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Leslie Brenner | Aug 12, 2000 09:36 AM

I hadn't been to Lutèce for four years or so. That time it was very good (though not extraordinary), this time I was sorely disappointed. Sat down and ordered a glass of champagne, my husband (Thierry) had a scotch. The ameuse came--salmon rillettes. A quenelle shape of a creamy paste of, I don't know cold-smoked salmon? And toasts. I liked it, though Thierry was underwhelmed. We ordered--ceviche salad for me, followed by duck breast and what I thought said braised leg, with brandied cherries. Thierry ordered applewood-smoked cod with arugula salad, then a leg of lamb special with ratatouille. ("Sounds so pedestrian," he said--many of the items did; nothing grabbed us. I assured him that ratatouille can be great in deft hands. We were at Lutece, after all...) Then the wine list--an ordeal. We were hard-pressed to find a red we wanted to drink that was less than $65 (the price of the prix fixe menu). This wasn't a special occasion. But I mean really hard pressed. There were only a small handful on the whole list. We finally settled on a 96 Gigondas (from a producer I didn't know) for about $40.

First courses arrived. Mine was so unappealing-looking that I just sat there staring at it. I think I had a look of horror on my face, and in fact was surprised that no one asked if anything was wrong. It was a squished-looking salad draped with ropes of two different fish--salmon (which looked raw, part of my look of horror) and a white fish (halibut?). I hadn't asked what type of fish were in the ceviche, but considering the ameuse, which was fairly large, I now felt a word from the captain would have been appropriate. Also, I'm put off by uncooked salmon--don't believe it's really safe to eat since it's freshwater (maybe someone has a more informed opinion on this that will put me at ease.) I was somewhat relieved on tasting the salmon, which was at least cured in citrus, but closer in flavor to smoked salmon or undercured gravlax than anything else. The white fish was stringy. The salad was overdressed, with shreds of mint I found overpowering (Thierry disagreed). The mint itself was delicious, though--I would have preferred to eat that by itself. Thierry gallantly switched our plates half way through, and I thoroughly enjoyed his smoked cod--beautiful texture, and the smoky, salty flavor was gorgeous with the delicious arugula. A winner.

Next the duck. The leg was good, but more like a confit (with crisp skin) than I was led to believe by the menu. Breast was slightly overcooked, maybe thirty seconds, not enough to send it back. Sauce was a pretty sweet cherry sauce, pretty one-note, studded with the brandied cherries. I couldn't taste the brandy; they just tasted like they were poached in syrup. On the side, a pile of plain spinach and a pedestrian cheese soufflé that reminded Thierry of French cafeteria food. Thierry's lamb and ratatouille were fine. Good bistro food. On the side, a gratin of potatoes that was so oversalted even we (with our salt-loving palates) couldn't eat it. No one asked how anything was. Dining room was about 2/5 full, Thursday night. Wine was a good match.

On the other dessert, a peach tarte tatin with a sumptuous caramel sauce, was stupendous. I'm not a big dessert person, but I ate every speck of it. Thierry's was a chocolate/hazelnut dome. Good, but I didn't want to look away from mine.

Check came--about $246 including tax and tip. For what I consider to be basically very good bistro food. This was not food that was even striving to be four-star quality. Not that I'm one for fussy plates, but the garnishes and preparations were so basic that in a restaurant of this caliber, they came off as dull. If they were perfectly executed, I might have felt differently, but in the end, this was just a very expensive bistro dinner. Nor did most of the ingredients impress me as being fresh off a celebrated organic farm. I signed the credit card slip, closed the leather booklet with a snap, and in doing so, somehow sent the wine left in my glass flying all over Thierry, whose pale green jacket was now soaked with red. The captain mumbled about putting salt on it, but when I said probably club soda would help, he made no move. At least we left laughing! And musing that if they had a cheese cart, it never would have happened.

Next night, we ate in our neighborhood (Park Slope) at Bonnie's Grill. Guess which was a better meal? (See Outer Boroughs board for the answer...)

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