Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and by the cover of Les Halles, the judgment is: We are sooo French. French as the 35-hour workweek, French as 10,000 handmade cheeses and gloriously crusty baguettes, French as sipping a glass of rustic red wine at a cute little Parisian bistro while puffing on French cigarettes that stink like something emanating from the rear end of a diarrheic horse.
You know, French.
You've got to admire that single-mindedness of focus. At many so-called French restaurants in town, the most authentically Gallic thing about them is the surly, condescending attitude of the staff, and culinary fortitude is limited to the likes of escargots, steak frites, and duck à l'orange. Rabbit, choucroute garnie, cassoulet, duck confit, coq au vin? Non, monsieur.
At Les Halles, however, all are oui, oui (except for the snails and duck). The rest of its cover is equally forthright. The dining room positively exudes Frenchness: the rows of banquettes cramming diners together like petits pois, the towering pressed-tin ceiling, the dark wood and brass trim, the well-worn surfaces that suggest years of constant use. Of course the wine list is unapologetically French (though the superripe 'n' fruity 2003 Domaine du Pesquier Gigondas tasted more of the Napa Valley than of the Rhone). And though the staff performs with very undomestic alacrity and competence, there's nary a hint of the (in)famous French 'tude.
Which leaves the food.
Appetizers are terrific. Mussels mariniere are a cookbook-perfect example of how to prepare these succulent black-shelled bivalves, their glistening orange meat plump and bursting with flavor in a steaming, aromatic bath of white wine, shallots, and vampirish amounts of garlic. Les Halles' take on potato salad makes the mayonnaise-laden American version taste like so many boiled spuds. Here it's a thick disc of vinegary, just-this-side-of-mushy potatoes flecked with black olives and crowned by a creamy coin of gratined goat cheese, with a few more olives and mesclun salad dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette thrown in for good measure.
Entrées fall flatter than a soggy chef's toque. If it were a book, the house signature steak portion of steak frites would be titled Semi-Tough. The thin, chewy, gristly piece of meat delivered neither much flavor nor tenderness. The thick-cut frites were modestly crisp if also flavorless, until graced with copious amounts of salt. Cassoulet, it must be said, is not a dish for our typical summer evenings, when relentless heat and humidity can melt your face off. Still, the simple act of offering this unabashedly lusty, rib-sticking stew of white beans, duck, sausage, and smoked pork almost demands that it be ordered. Unfortunately it's a demand best ignored, at least if the leathery duck leg and prodigiously fatty pork were any indication, leading even the most confirmed Francophile to wonder if cassoulet really isn't French for "beans and lard."
Then, just like thunder clouds dissipating the moment you fire up the grill, dessert arrives to save the day. Cookbook-perfect profiteroles, airy yet slightly resistant puffs of golden pâte à choux, sandwich gobs of good-quality vanilla ice cream, topped with a mahogany-color chocolate sauce truly wicked in its bittersweet intensity. Which is yet another reason why a meal at Les Halles, if it were a book, would be titled Mixed Blessings.
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