Lilly Nguyen is used to challenges. After her husband died in the crash of a hijacked airplane in Vietnam and Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, she and her five children, aided by the nuns at St. Joseph's Villa here, fled their war-ravaged country and settled in Richmond.
Nguyen (pronounced "when") and her children, then ranging in age from nine months to 12 years, lived with the nuns for 18 months before striking out on their own. For the next 18 years, Nguyen worked two jobs, for AT&T at night and in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant during the day. In 1995, with mergers bringing layoffs at AT&T, she scraped together enough savings to buy a small Ethiopian restaurant in Carytown. In two weeks' time, she and the children had converted it into Indochine, which went on to win acclaim as the city's finest French-Asian restaurant.
Her children helped out after school, but in 2001 Nguyen underwent heart surgery, after which she no longer had the strength to put in 12-hour days behind the grill. So in 2002 she sold the restaurant.
Now, after four years of recuperation and relaxation, she's taken on a new challenge, one that would be daunting to anyone without her history the operation of La Petite France, which during the past 35 years has won a reputation as the city's most venerated French restaurant.
Nguyen financed the $400,000 purchase by selling her house and getting financial help from her children, all of whom are now college graduates.
With her mastery of French-Asian cuisine and her outgoing personality, Nguyen appeared to be a natural heir to the former owners, chef Paul Elbling and his wife, Marie Antoinette, whose presence in the kitchen and dining room set a standard for quality and class in the Richmond dining scene.
Lately, however, like a grand dame loaded down with too much heavy jewelry, this dowager of dining has seemed a bit quaint compared with its friskier competition.
Its location in a warehouse district never was an asset, but two decades ago, it had neighbors who generated traffic a branch of Thalhimers department store, a Price Club and the headquarters of Circuit City, all of which have either closed or relocated.
Furthermore, La Petite France's loyal customer base shares similar demographics with the "CBS Evening News" they're dying off. So now, at the risk of stretching an analogy, just as CBS is counting on Katie Couric to expand its audience, La Petite France has charismatic Nguyen, an accomplished chef who built a solid reputation at Indochine.
But first there are some new problems she must face. A chef who worked for both the former and current owners says that despite a claim that "we use only the freshest ingredients," over the years the kitchen often passed off cheaper, inferior products for some of its fanciest dishes. While such deceptions are not unheard-of in the restaurant business, it's a dismaying allegation about an establishment of La Petite's caliber.
A chef and floor personnel say that the substitutions included tilapia for John Dory; chicken marinated in port for pheasant; marinated pork tenderloin for wild boar; and frozen lobster for fresh.
Chef Elbling dismisses the allegations as "new to me." He says La Petite never passed off pork as wild boar or chicken as pheasant, but that he sometimes used frozen lobster. As for the fish, he contends that tilapia and John Dory are the same fish with different names (though both are sometimes called St. Peter's fish).
Other chefs, a fish wholesaler and culinary Web sites disagree. Tilapia is a bland, farm-raised white fish that restaurants buy for $4.25 per pound of fillet. John Dory is seldom available because it comes mostly from New Zealand and costs more than twice the price of tilapia. Both Elbling and his chef of more than 30 years, Robert McGuire, say that they routinely bought wild boar and other game from a Washington distributor and that the pheasant came from a farm in the Shenandoah Valley.
Nguyen removed wild boar and pheasant from the menu when she took over, saying they were too expensive. But she acknowledges that she buys frozen lobster because "you can't keep live lobsters. They lose their taste after a couple days."
Tina Simmons, one of Nguyen's daughters, agreed that diners who pay $35 for lobster have a right to expect that it is prepared live. She adds that the words John Dory have been scratched out on the menu and that a new menu will reflect the true name of the dish.
Substitutions aside, the food is still quite good, enhanced by a veteran wait staff and an atmosphere that exudes old-fashioned plush. The menu remains classic French fare, with no apologies for heavy cream and butter sauces.
Among appetizers ($10-$16), the vichyssoise (creamed chilled potato-and-leek soup) remains perfect during warm weather, and the classic French onion soup, though a bit salty, is right for cooler days. A cassolette of escargots, simmered in butter, shallots, garlic and herbs in Riesling is bread-sopping fine, the garlicky sauce stopping just short of overwhelming. The broccoli soup also is expertly prepared, but the creamed truffled lobster bisque with cognac, while tasty, lacks any bits of lobster.
Entrees ($19-$36) include a fillet of Dover sole that is advertised as fresh, but, as in most restaurants, is bought frozen; an excellent fluffy puff pastry filled with generous portions of appropriately cooked shrimp and scallops; and traditional offerings of salmon, duck, veal, lamb and steak.
Among desserts, the Grand Marnier soufflé ($12) is light and airy, but almost liquid, while an orange crème brûlée has the consistency of tapioca pudding.
Nguyen is slowing adding her own touch, placing colorful umbrellas above a doorway and preparing a tangy shrimp and crabmeat salad with a dill dressing, accompanied by lime-sprinkled vegetables and pasta.
And she plans to lighten up the menu after the first of the year with more Asian touches. But first, she needs to convince patrons that the food won't just be good, but honest too. S
La Petite France ($$$$)
2108 Maywill St.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, noon-2:30 p.m.