French Miss

Not to raise a nasty terminological conundrum, but the last time I pondered the matter, a frog was most often one of two things: a salientian, web-footed, aquatic amphibian whose mug was considered the opposite of a prince's and whose legs were traditionally hacked, sauteed, and served in the taverns of Provence; or, if you asked the neighboring and hostile British -- a person emanating from France. Ah, but there's a third meaning, at least if you're disposed to believe the menu of Le Festival, a French restaurant praised since 1975 as one of Coral Gables's blue-ribbon finest. The menu here lists the garlicky South-of-France specialty as -- ahem -- a fish.

But even that ichthyological faux pas turns pale eau de nil beside the deluge of monstrosities, culinary and linguistic, that fill the pages of Le Festival's dinner menu like Love Canal swill. A couple of weeks ago a similarly moronic melange of Italian and American at a high-tab Coral Gables establishment hinted at cultural disease inside the eateries of the City Beautiful. That was but a prelude to this abominable franglais version, which points to a pandemic of mindless miscommunication.

I'm happy to report that the few items listed in English -- crabmeat cocktail ($9.25), seafood ravioli ($8,95), and crab cakes ($7.95) -- are correctly spelled. A smidgen of French dishes pass the ersatz Berlitz test, too, such as salade d'agneau ($8.50), potage Saint Germain ($4.75), and ris de veau au Madere ($18.95). But things get stickier than a wet profiterole when Le Festival attempts to bridge a vernacular gap wide enough to make the English Channel look like the Atlantic. Such dubious offerings as "Les Clams Saint Tropez" ($6.75), "Les Frog Legs Provencale" ($16.75), and "Le Salmon (Cedar Wood)" ($18.95) make as much sense as the Talking Heads, especially when the accepted terms for those goodies are, respectively, palourdes, jambes de grenouilles, and saumon. A menu should be as carefully imagined, written, and delivered as the finest Chateaubriand; Le Festival commits a grievous error in assuming its clients speak the same quality of French as Will Rogers. Asimple translation would have helped immeasurably. As it is, this menu could have been scribed by Pepe LePew.

A fortnight ago I affirmed that a menu's nonsensical ignorance can be raised by the eloquent -- and informed -- craft of the chef. The good news is that my two experiences at Le Festival went some way, though hardly all the way, toward erasing doubts about the authenticity and creativity of this culinary source, which three months ago took on new management. Le Festival has always been an elegantly formal, sober, opaque sort of place -- very much the pre-Seventies approach to so-called "Continental" dining. Service is prompt and attentive enough to seduce the stiff customer and engage the lively one. The atmosphere is quite ebullient for such a cavernously lit pair of rooms as these.

But at best, the cuisine here is of journeyman excellence. Among the appetizers, a salmon mousse ($8.75) was blandly disappointing; its saving grace was an avocado mayonnaise whose vinegary tang brought the pureed fish momentarily to life. Neither the chef's pate ($5.95) nor the escargots ($7.50) evinced sufficiently strong flavors. The most interesting by far, though hardly traditional, were the scallops Riviera ($8.50), prepared with watercress, ginger, and lime butter.

A sign of the superior service at Le Festival came when I requested a pepper steak made with filet rather than sirloin strip, as listed on the menu ($22.95). In France, where viandes are not a way of life as beef is in America, inferior cuts of meat are the most often consumed. The great art of the chef is to conceal inferior quality with inspirational magic. Alas, my filet was a splendid monument to American cattle, not French cooking. The sauce -- dribbled scantly over the steak like popcorn butter -- was a sad state of affairs. It could no more evoke the magic of France than the wartime Vichy government of Henri Petain.

In the Gallic country, duck is a source of pride in the kitchen. At Le Festival, duck is a deterrent to a successful dining experience. The migrated Long Island duck served with a brown passion fruit sauce ($18.25) smelled more like quack than Dr. Kevorkian, and the sauce hinted at -- and therefore, elicited -- the same amount of passion as William F. Buckley. Better late than never, the onion-crusted "Le Red Snapper" ($17.95) I tasted before dessert wasn't overcooked and its Madeira sauce gave the fillet a pungent aftertaste. And the souffles, both chocolate and Grand Marnier (both $8.25), delivered an appropriately airy conclusion to a French dining experience no more substantial than ether. In toto, Le Festival's entrees had all the celebratory zing and zest of Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess.

Finally, a note. This restaurant, in keeping with a long-observed tradition, closes for the month of September. Unless some serious rethinking goes into this tarnished vehicle, the ninth month of the year may be the only month to consider spending your hard-earned dollars feasting at this Festival.

LE FESTIVAL 2120 Salzedo St, Coral Gables; 442-8545. Hours: Lunch Monday -- Friday from noon to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Monday -- Thursday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday.


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