When our young bartender returned five minutes later with the first soup, he placed it - the flirt - in front of my neighbor. Perhaps she heard my stomach growl at the sight of crockery glazed in molten Gruyere. Perhaps I was visibly wilting with hunger. But when the bartender turned away, she slid the soup in my direction and said with conspiratorial compassion: "Here, I'm not in a rush."
Ah, kindness with jewels attached! The spirit of French bistro is alive, even at one of America's first shopping centers. Or so I thought.
In the glow of my good fortune and a frosty draught of wheaty Belgian ale, I washed away a delightful meal. Deeply flavored onion soup steaming under its toasty lid of melted cheese. Moist chicken breast glazed in a dark sauce scented with thyme. A glass tumbler filled with rich chocolate mousse that I spooned through heartily as my neighbor looked on. Both of us recovered from the scolding our bartender gave for switching meals.
What a letdown, though, that my first meal here should be my best. As I returned for two larger subsequent dinners, my enthusiasm slipped away as I ate my way through a menu of largely average bistro cooking.
Steak-frites brought a slab of meat that was neither tender nor flavorful. A pot of steamed mussels had so little of its fragrant wine juice left in the bottom, I wondered if it all had simply evaporated in the wait to be picked up and brought to our table. The braised lamb shank plat du jour was a shade too dry and gray, a tug of the fork shy of the tenderness I always cherish.
I've often admired the professionalism of the owners of La Parisienne, whose other restaurants, Savona and Toscana Cucina Rustica, are some of the better fine dining spots on the Main Line. Their attention to details is evident throughout this restaurant, in the affordable and well-chosen wine list, in the willow baskets that hold the bread, in shakers of sea salt on the table, in the effort that was taken to recreate the look of a French bistro.
The menu is even affordable, with all entrees under $20. It would seem a perfect fit for a group that has already cultivated a ready-made audience with its more upscale restaurants.
But at a time when everybody else in the Philadelphia region is going for the French bistro concept, La Parisienne seems formulaic and uninspired, from the menu down to the cliches that fill the room with riveted red booths, mirrored walls, and faux period lighting.
French bistro cooking is less about getting creative than about crafting soulful renditions of familiar classics, from pate and escargot to a simple plate of fish and lentils. But La Parisienne's menu is so limited, both in the number of options and the depth of flavors, that it wears the tradition like a corset. They'd be better off treating it more as a point of departure and exploration.
Dressed in black vests and white aprons, the service staff is extremely friendly, but so young they have difficulty maintaining a level of professional attention throughout the meal. Our first server started off strong, then slowly drifted away into distraction. Our second server had the irksome habit of crouching beside our table like a quarterback taking everyone's order in the huddle.
The news is not all grim out of La Parisienne's kitchen: Several dishes were nicely done. The homemade pate was lovely, its coarse-cut pink meat packed around a center strip of foie gras, served with good black bread and mustard. I liked the subtly smoked salmon "maison," even if it wasn't made in house as the menu suggested. Tender snails were as good a vehicle as any for sopping up little divots of herby garlic butter. The pureed potato leek soup was mouth-filling and rich.
Super-smooth homemade ice creams and sorbets were the best of the dessert offerings, conveying ripe mango, bracing lemon, or rich cafe au lait in their smooth coolness. And a brightly flavored spaghetti bolognese took the prize for most satisfying entree. Although, aside from the fact that it is an Italian dish in a French bistro, it wasn't that much better than one you could easily make at home.
But that is the challenge for a menu as basic as this: to give diners a reason (other than the simple convenience of not cooking) to pay for dishes they could probably do themselves. In some cases, they didn't quite succeed.
Caesar salad was bland and wet. A classic frisee salad of curly endive lettuce, blue cheese and nuts would have been perfect had the bacon dressing been hot. A goat cheese tart came with herby dollops of soft cheese over tomatoes and puff pastry, but a traditional custard tart would have been more satisfying. Thin-cut calamari, tucked into a neatly folded linen, were already cool when they arrived.
I'm usually a fan of Black Angus beef, but the tenderness of La Parisienne's sirloin didn't improve with the chewy steak au poivre, and its flavor disappeared under the burn of a bit too much cracked black pepper.
I enjoyed my slice of seared grouper, a thick, almost meaty fish set over stock-glazed lentils and root vegetables. The very plain strip of salmon, though, could have used something less rich than the thick mustard cream sauce that came with it.
The dessert list rode the same track of hits and misses. I happily spooned my way through bowls of vibrant ice creams and sorbets, then turned to a ramekin of leaden apple crisp or a cupcake-like chocolate gateau with a truffle heart that refused to ooze. Creme brulee comes perfect one night, its two-toned custards of vanilla and coffee topped with a microthin caramel crust. Then, when I reprise it eagerly on our final visit, I bite into a sticky spoonful of half-melted sugar grains.
One might think a dish as classic and concise as creme brulee - essentially cool vanilla custard topped with a shine of freshly burned caramel - would be an automatic score. But the simplicity of French bistro cooking is a deceptive art, a delicate and sometimes difficult balance between timeless tradition and constant attention. Even with all the trappings in place, it will always reveal when the kitchen has the passion, and when it is just going through the motions.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
LA PARISIENNE (ONE BELL) AVERAGE