Camille's in Sherman Oaks is known as a romantic place. It looks like the salon of a slightly over-the-hill French courtesan with its dusty-rose walls crammed with gilt-framed oils, its heavy chandelier and mirror, its etched-glass partitions, its serious draperies. On the tables, naked statues hold candles. In the back are three private booths. On weekends, a guitarist serenades.
Thing was, on a rainy Tuesday night, the place was almost empty. Everyone was at home watching TV, the waiter said. In a corner, two women celebrated a birthday. At another table, four businessmen discussed the relative merits of the lodging and transportation at a recent convention in Houston.
Our table was no more romantic: a visiting mother from the East, a movie producer fighting a cold and two female writers who probably talked too much (OK, I was one of them) and drank more than their share of the wine.
The wine was worth hogging: a 1984 Montelena Cabernet that the young waiter, to his credit, had recommended. Also to his credit, the waiter removed the naked-statue-candle holder from our table and replaced it with a Kosta Boda snowball candle holder "so we could see each other better."
Some of us had a good meal. The ailing movie producer, for instance, had poached chicken, a dish so pure and gentle, he said, that a person recovering from radical surgery wouldn't have to fear it. The chicken was a breast, boned and wrapped around spinach cooked just the other side of doneness, which is to say it was neither done-in or raw, and it came immersed in a delicate, refined and simple broth, gently spiked with wine, in which floated julienne vegetables.
The Eastern mom was also very happy with her veal chop, which was a white, tender long-boned beauty, nicely complemented by a pureed mushroom sauce. Here was good meat not, for a change, drowned in sauce. Both dishes were accompanied by pureed parsnips, a dish so comforting and delectable that we begged the waiter to bring us more, and fought over it when he did.
The two noisy writers didn't do so well. One had ordered medallions of veal with beef marrow and morels. "When will I ever learn not to order these veal wafers?" she said, and made everyone take a bite of the tasteless, bland, chewy things. As for the morels, chopped to smithereens and cooked to death, they bore no resemblance to the mushrooms the two of us had once picked and cooked ourselves at the edge of a woods in Iowa.
As for the other noisy writer, I had fallen for the menu's description of sweetbread mignons crowned with goose liver. The slices of goose liver were satisfyingly rich, but the poor sweetbreads had been fried lifeless, three sodden, dry meatoid patties.
The appetizers had been a mixed bag, too. Garlicky snails in their crockery pigeonholes were delicious, but my appetizer, that day's special (a chilled half lobster, the waiter said, and what he said after that was lost in a blur as the word lobster reverberated in my brain) turned out to be a concoction that seemed like French food as interpreted by a recipe on the back of a jar of mayonnaise.
Here was a perfectly good half lobster lying on its side, cluttered up with mayo and green leaves bearing little droppings of caviar, this punctuated with carefully arranged slices of orange. All it needed was a Good Housekeeping seal.
The mayo didn't stop there. It was in the vinaigrette dressing, too, and would have ruined a perfectly passable $7 green salad if it had been permitted to land there.
The desserts were some consolation. We tried a pleasant creme carmel, a respectable pear tart and what they called a chocolate gateau, which was a good enough entity to make us feel guilty about each intensely chocolaty bite.
We had a good time in the restaurant, closed it down, in fact, at the hour of 10:30. Romance? Not tonight. Maybe some other time.
Camille's, 13573 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 995-1660. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Beer and wine only. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$80.