- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Yannick Cam, the master of culinary innovation, is back in town, and his cooking is better than ever. In April, chef Cam and one of his partners from the original Le Pavillon, quietly opened Le Paradou on Indiana Avenue NW in the space once occupied by Bice.

Mr. Cam is Washington’s maverick culinary trendsetter: He introduced Washington to his exquisite nouvelle cuisine at Le Pavillon in the 1980s; he created an inspired tapas menu at Coco Loco; at Le Provence he romanticized Provencal cooking; at El Catalan it was Spanish; at Le Relais in Great Falls, it was back to standard French; and at Le Jardin it was delightful bistro cooking. Now he has re-introduced classic French cooking with his original touches at Le Paradou.

Although named for a small town in Provence, Le Paradou is anything but a country restaurant. The food at Chef Cam’s new restaurant is sophisticated, elegant, complex and often superb. The surroundings are similarly sophisticated and elegant.

As you enter the restaurant on Indiana Avenue, you’re faced with a long curved bar set in an open, airy room. Bottles of amber-colored liquor on glass shelves catch the afternoon light from a window facing west. A few steps lead down into the equally airy dining room where the team of Adamstein and Demetriou has used light woods and muted fabrics to create a soothing atmosphere. Huge vases of flowers, elegant small Yuriko Yamaguchi stone sculptures set in two symmetrical rows along one wall and a ceiling of tiny starlike lights further enhance the atmosphere of calm elegance. Very formal, very beautiful.

Alas, this very formality is Le Paradou’s weakness. Waiters in shades-of-grey suits seem to take themselves seriously, their attire mimicking the customers. The maitre d’hotel interrupts a conversation between two female diners without apology, insisting on taking an order. Would he have done likewise had it been two gentlemen? There is nothing relaxed about Le Paradou.

Chef Cam’s artistry deserves better. In the evening (but not at lunch), there is a short a la carte menu, but the fixed price menu is where the chef’s heart is. In the evening, two courses are offered for $58 — with wine (expensive), coffee and dessert ($12) additional. At lunch, about half of the dinner dishes are offered in a two-course menu for $28, again without wine, dessert ($9) or coffee. Our bill one evening for dinner for two, with three glasses of wine but without dessert or coffee came to almost $200, including tax and tip.

Another option in the evening is a tasting menu of six small courses for $100 per person. Is it worth it? That’s a question a reviewer cannot answer. There is no doubt that Mr. Cam knows how to cook, but while much that arrives on the plate is inspired, not everything is perfect.

There’s one soup on the menu: a splendid lightly creamy morel mushroom soup. Two perfectly roasted scallops float on the top. It’s a delicious starter, although the Parma ham promised on the menu was missing from my serving. Equally splendid is the lobster-claw salad (actually a salad-soup combination): A small cake of guacamole-style avocado topped with a large, meaty, tender lobster claw rests on a bed of slightly spicy gazpacho. The dish is a perfect combination of flavors. It’s a lovely, refreshing starter at either lunch or dinner on a warm summer day.

Another marvelous appetizer is the lobster purse with carrot-and-ginger sauce. Three little crepe purses are stuffed with chopped lobster and served in a rich, complex emulsion of carrots and ginger. It too would have been a perfect dish but for the heavily salted sauce.

A heavy hand with the salt shaker is a problem at dinner. The same complaint applied to the sauce accompanying the roast pigeon and the red wine sauce served with the excellent beef tenderloin.

Both pigeon and beef delivered the juicy flavors such dishes promise. The pigeon, served on the rare side, is accompanied by an interesting compote of red cabbage with dates and cumin and two delicate slices of seared duck foie gras. It’s a rich, satisfying dish, showing off Mr. Cam’s imaginative creativity.

Lamb is as good as it gets at Le Paradou. Roasted to medium rare, the little chops are served with a black olive sauce that enhances the lamb in a most unusual way. A superb dish.

A lunchtime entree of breast of chicken is moist and delicious, accompanied by half a dozen slim triangular ravioli-like pansoti in a light artichoke cream with a sprinkling of chives. Wonderful. There’s nothing boring or tough about this chicken.

The only disappointment was the crab ravioli in a mousseline sauce, served with pieces of asparagus. The ravioli were tough, the sauce watery. The dish did not measure up to Mr. Cam’s talents.

Although the main courses offer an ample choice between fish and meat, for diners who do not fancy or are allergic to fish and shellfish, the first courses, both at lunch and dinner, pose a problem. Of the eight first courses on the lunch menu, only one does not include shellfish (or snails), and that one course is a simple and not very interesting salad of field greens. At dinner, there is a choice of just three non-fish/shellfish starters among the 13 appetizers on the menu: a boudin blanc (sausage) with fennel puree, carpaccio of pigeon and artichokes or sweet pepper terrine with shiitake mushrooms.

The wine list is extensive and expensive. Wines by the glass are limited to two whites and two reds, neither from American vineyards, at prices of about $12 and $14 per glass.

If Le Paradou could loosen up a bit, introduce a smidgen of informality into its elegant surroundings so that diners would not feel they’re intruding on a museum or church hall — and put the salt shaker aside if only occasionally, Mr. Cam’s new venture would be a sensational delight.

RESTAURANT: Le Paradou, 678 Indiana Ave. NW; 202/347-6780

HOURS: Lunch, 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 6 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Lunch, $28 prix fixe; dinner, $58 (two courses); $100 six-course tasting menu; desserts, $9 (lunch), $12 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking; evening valet parking $5

ACCESS: Not accessible by wheelchair

METRO: Archives-Navy Memorial (Green and Yellow lines)

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