Pretty package

It's a season of expectation, of secrets and the wonderful romance of a well-wrapped package. But when you tear through the tinseled wrapping and find the same old necktie, it's always disappointing.

That's the way La Petite Maison set us up. This is a restaurant with all the right ideas. The cuisine is right for the setting, which is right for the building, and the whole thing is exactly what Dallas needs now. Plus, this little house behind the courtyard on Fairmount has been the genesis of many of Dallas' fine restaurants--Guy Calluaud's first restaurant was here, and the last restaurant to leave was Juniper. So there's good karma for fine dining.

It's not the thought that counts, and even though the setting is right and the package looks great, unfortunately the food falls short.

You enter the courtyard through a vine-draped trellis, and you're greeted at the door with real hospitality. There are two dining rooms, which already tend to be full. The walls are painted a soft dappled yellow, decorated with old paintings and prints. (The polished wood floors prove the age of the house--our table sloped toward the wall so much you could measure the angle by the slosh-mark left on the soup bowl.)

We were led to a white draped table, and we settled in comfortably, sipping a glass of cold champagne, basking in that particular illusion of civilization that a good dining room provides, a haven from harsh reality. These dining rooms have the genteel feel of formal family gatherings, cozy, but not laid-back. And as long as every table is mindful of the needs of others, these cozy rooms are comfortable to share, even with strangers.

You do have to mind your manners. When an especially joyous (and larger than average) gathering at one end of the room got a little too joyous, the whole room went quiet in time for one woman's punchline, an embarrassing, sitcom set-up that made us all lower our voices, just in case.

There's an old piece of wisdom that says you can judge the quality of a restaurant kitchen by the quality of the bread and butter. Of course, in Dallas that is total foolishness, not wisdom. There are still so few good commercial bakeries, and bread baking is such a time-and-space-consuming endeavor that inferior bread and butter is the rule, not the exception. So La Petite Maison's excellent, fresh-baked crusty rolls, with good butter, were an unexpected delight.

Another delight was our waiter--courteous, clear-voiced, helpful but not pushy. He was not embarrassed to refer to notes on how the evening's specials were prepared, and he was willing to go to the kitchen and ask anything he did not know. He recited the specials available with their prices. I don't understand why waiters don't do that, unless it's a holdover from the antique idea that only the host should know the price of dinner. Good waiters are so rare--so many seem so much to want to be the guest, not the server, that it is worth mentioning when you are well-served.

The menu is a good read, too. It's a well-edited list including a daily soup, seven appetizers, three salads, and seven entrees, all classically simple and delicious-sounding, ranging in richness from steamed fish to steak.

We started with the soup--roasted red bell pepper, replacing tomato as the most popular soup around right now, this version just barely bound with cream, not as rich, and more vegetal than many.

Beggar's purses, crepes filled with caviar or something and tied with a limp scallion, were the '80s' trickiest hors d'oeuvre. In the '90s they've been replaced by a trend you may have missed--the "pasta handkerchief," a square of pasta draped like a used hanky over something, often seafood, the result resembling an unfinished ravioli. La Petite Maison dropped their hanky over firm shrimp and rubbery scallops in a salty, salmon-colored, lobster-based sauce.

Most of the fare is refreshingly French, but there are the inevitable crabcakes, here given the sunny French touch with aioli, and there's a hefty-sounding pasta dish topped with sausage, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken which didn't sound like an appetizer to me. I wonder about the pate--house-made, according to our waiter--and the fricassee of snails and mushrooms, both Gallic dishes.

At the top of the entree list is "roast chicken 'grand-mere.'" Roast chicken is supposedly one of those kitchen barometers like bread--a quick indication whether this is a kitchen that cares. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking (otherwise known as the Bible), Julia Child says unequivocally, "You can always judge the quality of a cook or restaurant by roast chicken." I suppose it once was so. I am not really brave enough to argue with Julia; I can only say that in my limited experience, and I'm arguably young yet, I've eaten at some good restaurants that don't seem to know a damn thing about roasting a chicken. Of course, on the surface, nothing could be simpler, if you have the "greed for perfection" that Julia mentions as the prerequisite to chicken roasting.

I was pleased that this particular chicken had elements not usually associated with chicken anymore, things like bones and skin, but it was actually a casserole-roasted chicken "en cocotte," rather than a real roasted chicken. It had "grand-mere" attached to its name, which leads you to expect French down-home food, the kind the grandmother who might have owned this house would have cooked. Julia actually calls this style of cooking "bonne-femme," but the results are the same. This bird was partially boned, like elegant chickens are, and it was small, like French chickens supposedly are. This was a very small bird, even accounting for it being elegant and halved, and overcome by the ocean of sauce pooled on the plate. The sweet little onion pearls, the chewy bits of bacon, and the "turned" potatoes, whittled into big olive shapes, were tasty, but this was not a very flavorful chicken, its skin golden but not crisped, the meat bland.

And pan-seared pork medallions were disappointing, the over-punished slices of loin pounded till dead, then seared. (It was like one of those comic torture scenes--first we'll draw and quarter him, then we'll hang him.) So the poor pork ended up as a bit of brown leather, with grainy white mashed potatoes providing jaw relief, though their garlic flavor had a bitter aftertaste.

We'd ordered a dessert souffle before dinner, and as soon as our meal was cleared, the little cloud floated out smoking hot, vanilla-scented, and our waiter poured a creme anglaise into it generously. The rich, buttered-metal taste of freshly cooked eggs was just sweet enough. But their mouth-watering desserts were good ideas that need a little revision or practice to be perfect: chocolate ganache in a phyllo turnover, for instance. The pastry was wet when it should have been buttery and flaky, and the chocolate wasn't strong enough.

Chef Robert Barone was trained in New York and had been working privately in Dallas before his investors gave him this chance to show his stuff to the public. The food was a little slow coming from the kitchen, but even that could be OK, given the pleasantness of the place. The trouble with simple classics is that they're deceptively simple--it takes a great deal of care and attention to get them just right, and there's nothing to mask a mistake.

La Petite Maison, 2917 Fairmount, 855-0700. Open Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 5 p.m.--11:30 p.m.

La Petite Maison:
Pasta Handkerchief with Shrimp and Scallops $7.50
Soup du Jour $4
Oven-Roasted Chicken "Grand-Mere" $14.50
Roasted Rack of Lamb $21.50
Pan-Seared Pork Medallions $14.75

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