In an effort to create the quintessential bistro, the owners of La Fontaine, the newest addition to Coconut Grove's Streets of Mayfair theme-restaurant conspiracy, have attempted to cram virtually every element from every known bistro into one place. Proprietors Craig Liman (a Johnson & Wales grad and former China Grill manager) and Tom Billante (owner of Mezzanotte) bill their restaurant as both "country" and "Parisian." But its atmosphere feels as self-consciously packaged as the rest of the Grove's themed pop-tops: Virtua Cafe, Johnny Rockets, and Planet Hollywood.
At least La Fontaine is attractive, with French doors separating the 200-seat interior from the patio. On a clear, mild night, the cobblestone patio, with its fountains, wooden loveseats, and marble-top tables, is in great demand. Inside, glass cases show off wheels of cheese and beautifully constructed cakes; blue and gold curtains frame floor-to-ceiling windows. The service is polished, and some of the fare is a cut above the neighbors' efforts. I especially appreciated the wine menu's list of French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Swiss cheeses.
No denying that cheese courses were popular in various trendy, early-Nineties eateries, but they've always been a bistro stable. At La Fontaine you can choose individual cheeses, conveniently paired with an appropriate wine, or you can select a sampler of three or five cheeses as a first (or last) course. We ordered a pan-European trio: Belletoile, a triple-creme Brie from France; goat's milk Gouda, an aged semisoft cheese from the Netherlands; and mountain Gorgonzola, a soft, veined blue cheese from Italy. The Brie wasn't ripe enough for my tastes, but all three were exceptionally fresh and delicious. The platter was garnished with red grapes and strawberries and accompanied by stone wheat crackers and crusty, sliced baguettes.
Other cold appetizers were equally refreshing and would suffice as an excellent light meal. A lovely salmon terrine, molded but not gelatinous, was rife with visible bits of the delicately smoked fish. Two dollops of chive-flecked Boursin cheese made an unexpected appearance on the plate, mellowing the salmon taste when spread with the smoky terrine on a piece of French bread. Field greens and halved cherry tomatoes coated with a salted, barely-there vinaigrette were also pleasant accouterments.
Mixed lettuces made a frilly, earthy base for a platter of farci de viande, a meatloaf of pork, veal, and beef. Served cold, the meatloaf was thinly sliced and, my companions pointed out, as pink as Spam, but the texture was firm and the flavor rich, more like a country pate. I would have preferred a stronger dressing here; the vinaigrette was overwhelmed by the spiced meat.
Hot appetizers roam familiar territory: escargots in herbed butter, mussels in broth, and French onion soup. A special that evening, roasted eggplant soup, was noteworthy compared to the same old same old; its distinctiveness was the result of being blessed with the perfect amount of garlic. The heady puree was lightened with just a touch of cream, and it was served in an enormous bowl that invited bread for a swim.
The main courses all failed in one way or another. Two "country specialties," recipes that vary slightly from region to region, suffered from poor execution. Cassoulet Toulousain was a beyond-bland white bean stew. Generally this slow-baked casserole is highly seasoned with onions, bacon, and tomato. Chunks of pork, duck confit, and sausage cooked with the beans also add flavor, and breadcrumbs mingle with bubbling juices and softened beans to form a surface crust. La Fontaine got it all wrong. The beans were too firm and lacked seasoning, the dish was too shallow to allow the legumes to cover the meats, and the breadcrumbs were toasted bits, never really soaking into the stew sufficiently. The result was a crustless cassoulet. Worse, in addition to being astonishingly fatty, the pork and duck were stringy; the sausage was excellent, though, a minor saving grace.
Another entree, poulet Cordon Bleu -- a boneless breast of chicken stuffed with prosciutto and Gruyere, then rolled in breadcrumbs and baked -- was unforgivably dry. A tart, tangy red sauce flecked with garlic coated the poultry but didn't compensate for the desiccation. A side dish of potatoes au gratin -- slices of skinned white potatoes -- was too slippery with cream; more cheese in the mix might anchor the potatoes a bit better.
Any worthy bistro serves a decent steak frites -- grilled steak and shoestring French fries. At La Fontaine the cut of Angus beef was a tough New York sirloin riddled with fat. The meat was also unevenly cooked, ranging from medium-rare to raw. A brandy and green peppercorn sauce was anemic and could have been sharpened with more peppercorns. Mercifully the homemade fries were golden-brown and crisp.
Several pasta dishes were also offered, including ravioli stuffed with seafood and penne sauteed with French sausage and vegetables. We were intrigued by the server's description of a special pasta -- homemade fettuccine topped with seafood and a brandied fresh tomato sauce. The noodles were springy and the brandy contributed a deeper intensity to the sauce than wine might have. But the aroma was fishy, something of a surprise given the scarcity of the seafood. Three of the tiniest mussels I have ever seen were matched by a trio of minuscule clams, and one shrimp was chopped up as if to fool the diner into thinking there was more than met the eye. Even stranger, two Lilliputian sprigs of broccoli were hidden in the nest of noodles.
My advice: Stick with the appetizers, skip the entrees, and fast-forward to dessert. Choices range from family-friendly ice cream sundaes to first-date-appropriate mille feuilles a la Parisienne. A pear and chocolate cake was decidedly elegant, with the bittersweet chocolate highlighting the fruit's sweetness. Ricotta cheesecake was rich and smooth, but those in search of gooey goodness should order crepes. We tried the banana and Nutella crepe, a lacy pancake plump with chopped bananas and topped with the chocolate-hazelnut spread. The plate was also drizzled with caramel and fudge, and front-loaded with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
3390 Mary St; 447-0553. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily from 10:00 a.m. until midnight; Friday and Saturday until 2:00 a.m.
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Selection of three cheeses
Banana and Nutella crepe