At La Brasserie, when they bring you a spinach salad, it's a huge one with a generous portion of bacon carefully distributed throughout instead of being piled deceptively on top. The spinach has actually been tossed in the rather sharp dressing, too, the way restaurants used to do before they decided that just pouring it on top was OK. And when the waiter comes to ask his ritual question about freshly ground pepper, he's carrying a mill rather larger than a softball bat.
That may be the La Brasserie story in a nutshell. This restaurant has been in business for 10 years now, a long time in this part of the world, and it seems to have survived by not changing a hair. It's a cozy warren of dark-paneled rooms where the service is mannered and pampering in the style of some years ago.
And as for the menu--hearts of palm salad, trout almondine, lobster Newburg, for gosh sakes, and with the wine list printed on the facing page, with another page to come just for the champagnes! Even 10 years ago this was an old-fashioned menu, and you can scrutinize the whole thing without having your eyes assaulted by a single kiwi or fresh pasta (or, for the record, any of the Alsatian dishes traditionally served at restaurants calling themselves brasseries).
Restaurant critics are an easily bored tribe and tend to scoff at this kind of thing, but it does have its merits, not the least of which is the fact that diners have a fairly clear idea of what to expect. There's no serving them beefsteak and calling it "pot au feu" here.
For instance, the escargots are not full of surprises but very nice, served in porcelain "snail shells" that keep the snails quite hot. The shrimp scampi style are unusually good in a nice sharp lemon dressing, and there's a perfectly fine mild smoked salmon with chopped onions and capers. The salads all appear to be good; the house salad is butter lettuce with a tarragon-flavored dressing, described by the servers as "a light vinaigrette " but giving the impression of a thinned mayonnaise.
An occasional mannered quality shows in such dishes as an appetizer called mousse de foie. You'd expect chicken liver mousse, and there's some here, but sandwiched between two rubbery layers of aspic. I defy anybody to eat this thing without having it explode into a mess before their eyes. It is ornamented with a little star carved out of the traditional flavorless canned truffle, of course--this is a canned truffle restaurant in the grand tradition.
Among the entrees, a simple double loin lamb chop is utterly perfect, tender and flavorful and in no need of the generous supply of mint jelly that comes with it. Plain fresh salmon, either broiled or poached, comes with bearnaise or a correct lemony hollandaise. Among the very best dishes is coq au vin rouge, which is the real thing, the chicken cooked until it's falling off the bone in a hearty red wine sauce full of mushrooms.
On the whole, though, the more complicated the dish, the greater the pitfalls. The French chefs who established this style of cooking a hundred years ago were always tempted to shine at the expense of mild meats such as veal, and there are altogether nine dishes of veal scallops on this menu, ranging from a melancholy veal normande (why do I let myself get suckered into eating veal with apples and cream?) to veal with provencale tomato sauce.
Here's the problem: Take paper-thin veal and cover it with a thick egg batter, and what do you get? Something that tastes like eggs. In the case of the veal picatta, it would take Sherlock Holmes to detect the presence of veal, alternating as it does with slices of zucchini fried in the same egg batter--zucchini stands up to this treatment a lot better than veal.
The extreme example of this abuse of mild ingredients is abalone grenobloise, the most expensive item on the menu by a margin of $6 or so. This is thin-sliced abalone in another thick egg batter, and it is all but indistinguishable from an odd-textured omelet in lemon butter sauce, except for the hard chunks that have to be spit out once in a while.
Still, by the end of the meal you have a pretty good chance of eating well. But with dessert comes big trouble. Apart from a very good chocolate mousse, these are the most disappointing desserts I have ever found at a restaurant of this caliber. The middling orange-flavored custard tasted as if it had been around awhile, a suspicion confirmed by its rather thick skin; the cheesecake had definitely been around awhile and was removed with apologies.
And the pastries were a shock. They were all some sort of Napoleon, but instead of puff pastry between the layers there was a brown substance, brittle and bready, that could have been Graham crackers. I'd hate to have to explain these things to the Little General.
There's a reasonably broad range of prices. Appetizers are $6.50 to $7.95, not counting terrine of foie gras ($19.95) and caviar ($27.50). Entrees run $13.95 to $23.95, not counting abalone grenobloise ($29.95). Desserts are $3.95 to $4.95. The lunch entrees, about evenly divided between a selection from the dinner menu and a list of omelets and sandwiches, run $5.95 to $17.95.
LA BRASSERIE FRENCH CAFE 202 S. Main St., Orange
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner Monday through Saturday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.