Chef Jean La Font says he doesn't fiddle much with the food at Le Rendezvous. He eschews twists and mergings. He shrugs off plate landscapes framed in sauce dribble and herb dustings. Everything is seeded from safe, comfortable classic structures.
And from that track Le Rendezvous rarely stumbles. On those odd occasions when it does, there is an abrupt course correction. Take the music for instance. On one evening visit, soft classical seeped out of the speakers. Then suddenly the speaker cones were spewing a Muzak-like redo of Mike + The Mechanics' unctuous hit "The Living Years," belted by a man-and-woman duo. As glutinous with passion as these two crooners were in their 40-weight reconstruction of this '80s ode to intergenerational finger-pointing and lost opportunities with dads now dead, their breathy "say it, say it" refrains did nothing for La Font's terrine of pheasant.
Not that it could have, even if the setting was a tavern instead of a dining room done up in French provincial duds. This tightly composed chilly meat-and-condiment-on-toast set of plates was the height of cold-cut elegance: Oscar Mayer gone to finishing school. One saucer held four aggressively browned thin toast points. On a plate was a grouping of pearl onions pickled in balsamic vinegar, a pair of cornichons slit and slightly separated, an excruciatingly tasty salad of celery root and capers dolled up in a lemon and mayo dressing and a conspicuous crowd of tiny tea-tinged gelatinized veal-stock cubes. Nestled against these clusters were three thick slices of terrine of pheasant composed of pheasant, veal, wine, pistachios and dark rum all in one hearty epicurean sandwich loaf.
These chilled pads of savory flavor were hardly compatible with the pseudo-philosophical gush coming from the speakers, and some honcho in the dining room must have realized this because the music was abruptly cut right in the middle of a "say it, say it, say it loud" refrain. After a few seconds of silence, Vivaldi bubbled into the dining room.
It's much better to eat onion gratinee Lyonnaise to Vivaldi than it is to slurp the stuff to Mike + the Mechanics. This precious "French onion soup" was thick with cheese goo, but what was surprising was what was underneath this melted lid. There wasn't a choking mess of sodden bread with cooked-to-mushy onion segments in a heavy, sweetened stock. Instead there was a barely perceptible crouton and a sparse scattering of onion pieces wading in a broth that was rich and unassuming, possessing cleanliness--not too sweet, not too salty--rarely found in these soup crocks.
This skilled touch also is apparent in Le Rendezvous' veal chop, a special. It arrived bathed in a lightly creamed morel sauce with spongy morel cones, their folds and fins supple, bumping the otherwise smooth sauce surface. The veal flesh was juicy and tender, and sauce seeped effectively into its fibers sloughing off its earthen fungi demeanor in the meat. The meat was accompanied by potatoes au gratin, topped with stewed tomatoes and mushrooms, and a smooth, creamy bite-sized dollop of asparagus soufflé.
Also riding in the gush from Le Rendezvous' classic vein is the vichyssoise "Parisenne," a chilled smooth puddle of potato puree with an extraordinary amount of body. Submerged in its chilled depths were bits of juicy lobster meat, broadening the cramped reach of this potato soup with its layers of rich sweetness.
La Font has had an illustrious food career, manning kitchens across the Western world as well as in Dallas. He's worked under the Michelin three-star chefs Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel. He's had stints in the Savoy in London as well as Plaza Athenée in Paris. In the mid-'70s, La Font did duty as executive chef of the defunct Ernie's Restaurant in San Francisco. After breezing into Dallas in 1977, La Font functioned as corporate chef for Universal Restaurants Inc. until 1986. Universal's properties included Mario's, Le Saisons and Old Warsaw. From there La Font moved to The Helmsley Palace in New York City where he served as executive chef. In the course of assembling his kitchen dossier, La Font has opened restaurants in Paris, Monaco and Lyon.
He returned to Dallas in the mid-'90s and had stints at the Fairmont Hotel and the Hotel Intercontinental before he teamed up with Al Amadeus (owner of Natalie's Your Place or Mine near Le Rendezvous) to crank out classic vittles for Le Rendezvous.
One of the few of La Font's creations that wasn't spawned from a strict classic style is the best example of its kind in Dallas. La Font's lobster martini, served in a martini glass with a pair of tiny claws slumped over the rim, is piled with lobster meat over a pool of hot, soupy mashed potatoes. Those potatoes were drenched in a puddle of warm passion fruit coulis, whose sweetness and tang both coiled with and foiled the sweetness of the lobster. The element that made this martini such a standout was the consistency of the potatoes. Instead of fighting the richness and rigidity of lobster meat with a blanket of stiff starch, La Font's free-running potato and coulis ooze washed over the meat like a thick unobtrusive sauce.
There were other things on the menu that didn't require much chef meddling. Scottish smoked salmon, an array of thick, rust-colored sheets of fish fanned near one edge of the plate, was rich with understated wisps of smoke. Nestled near the smoke-stained edges were little tufts of minced egg white and yolk, capers and La Font's celery root salad, this time with specks of tomato appearing with the caper nubs.
The thing that was startling about the fricassee of seafood was the prolific bulges of succulent pieces of lobster, shrimp, mussels, salmon and snapper in the pool of cardamom broth that formed the backdrop to this dish. The broth flavors were clean, almost inconspicuous, providing a ghostly framework to the dish. Yet, at the same time, this backdrop had oomph to enhance.
Grilled Peking duck breast was a group of oval slices of meat fanned in the middle of the plate. The meat was juicy and rich, stained with a dark grand veneur sauce that had just enough transparency to let the duck flavors come through. Also on the plate was a small bright green dollop of spinach mousse, which proved a little dry and chewy.
Dessert was simple but flawlessly executed. Gratin of berries featured fresh assorted berries snuggled in crème anglaise with a thin brittle crème brûlée-like crust over the top.
The wine list is manageable and varied, but the by-the-glass selections--chardonnay, cabernet and merlot--make this part of the list stunted and mundane. This food demands more breadth, say from a Burgundy or a Sancerre. Though on one visit a waiter sensed my irritation and offered me a glass of white Bordeaux from Graves that was delicious and only $6.50.
Dallas has always had a few small French and "continental" spots in town reaching varying degrees of success and longevity. Taking root in the space that was once home to Clare de Lune, Le Rendezvous isn't dazzling. Nor does it break new ground or even bloom into unexpected flourishes. But the dining room is comfortable (with stone reliefs and a mural of a garden on one wall), the service good and the food well-crafted within its classic framework. It's a respite from the flashy, the fancy and the fused. And from elevator orchestrations of long ago spent pop tunes.
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