The last time I went to La Petite France, more than 20 years ago, my second cousin tried to hit on me. Granted, we hadn't seen each other since we were 6, and given our near-stranger status, I think he must have forgotten at some point during the evening (after a lot of wine we were barely old enough to drink) that I wasn't somebody's bridesmaid-friend and that we were actually related. By blood. So the whole ick factor of that memory kind of clouds any recollection of the food I had at the time.
But the event reminds me that La Petite France was the destination restaurant for my family, as it was for many Richmonders. It was the fanciest and the most expensive, and we reserved it for very special occasions. So special, in fact, that I hardly ever went there. By the time I was old enough to pay for my own meals, it was off my radar completely, relegated to a spot in my mind reserved for the old and the wealthy -- of which I was neither. It was hidebound, I thought, welded to a classic French menu that left very little room if any for innovation.
As I've gotten older, I've changed my mind a bit about defiantly traditional French restaurants such as La Petite France and 1 North Belmont. Why shouldn't there be a place in a restaurant scene for the kind of food that would make Julia Child proud? Is ceaseless creativity the be-all, end-all, or is there real value in adhering to the principles of Escoffier and Le Cordon Bleu?
To test these questions, I went back to La Petite France, sans family. It's no longer under the management of the past, and new owners Karol and Tamara Gajda have changed little, if any, of the interior. It's still a hushed, dimly lighted, fussy avalanche of white tablecloths, flowered wallpaper, gilt and the occasional white-pleated valance, minus window. In short, it's just the sort of place your grandmother would have loved in 1972. Actually, it looks a lot like the inside of my grandmother's apartment in Florida back then, although there's far less white French provincial here.
I was disappointed not to see the restaurant's self-proclaimed famous Dover sole amandine, but the evening's menu was rich with classic offerings. The tender, garlicky escargot comes in a white dish with separate indentations for each snail, and the perfectly seared foie gras is flanked with sweet, grilled pears and apples in a port-wine syrup and a scattering of raspberries.
A sliced, boneless chicken breast succumbs to an all-too-familiar dryness despite a dousing with white-wine cream sauce, as does the veal, although the sautéed sweetbreads on top of the veal are light and succulent. Beef tenderloin medallions arrive in twos: one with a Gorgonzola sauce, the other with a red wine sauce; one sinewy, the other tender. Just two small, sweetly glazed carrots accompany the entrees, along with a tablespoon of chopped, sautéed Swiss chard and a squeeze of fennel-scented potato purée.
I ordered the chocolate soufflé early, because it takes a while to prepare and bake, but clearly the chef was in a hurry. Although liberally lavished with chocolate sauce tableside, there were still large, visible swaths of white meringue-like soufflé where the chocolate hadn't been folded in before baking. Fortunately, the crème brûlée is classically correct, and if you like crème brûlée like I do, you know that means it's perfect.
Yet with the prices La Petite France charges, it's realistic to expect more consistency. There isn't much of an excuse for dry chicken or tough veal when you're paying fine-dining rates. Like their predecessors, the new owners must know that the name of their restaurant is enough to get customers in the door, but they need to encourage them to return as well.
La Petite France is located off Staples Mill Road in a warehouse-studded neighborhood, and although I have no compunction traveling just about anywhere for good food, the new owners and chef are going to have to really ramp up what they offer to attract a larger customer base.
I like the time-capsule interior and adored my waiter, a native Frenchman and a veteran of Racine and Tarrant's. But the one-of-a-kind, special occasion cuisine we all expect hasn't quite arrived yet. S
La Petite France ($$$)
2108 Maywill St.
Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m.
Brandon Fox is also the author of the blog "Brandon Eats" at www.brandoneats.com.