Thursday, January 24, 2008
L’Escargot is civilized, but not gilded. It’s homey, with graceful manners, but also feels like it could accommodate a little craziness, of the eccentric variety, if patrons are so inclined. The staff is friendly, the door to the kitchen is open for a peek of the gears at work, and an excellent soundtrack showcases opera, electronic jazz, Arabic music and more.
Located in a quaint structure in a residential Carmel neighborhood, this house of French country cuisine originally opened in 1958 in the spot where La Bicyclette is now. It’s traditional, but suddenly feels contemporary in the context of an American culture that finally appreciates good food and good wine and draws many of its design ideas from Europe. An all-English menu is just one of its stereotype-busting qualities.
You can easily dine here without imbibing a drop of cream or emptying your wallet. Chef/owner Kerry Loutas bought the place in 1999 and serves dishes from various regions (cassoulet, pistou soup, ratatouille) as well as national classics (coq au vin, steak frites), like most French restaurants this side of the pond.
A Wednesday half-price wine offering prompted a recent visit. The 2003 Chateau Vignot St. Emilion Grand Cru, normally $55 per bottle, cost only $27.50. Two hints were on the label: “Saint Emilion,” indicating the region that produces the most muscular of Bordeaux wines, and “Grand Cru,” an official designation by the French government for vineyards that meet the highest standards. This wine produces beautiful aromas, melt-in-your-mouth tannins and a long finish.
It felt like robbery to take advantage of both the wine special and the three-course prix fixe dinner (offered every night) for $33, but my mate and I succumbed. Munching warm sourdough bread (sweet is my preference), I appreciated the generous space between the eight tables in the full dining room, and the wine table where I could admire the selection of port and check out wine labels. (On a weekend visit, an adjoining dining room also was open.)
Our waiter, Laurent, demonstrated the difference top-notch service can make. And he’s the genius behind the soundtrack. We felt compelled to start with the eponymous escargot. This preparation was tender and tasty, and the best part was, as always, mopping up garlic, parsley and butter with bread.
A good Dijon vinaigrette on well-chilled Bibb butterhead lettuce is one of life’s great culinary pleasures. Thoughtful presentation along with hearts of palm, cucumber and “toy” tomatoes exalts this classic, and I’ll add this one to my memory bank. The French onion soup arrived and I dug in, literally, since it was more like a casserole. This full-flavored soup, swollen with onions and accented with sharp Gruyere cheese, was a delight. These cost $7 and $8 respectively, if á la carte.
While there are many recommended dishes and two seafood specials, I tried the Rabbit Fricassee when I learned it was once an occasional special that was put on the menu to quiet the insistent clientele. The delicate rabbit and mustard sauce were emboldened by Chardonnay, with mushrooms, onions, carrots and rice. I’d make the journey just to try this dish ($26).
I can speak to the coq au vin (a must-try), marinated lamb leg (also a must-try), linguini with sausage and prawns (pretty good), and the side of ratatouille (excellent, with rich, melded flavors). When I told my mate I’d like to find some fault with L’Escargot, just to keep my wits sharp, he said the prawns in his linguini were not as juicy-tender as they should be and passed one over. I had to agree.
The hallmark of Loutas’ dishes is their concentrated flavors, with harmoniously constructed sauces. Thankfully, many chefs have returned to this classical style after years of fashionably deconstructed dishes.
Desserts employ enough sugar to enhance flavors and no more, and portions are not sized to share, so get your own. (Note: These are not criticisms!) I recommend the artsy, geometric Chocolate Marquise and the Bosc pear marinated in Merlot.
This locals’ hideaway is priced similarly to the average restaurant in Carmel and while very special, should not be reserved for special occasions alone.