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La Petite France is such an authentic French dining experience you'll forget you're in Richmond.

We'll Always Have Paris

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Good is as trendy as shoes, though it doesn't change as quickly. Few of us eat the same way we ate 10 years ago, and if we eat out frequently, our tastes have probably changed even more. Restaurants change too. The successful ones do so almost imperceptibly, keeping the expected and introducing prospective winners.

I realized all of this over a very fine dinner at La Petite France, where Chef Paul Ebling has presided over the kitchen for 30 years. Classic French cuisine has always been reserved for a few because it is expensive to execute and too labor-intensive for the value-conscious chef. In recent years, sauces based on eggs and butter have also gotten bad press, and "lite" has been the buzzword.

But any chef who bears the title should be able to make a hollandaise or bernaise sauce without pause, and an experienced chef such as Ebling can reinvent the classics for new sensibilities. That's essentially what has happened at La Petite France. It's French and much is traditional, but much also fits our new way of eating.

Our casual lifestyles — when a family sitting down together for a meal is not a daily routine, when shorts and T-shirts are not unusual in "dressy" restaurants — don't exactly suggest formal table settings and impeccable and measured service. Ah, but these can be very satisfying.

The location of this purveyor of fine French cuisine is somewhat incongruous. It's set among electronic and mattress discounters, a fitness center, and a doggy day-care. But once inside the restaurant, that ugly commercial world is left behind and one enters the pleasant formality and serenity of the softly lighted room, fresh flowers, and crisp napery. There is a club-like ambiance because so many know each other and are known by Chef Paul and his hostess-spouse Marie-Antoinette. That only adds to the sense of security at this French bastion.

There are really two menus — the regular and the list of specials. The extensive regular menu has a fair number of classics, many updated, including Chef Paul's signature dish of sautéed Dover sole. And of course there are escargots, lobster bisque, and onion soup, among a dozen other ways to start ($4.25 - $12.50). We found the special appetizers more appealing. A duck-and-veal paté is a classic, though I prefer the traditional sour condiment to the accompanying sweet mango-peach chutney. A salad of summer tomatoes and goat cheese, dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and herbs is a perfect summer starter — a classic wherever its origin.

The entrée selection ($17.50 - $29.50) is extensive, almost two dozen between the two menus, from sole to lamb shank. Given a budget and enough time, I'd try everything on the list. Given an evening, I chose a filet mignon of Virginia bison with shiitake mushrooms and a rich brown sauce. The bison, almost fork tender, was quite delicious. This lean and flavorful meat deserves a larger following. A grilled tuna steak with traditional Provencal flavorings was also on the mark. But what about delicate soft-shell crabs almondine or the calf's liver with an onion confit and a splash of balsamic vinegar? And there's chicken or a Black Angus steak for the timid.

A dinner like this needs a soothing conclusion and there are many desserts ($7.95 - $12.95). The soufflés ($12.95) are a house specialty, but I was perfectly content with a house-made lemon sorbet with fresh blueberries. A traditional French close, profiteroles with creme anglaise and chocolate, was as good as beautifully presented. Portions of most are large enough so that two might share.

The wine list is extensive and interesting, particularly with wines from Chef Paul's native Alsace. We found a 1997 pinot noir from that region to be interestingly complex.

If you enjoy good food in splendid surroundings and have never been to La Petite France, go celebrate. It's as French as you get around here, but it's also very Richmond. It's a gem.



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