To say the service and pacing of courses at Le Rendezvous is leisurely is to make them sound too rushed. This newly reopened French place on the southwest corner of Royal Lane at Preston Road adheres to the classic continental style, meaning continents could shift a smidge in the time it takes to travel from appetizers to dessert and coffee.
Not to say that's a bad thing. With food this fine, this delicately prepared and exquisitely presented, and this expensive, you're perfectly willing to watch the afternoon disappear before lunch has reached its end. You'll need plenty of time to savor soft and meaty little escargots dripping with buttery, Pernod-laced cream. To enjoy another crunch of toast so thin it can barely support that fat dollop of garlicky foie gras. To spoon a little deeper into the fish soup to find another nibble or two of hot, fresh mussels swimming in a steaming, carrot-filled broth. And to fantasize about ordering another plate of warm melted-chocolate bourbon cake. Oh. My. God.
Lingering is what it's all about at a pair of long and extravagant lunches we indulged in at Le Rendezvous recently, one of them stretching so far into a third hour that we might as well have hung around for dinner. Or started paying rent.
The guilty pleasure in this style of white-cloth and heavy-silver dining is that you'd like to believe that you deserve it. The servers at Le Rendezvous, including veterans from Aurora and Urban Bistro, make you feel that you do. They're experts at treating new patrons with that authoritative obsequiousness that comes with years of professional service at high-end joints that cater to demanding customers. Waiters appear willing to bow to whims and special requests (one of our party eats rigidly gluten-free). Their helpers are the kind who silently materialize just when we need a sip of water or when a stray crumb requires removal from the starched cloth with a nifty little silver rake. One waiter bows low at the waist to whisper that he's so sorry to inform us that the fryer is on the fritz and no pommes frites are possible—a kitchen glitch that somehow evaporates moments later. When it arrives, the open-faced mini-steak sandwich lies next to a mound of chunky golden fries.
Chef François Soyez, formerly the sous chef at Lavendou, stocks his lunch and dinner menus with traditional French fare: salade Niçoise, vichyssoise, sweetbreads, bouillabaisse, steak au poivre, mousses and souffles. We ask the waiter for entrée suggestions. Lemon sole special—check. Trout amandine—check. Both are generously portioned and cooked with care. The trout is coated with a tissue-thin, almost dainty hint of crust. The thick square of sole flakes to the touch and isn't too heavily influenced by either butter or lemon. Both dishes come with mesclun salads and sides of baby veggies and fluffy saffron rice.
In a small black bowl next to the trout is an orangey roulade of mashed potato, saffron, lemon, garlic, salt and pepper. We slap it on the fish, spread it on toast points, spoon it to our lips in great big bites. It's ambrosial. It's "can we have a barrel of it to take home?" It's "I'd leave my husband, if I had one, and marry this right now."
That little marvel makes us several degrees more giddy and carefree. We're the only diners in the place for a weekday lunch so there's no one to smirk disapproval when we request for dessert the cherries jubilee (gluten-free!) for two. Our waiter, the congenial Ezequiel, prepares it tableside, putting on quite a show of heating the pan, pouring in the brandy, flaming up the kirsch, tossing in a bit of cinnamon for sparks that fly up to the ceiling. "We had to remove the smoke detectors for this," he says. He stirs in the dark cherries and then spoons the hot mixture over golfball-size scoops of vanilla ice cream. We grow drunk on the hot-cold sweetness of it all, embarrassed only a little by its decadence.
Everything at Le Rendezvous, now under new management by Sandro Tamburin, feels a little decadent and old-worldly. The retro-elegant main dining room, warmed by a fireplace, glows under a wall-sized mural of a Versailles-like garden scene. Ornate plaster moldings and glittering chandeliers add weight to the visuals. Behind the bar, a paneled wine room begs for tasting parties or special dinners. A smaller private dining room at the rear is also lovely. In sunny weather, the patio will be a pleasant place to loll.
If only there were more loll-ees here. The empty dining room at both of our lunches doesn't bode well.
"Are dinners any busier?" I ask the waiter.
He sighs. "Our old customers...I mean, our regular customers are just now coming back," he says.
Ah, so that's how it is. Those old customers are really old. The only other party we observe at any point during a three-hour lunch is a table of diners who look suitable for Willard Scott's Smuckers-jar centenarian birthday tributes on the Today show. These folks don't mind sluggish service and hourlong waits between courses. They're already chewing in slo-mo. Long before their check comes, this group falls into silence, looking for all the world like five well-dressed waxworks.
Time waxes and wanes on our second lunchtime visit. We're offered a personal apology from chef Soyez when it takes our table of three nearly 90 minutes to receive an omelet, an open-faced steak sandwich and a bowl of linguine with spicy shrimp. "Things in the kitchen today... echh!" he says, throwing up his hands in that French way. Fryer problems, he says. And what was that constant hammering we've been hearing? Just one of the cooks pounding veal to smithereens.
Everything we eat is so good we forgive the shortcomings. No polenta as promised with the Maryland crabcakes? That's all right, there's an abundance of crab in the cakes and please tell us what's in the smoky sauce underneath. Soy sauce, fresh ketchup, honey. To quote the no-necked cooking lady on daytime TV: Yum-O.
Time stands still again over dessert. The tarte tatin is as big as a dinner plate, slim slices of apple layered over puff pastry so light it almost floats away. And then comes the piece to which we have no resistance, the melted Valrhona chocolate cake. The fist-sized mound of flourless cake rests on a fluffy white sauce swirled at the edges with paisleys of raspberry coulis. Forking up his first mouthful, my friend slaps the table hard with his other hand. His face goes red and tiny beads of sweat appear on his forehead. "This always happens when I eat something this rich," he explains.
My other pal and I reach over the table to try it. Dark melted chocolate oozes from a tunnel inside the cake. It's warm and satiny, spiked with just enough bourbon to gently burn the back of the tongue. I shudder head to toe in a full-on foodgasm.
"How many ways is this stuff wonderful?" I ask my perspiring friend.
"Eleven," he says, licking chocolate from his lips.
The waiter suddenly stands between us. "Are you OK? Is everything all right?" he asks, looking worried.
Oh, we're good, garçon. We're happy. We're high. Je t'aime, flourless melted Valrhona chocolate bourbon cake. Adieu, tristesse.
5934 Royal Lane, 214-987-4900. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$
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