Sunday, September 23, 2007

Le Paradou: Quiet fireworks

Le Paradou
678 Indiana Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

Le Paradou promises the diner an “adventure in intense flavors.” This is no hype. There were definitely some moments of "wow" during our six-course tasting menu.

The intimate, comfortable room sets the scene for a fine meal, with a ceiling of tiny white lights like stars overhead. Service is on the formal side, a little stiff. Our server seemed amused that we would order the six-course tasting menu without asking what dishes were included, but I was content to put myself in the hands of chef Yannick Cam for the evening.

The wine list was voluminous, the size of my hometown's phone book, and pricey. The sommelier suggested a white Loire viognier to complement the seafood and quail on our menu. The Condrieu was a very good choice with our food, rich and complex enough to stand up to the array of flavors.

An amuse-buche was placed before us, a chilled cucumber soup bathing a single oyster and a dollop of caviar. The combination was a little bit salty, a little bit sour.

Next on the table was a basket of spongy rich brioche, quite addictive with its crispy, melting crust. Then there was a second amuse: a "purse" filled with buttery roasted lobster, adorned with carrot-ginger sauce.

My favorite course was a ceviche of diver scallops sliced paper-thin, with grapefruit segments, Thai basil, and coconut milk. It was served on a dramatic round white plate with a shallow rectangular depression in the center that contained the liquid components.

Each forkful was a melange of distinct flavors, all playing nicely with each other. Hits of basil, grapefruit, or coconut rose to the palate, then faded to be replaced by another flavor. I didn't want to stop eating this dish, actually felt a little regretful as I savored the last bite.

Another impressive dish was the cream of artichoke soup with crab cake. The crab cake was almost star-shaped, a result of big crab chunks and very little filler, so little that I wondered how it was held together. The silky soup contained nearly translucent sliced artichoke hearts.

The startling thing about the entree of roasted sea bass was the savory green-pea puree that accompanied the fish. I expected the puree to be sweet, but it reminded me of the way my Austrian grandmother used to serve green peas, in a savory sauce made from a white roux. Poached oysters and black olives added more yummy salty bits to the plate.

We also had a course of fois gras, served with roasted plums and juniper berries. Somehow this combination of ingredients smelled like s'mores to me. (Of course, a lot of things remind me of s'mores.)

A restaurant reviewer who described the food at Le Paradou as "tiny explosions of flavor" (Washington City Paper) got it just right, I think. There's definitely some drama on the plate, yet this is not showy food. If you're not fazed by stern waiters, a dress code (jackets required for men), and a hefty tab at evening's end, you will enjoy Chef Cam's artistry.

Le Paradou in Washington

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