenery Park restaurant, the pioneer in the area, around the corner. Tonight Le P'tit Laurent, named for owner Laurent Legendre, late of Clémentine, was especially friendly. We were pleased to be across from three generations enjoying an evening out: a young woman, her parents, and an adorable baby girl.

We wanted mussels and cassoulet, foie gras and sweetbreads, scallops and monkfish – and received a backhanded compliment from our server, who congratulated us on ordering like French people, rather than going for chicken or salmon. At the first meal, I'd been perfectly happy with snails, rabbit, and steak, but tonight only my father was lucky. Two wheels of rich foie gras with a superfluous bit of sweet glaze were propped up on cool chopped green beans — a nice touch. The sweetbreads, a double order of what the menu proffers as a starter (i.e., four small lobes rather than two), were gently cooked, and served with a heap of buttery baby spinach leaves in a bit of rosemary jus.

Moules marinière, heaped in a casserole, came with a scant inch of salty broth and had a slightly bitter edge. By contrast, the cassoulet was full of liquid (the driest mussels I've ever had, followed by the wettest cassoulet), and included a nice duck leg confit, coins of good sausage, and sad, dry little bricks of pork, along with white beans. Neither dish was well seasoned; as far as I was concerned, there was a serious lack of garlic. My starter was pretty much a disaster: an inexplicable dish of tiny button scallops wrapped like cigars in a browned but limp potato slice, and then four such concoctions mired in mashed potatoes, all three ingredients tasteless on their own and in combination. Then I had roasted monkfish, three rather dull chunks of it on a heap of more interesting sautéed cabbage generously larded with salty and assertive bacon.

I liked the cozy setting more than the uneven food at Le P'tit Laurent, but my last couple of visits to Paris have shown that it's now easy to get indifferently prepared French food there, too, making the combination somewhat authentic. In Glen Park, at least you don't have to deal with an unfavorable exchange rate.

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Meredith Brody

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